The top 5 things I learned during my first VISTA year

  1. You’re better off not carrying pepper spray or mace to protect yourself. My current project hosted a public safety orientation to New Haven, facilitated by a New Haven police officer and the Yale chief of security. One of the VISTAs asked if carrying pepper spray was a good idea, and the police officer laughed a little bit. Apparently you are more likely to spray yourself in the face and disable yourself than spray your attacker in the face. Can’t you totally see me doing that? Not like I’d carry it anyway, I’m too cheap to buy it. 
  2. Student loan servicers will stalk you if you’re a day late on your payment (at one point ACS was sending like three letters a day regarding the same loan to my house. Talk about a buzzkill.), but will take FOREVER to accept a forbearance request or an interest payment made on your behalf by CNCS.  I’ve been really on my game about putting my loans into forbearance (CNCS will pay the interest on my federal loans while I’m in service…sadly, this doesn’t apply to my private loans. Damn you, MEFA!), but it’s taken WEEKS for them to respond to my request even though I submitted electronically. SMH.
  3. Living off 1,000 dollars a month is far from easy, even when you’re living in the relative comfort of your parents’ home. You have to cut out things, like going to the bar multiple times a week or buying new clothes from nice stores.  It’s been actually sort of nice living simply and without a computer. I appreciate my MacBook more because it took so much effort and time to save up for it. I even find myself appreciating a ten dollar shirt purchase from Old Navy more than I ever did before.
  4. Nonprofits are hamstrung by the funding they receive, and often don’t have the flexibility to develop the exact programming they want because of grant guidelines, etc. My last VISTA placement did great things for kids, but they often had to conform more to the grants than the more specific needs of the community. It’s a little discouraging. I wish more people invested in nonprofits like they would a business, kind of like a venture capital-backed nonprofit. Sadly, there’s not enough profit for investors in that so I know it most likely wouldn’t work.
  5. Don’t apply for jobs you aren’t remotely qualified or you’ll look like a damn fool. As someone who’s  helped screen resumes, I’ve seen people with ridiculous credentials (running a now defunct hip-hop website, for example) apply for jobs their experience doesn’t qualify them for (said hip-hop webmaster applying for a certified teaching job. Hypothetically speaking, at least).

So you want to do a year of National Service?

I realize that I really haven’t written too much about what it’s like to be an AmeriCorps VISTA even though this blog is supposed to be focused on my year of service. I really didn’t have too much to say about VISTA and my service year until now.  It still feels like I just started the service term and have plenty of time to write about it. That’s not true–I only have about two more months left at my current site.

I chose to do VISTA for a few different reasons. First of all, I wanted to do some sort of service program after graduation. Second all, I wasn’t sure at all of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, and thought that serving would be a good way to explore a different career path from the ones I’d previously worked in (insurance, food service, retail, customer service) without making too much of a commitment. I also knew that I needed more professional experience if I wanted to land a job.

Here are a couple things I wish I’d known before starting my service term.

Do your research when applying to positions. Make sure you understand what the main tasks and skills required of the position are. Some listings on the AmeriCorps website are really vague and don’t give you a clear picture of what you’ll be doing.  If the listing isn’t clear, and you’re still interested, try reaching out to the current VISTA. He or she might be able to give you valuable insight on the day-to-day responsibilities of the position. Also,  Google the hell out of the organization, and make sure it’s the place you want to be before committing.

Understand what VISTA is. VISTA is indirect service aimed at capacity building, or helping organizations grow in order to serve the goal of ending poverty. That means one thing: you won’t be working hands-on with the community. You’ll be fundraising,  coordinating volunteers, community organizing, and more, but you won’t be tutoring, constructing houses, or handing out food at food shelters.  If you’re more interested in direct service, try AmeriCorps State & National programs or NCCC.

Treat the application process like that of a real job. VISTAs don’t get paid much. That’s a fact. However, lots of VISTA positions receive multiple applicants. Not all of these applicants are straight out of college. Some are retired, some are changing their careers. Take the process seriously. It’s a lot more competitive than you think.

Advocate for yourself. There were a lot of times this year when I wasn’t especially busy because I had already completed projects on my Volunteer Assignment Description (or VAD, basically a job description). My VAD was pretty vague in comparison to other VISTAs, so I had to create work for myself. Try talking to your supervisor, and keep communication clear.

Ask to see a copy of the VAD during the interview process. That way, you’ll get a better idea if the job is a good fit for you.  If the VAD isn’t available, ask more specific questions about the day-to-day tasks of the job. If you get a vague answer, run! The supervisors need to have a clear vision of where the project should go and why the project is important to the agency.  You want to make sure that the project will be worth your time (and the agency’s time).

Understand the stresses.  Being a VISTA is not easy.  You make basically no money for working 40 (or in some cases 40+ hours a week): r. I was lucky that I was able to live with my parents during my service term. Some VISTAs aren’t so lucky–they actually relocate and live on the stipend.  All these external stresses can really effect your work.  Learn how to budget your money and make sure you have a safe place to live.

Make sure you’re committed. VISTA is not like any normal job.  You make a one year commitment to serve, and you shouldn’t view this as a stop gap between college and another “real” job. First of all, you won’t get your education award if you leave early.  Leaving early also leaves your project/organization in the lurch: the agency can’t replace you until the end of your term is up).  Basically, make sure you WANT to make the commitment to serve for a year.

All in all, VISTA can be a good experience.  You can make valuable networking connections, gain references, and gain professional experience.  If you get only one takeaway from this, just make sure you understand what you’re committing to before you commit.

 

Friday Five!

  1. I can breathe easy. On Monday, I accepted a position as a VISTA Leader for the New Haven Education VISTA Project!  I am so incredibly excited! I will be coordinating 12 (I think) AmeriCorps VISTA members at 6 different sites. All the VISTA projects are supporting school reform in New Haven by providing different services to students (tutoring, college prep, etc).  I’ll also be coordinating some communications for the project (hopefully and maintaining creating a blog/Twitter/Facebook/etc). I start in July, so I’ll be leaving my current project a month early, but I think it’s for the best. I’ll be trained by the previous VISTA leader for a month before I’m unleashed on my own. Now I don’t have to worry about employment until August 2013!  My commute will be cut in half and I’ll be making (only a little) extra cash, so yay! And props to Holy Cross career services for overhauling my resume!!
  2. Yes! The Friday Night Lights movie is getting closer and closer to reality! I seriously cannot wait for this to happen.  FNL is/was probably my favorite television show of all time!  It’s the only show I own all the seasons of on DVD (No, I don’t even have all the seasons of Supernatural or HIMYM or One Tree Hill). I hope they can get most of the core cast there, but as long as Coach/Mrs. Coach are there, I’ll be happy. And obviously a Tim Riggins cameo. And Matt  and Landry. Basically, I just want FNL to go on forever. Is that so wrong?
  3. I’m really creeped out by that tanning mom.  You know, the one who is under investigation for potentially letting her 5 year old go tanning/get burned? That lady. Well, her face looks AWFUL.  She looks like the Leatherman. And yes, I know, her body, she can do what she wants with it.  But still,  I was a little shocked by her picture. 
  4. I had a great day last Saturday! I met up with my friends Robin and Lindsey in New Haven. We spent most of the time catching up.  I hadn’t seen Robin since graduation, so it was an especially awesome moment for me. Let me just say, it’s so nice to hang out with someone you haven’t seen in awhile and still feel like you click as friends. 
  5. Jenelle from Teen Mom got a boob job and is back with Keiffer. I can’t even with her. 

everybody’s working for the weekend

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After I graduated from Holy Cross, I started working full time right off the bat at my summer internship from the year before. I’m grateful that I had at least a source of income besides my Kimball bonus so soon after graduation: however, I wish I had taken some time to catch my breath and enjoy being done.

I spent the summer working/saving money and applying for service positions. After completing many applications and enduring 4 interviews, I finally landed an AmeriCorps VISTA position at a youth development agency in Hartford. I only had a week between finishing my internship and VISTA Pre-Service Orientation.

Since then I’ve been working full time without any real time to take a break. With the end of my service term looming ever closer, I’m starting the job hunt once again. And I am completely scared about it. I worked hard in school and at my internship and at my VISTA placement, but I’m just afraid that those things won’t matter.

I went to a training for life after AmeriCorps next week that kick started me into the job search.. Let me tell you, re-starting the job hunt is stressful!

Much props to the Career Planning Department at Holy Cross for reviewing my resume for me so quickly! I didn’t realize how much my resume sucked until I talked to Career Planning. Now I’m tweaking it and making it look classy, and I feel so much better moving forward. I’d be crazy excited if I got a position so soon, but I’m trying to be more realistic about the job hunt this time. Submitting an application or getting an interview doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve got the job (I learned this the hard way last summer).

Anyway, so that’s what’s up with me on the post VISTA thang. Let’s hope it all works out!

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In other news, I finally got my wisdom teeth taken out yesterday at the ripe old age of 23. I was super nervous in the days before the surgery (thanks to my fellow VISTAs Jacqui and JoJo for listening to me complain about the wisdom teeth stuff even though I’m sure they were dying to smack me every time I mentioned it). Mostly, I’m afraid of needles, and I got intravenous sedation, so that was probably the worst part of it for me. I was partially  conscious during the procedure, but it was more cool than scary. I didn’t feel anything, but the doctor let me know when he was done extracting a tooth.

So far the pain has been pretty manageable, mostly because I’ve been taking the prescription painkillers the doctor recommended. I figure I’d rather take the painkillers and be a little nauseous than feel the pain.

That’s about it with me.  I’ll be back tomorrow or Sunday with some Instagrams (I know, I’m a little obsessed!)