My name is Hannah Berling, and I have been a Student Life Specialist at Mercy College in New York since 2016 after finishing my Masters in Higher Education in Student Affairs from Salem State University. One of the largest parts of my role at Mercy outside of overseeing Student Life activities at our Manhattan Campus, is to oversee our three Mav Market food and resource pantries across our three campuses (Dobbs Ferry, Bronx, & Manhattan). When we opened our first Mav Market location three years ago at our Bronx campus, myself and my supervisor, Felipe Henao, knew that we could not do this work alone. This was especially true as we planned to expand to the other campuses. When we discovered the VISTA program, we applied and put a focus on getting a VISTA with a strong passion for fighting food insecurity. We were able to get our first VISTA, Mary, on with us. Mary came in with a background in food insecurity and food sustainability work and was able to jump right in and help streamline processes and build a foundation for the Mav Market. Mary now serves as the 2020-2021 CCNYPA VISTA Leader, but her passion & hard work for two years with us has carried on to our current VISTA, Julie, who is working hard to pivot the markets where needed in these unique times while also putting her touch and influence into it.Supervising both of these wonderful VISTAs has been such a rewarding experience for me. As a young professional, the chance to work with our VISTAs has given me the opportunity to grow as a leader of professional staff and to help the VISTAs in return see their potential to make change not only on college campuses, but in society as a whole.
We are in a unique position here at Mercy as we have three campuses, but I primarily only work out of the Manhattan Campus. Our VISTAs visit all of the campuses, but live at our Dobbs Ferry location and do a bulk of their work between Dobbs Ferry and the Bronx. This distance between us has allowed me to build my communication styles and problem solving skills as we navigate the challenges and successes of the VISTA project. Scheduled weekly check-ins are accompanied by daily texts, calls, or Zoom meetings in order to make sure our VISTA feels supported and open to asking questions, even if we are not physically together as much. Having VISTAs come in who are change-makers, who want to work in the nonprofit sector, and who are strong relationship-builders makes supervising them a bit easier, as the passion runs deep and translates into everything they do.
My best advice for supervising a VISTA is to establish what your relationship will look like from the beginning. Our project site is on-campus, so we are not working with an outside member agency. I have been able to build a great relationship with both of our VISTAs because we are all working towards the same goal: to improve the lives of our students.
Firstly, start having conversations about the work culture of your institution: find out what your VISTAs leadership style is and what they look for in a leader/supervisor, chat about what modes of communication work best for them, and where they think they may need the most support. We start asking some of these questions in the interview process because we would never want to put someone in the uncomfortable position of rarely being together in person or bouncing between campuses if they are not okay with that. Secondly, establish how often your VISTA wants to meet and how formal or informal those meetings will be. We want our VISTAs to have autonomy and feel like they are leaving their names on the project. In addition to just chatting over tasks at hand, we make it a point to discuss projects that our VISTA wants to pursue within the project, checking in on how things are going personally, and chatting about future endeavors and what can be done in our project to help build applicable skills. Through this style of supervision, our VISTAs have been able to do incredibly successful work. Mary built the foundation for our markets and established effective processes and did amazing work to get us to a place where we could assist members with other basic needs services beyond just food security. Julie has been able to have great success in doing all the pivoting we have needed to continue providing services during a pandemic, and has worked on a great holiday food program to provide extra holiday help during a particularly trying year.
2020 has certainly been an interesting year. We have been lucky at Mercy in that supervising remotely is not uncommon for us because of our set-up. Ultimately, communication is key-- knowing what type of communication works best for you and your VISTA will help drive the mission of your project forward. Wellness checks are also particularly important now as this is a very draining time for professionals and burnout is very possible, it is important when supervising during a pandemic to know that everyone processes this hectic time differently, but if you have the communication in place, your systems and your VISTA can still thrive. I would certainly encourage higher education institutions to design a project and recruit a VISTA, as this is an excellent opportunity for any college or university, and allowed our food & resource pantry to flourish in a way that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise!
Welcome to the CCNYPA*VISTA Blog, written for VISTAs, by VISTAs!