By Jenna Paiano, CCNYPA*VISTA serving at Drexel University
Every spring semester, another group of dedicated, exhausted, yet promising individuals prepare for their transition from college to adulthood. As expected, there lays this underlying pressure of securing a job before crossing the stage and receiving their diploma. Personally, I felt myself crippling under that pressure for a variety of reasons. In the end, it worked out (just like it always does), and I found myself in the perfect program that fit my needs, wants, desires and more. Committing to a year of service as a VISTA with AmeriCorps was my best decision coming out of college.
So, uh, what exactly is an AmeriCorps VISTA?
AmeriCorps VISTAs (Volunteers in Service to America) are individuals dedicated to a year of service in a particular project with a specific community. My program is under the realm of Campus Compact of New York and Pennsylvania (CCNYPA). This means that our projects are all hosted at different institutions (hence ‘campus compact’) that work to eradicate poverty in the town/city that the institution is a part of. For example: My project is at Drexel University, and is focused on economic opportunity within the West Philly neighborhoods (specifically Mantua and Powelton Villages). My project works to provide more resources for community members at no-cost, resources they normally wouldn’t have access to.
When I applied for my position, I wasn’t 100% sure of the ins and out of AmeriCorps and everything that came along with being a VISTA. Now that I have had some serious experience in this realm, I wanted to share some information about this program to soon-to-be-graduates, and why doing a year of serving with AmeriCorps is a great option.
1. The Transition.
The transition from college to the workforce can be a scary one. Looking back, I don’t think I would have been able to adjust to a corporate office job immediately out of college. There’s so much that goes into learning about daily office life-- is there a coffee machine? Am I allowed to have coffee? Is that rude? What’s the dress code? How do I schedule a meeting? How do I use the online calendar? Do I have to color-code it? Why does xyz color code their calendar? Am I doing something wrong?
The questions are endless. Thankfully, as a VISTA, this transition is smooth because you are expected to ask questions. You are expected to be curious. Supervisors understand that many of us have never had an “adult” job before. You essentially spend your first month in your role learning the environment, the community, the work, what is expected of you, etc., in a totally non-pressure environment. Pretty cool, right? Now that I have the hang of a 9-5 job, I will feel much more prepared when I begin my job search.
In addition to your supervisor’s support, CCNYPA’s staff are a helpful resource as well. When in doubt, I know I can email one of my VISTA leaders and receive a speedy reply with tons of helpful information. This support system shines through the variety of programming incorporated into the service year. The most notable are the service retreats. During three separate occasions throughout the year, all CCNYPA*VISTAs will come together and have a three-day, two-night retreat. During this time, we reflect on our work, participate in a variety of workshops, and enjoy each other’s company. These are nice moments where we get to step away from the office and catch up with the members of our cohort.
2. The Opportunity to Explore Your Options.
Still not sure of exactly what you want to do in life? Then VISTA is a great option for you. While getting that hands-on, real world professional experience, you also get to dabble in this realm of work (higher education, non-profit, marketing, recruitment, volunteerism, etc.) and see if this is something you would like to pursue. And if not, no big deal, because you still received some great work-life experience.
3. Working with Students at Your University.
One of the biggest factors that pushed me towards this VISTA role was the opportunity of working with college students. Being that I was one of them just a few months ago, I knew that I would be able to relate to them. I was very involved during my time as an undergrad. Through my project, I am seeing the leadership roles that I held during my four years really shine through during the collaboration efforts I’ve had with students. After being on a campus for so long, student life is something I know very well. Thus, I knew that I could utilize some of my best skills through a campus-oriented position with AmeriCorps.
The VISTA program has a variety of different benefits that I was unaware of prior to applying. Beyond the living stipend, VISTAs are provided a health allowance, loan deferment, personal/medical days, and, my favorite benefit, the end-of-service award. This is either through a cash stipend of $1,800*, or an education award (which you can put towards your loans or future education) for $6,095*. You can choose which award you would like. *Amounts for the 2018-2019 year
In addition to these, your on-campus host sites may offer other benefits! For example, Drexel covers the cost of my travel. Therefore, they pay for me to get a trail pass each month and parking my car in my train lot! Trail passes are a piece of gold in Philadelphia-- I have access to virtually everywhere in the city, as well as some parts of New Jersey. I regularly use my pass for non-work related endeavors. Other programs offer housing, access to the campus’ gym, on-campus meal plans, etc. All schools are different with which types of benefits they offer, so make sure to ask when applying!
5. The Service Focus!
If you have any sort of passion for service and giving back to your community, look no farther. Through your service year, you will help sustain programs while simultaneously building lasting capacity. Your project won’t feel like work, it will feel like you’re making a difference, which is the best reward of all.
Have questions about the VISTA program? Reach out to myself or anyone else in my cohort, and we would be happy to discuss!