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).
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CONNECTED!

Guys, I FINALLY scrounged up enough cash to buy a new computer! I’m writing this from my brand new MacBook Pro! I’ve wanted a Mac for years, since I first went to college actually, so I’m basically in geeky heaven right now.  I will finally be able to blog more regularly seeing as I won’t be sharing a computer with my entire family any more.

I digress.

August was a pretty good month for me, all things considered. I’ll give you a quick TL;DR of my life at the moment.

Last year, Freddy won a smoker at a fundraiser that he organized for one of his fellow firefighters. He finally busted it out two weeks ago, and the results were beyond amazing.

Smoking meat takes a long time, but oh my god, the brisket he smoked was out of this world. I’m not really a big red meat or pork person generally, but I really loved the brisket and even the pork shoulder. Not to mention spending all that time with my friends was great.  We’re all in different directions so it’s great when everyone is all in one place.

Last weekend, I went to my cousin Matthew’s eighth birthday party. It’s so weird to see him and Andrew grow up. In some respect I’ll always see them as babies, but they are both so grown up right now! I had a great time spending time with my family and seeing some extended family members I typically only see on holidays.

Finally, work has been busy-good. I’ve been going on six week site visits for our July cohort of VISTAs. The purpose of the site visit is to make sure the VISTAs are doing well at work and in life. I have a list of questions I ask them and I get to look at their office space, etc.

My function is to act as a support system for the VISTAs throughout their year of service, so the site visits are a really good way to get to know the VISTAs on a one-to-one basis.  I’ve always enjoyed the mentoring aspect of the job’s I’ve had (coughkimballcough), so the site visits were pretty fun for me.  I am not their supervisor, so I don’t have authority over the day -to-day aspects of their jobs, but I am there to help troubleshoot and ensure that their service years go smoothly.

Speaking of work, I’m off to Leader training in Chicago on Tuesday! My supervisor, who had the Leader gig before me, says that Leader Training is a lot more professional-development focused than regular VISTA PSO, so I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve also never been to Chicago, and as a VISTA, I don’t really make enough money to travel extensively. All in all, it should be a good time.

ALSO: I got my business cards last week. I was promised cards last year but never got them (and let me just tell you, giving people your contact info on index cards or post-it notes doesn’t feel very classy or professional), so I was stupid excited to actually get some. Now, I don’t know how I’m going to use them all in a year….

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: How Sweep it is edition

  1. A couple of my friends and I went out to Los Mariachis, a Mexican restaurant in Wallingford, for Cinco de Mayo. Unfortunately, Los Mariachis is also the ONLY Mexican restaurant in Wallingford. Usually the food and service are great, but because everyone else in town had the same idea as us, the place was packed. We waited 2 hours for a table (I’m pretty sure the host forgot about us). The margarita I had was excellent though. Afterwards a few of us went over my friend Amy’s for more drinks.  We watched the Muppet Movie: I saw it for the first time, and I loved it. 
  2. The Mets swept the Phillies in Philadelphia for the first time since 2006! I love when the Mets actually pull off a sweep, and I love it even more when they pull it off against the Phillies! Yes, I know the Phils are without Ryan Howard and Chase Utley right now, but the beating them just feels so good.  Plus, the Mets finally broke out of that rut they were in against the Rockies and the Dbacks.  I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about the rest of this season. Yes, it’s only May. Honestly, I’ll be happy if the Mets play .500 baseball for the rest of the season.
  3. On another note, one of the game highlights on my MLB At Bat app was the Philly Phanatic holding a baby.  First of all, the Philly Phanatic is not deserving of having one of the game highlights. If I was that baby I’d be screaming my ass off. The Philly Phanatic is creepy and is also my least favorite mascot in sports.  He looks like a chicken mated with a creepy green alien.  Mr. Met is a family man. I’d trust him with my kid.  The Philly Phanatic…not so much. Besides being scary, he’s always causing trouble.
  4. I am officially obsessed with Smart Art! I’m writing a couple manuals for work right now, and I’ve been shamelessly using Smart Art as much as I can.  The shapes make everything look way more professional and classy, and they’re just fun. 
  5. So I’m finally in the market for a new computer (well, once I get reimbursed my deposit for my wisdom teeth and start my VISTA Leader position). I’m thinking of getting a refurbished MacBook Air or MacBook Pro (depending on what’s available/cheapest at the time). I really don’t need a laptop for much beyond word processing and surfing the web. I also love the Mac OS and the aesthetics of both the Air and the Pro.  And any computer, even refurbished, is better than the one I have now. I’m waiting until July, when my next service term starts, to buy anything anyway (my stipend will be bigger than the one I have now). 

a christmas fail

After a series of rather unfortunate events (including but not limited to my laptop’s death, a minor fender bender, and a week-long cold that made going to work miserable), things have finally be turning around for me (winning a $50 gift card at a conference, finding a favorite pair of shoes, and realizing that I don’t always have to wear pants at work).

Work has been going pretty well. Well, other than the Secret Santa Catastrophe of two weeks ago. Basically, I helped my fellow VISTA JoJo write out the names of all of OPP’s employees for the office Secret Santa.

I thought I was doing a nice thing by helping a coworker. But in true Alyssa fashion, it all went wrong.

After about three quarters of the office had drawn names, JoJo realized that there were 10 people who had yet to pick….but only 9 slips left in our envelope. The verdict: we had accidently forgotten someone’s name.

So we had to go to everyone who had already picked, tell them that we might have forgotten someone, and ask them who they had picked. In total we had to admit this to approximately 35 of our coworkers. Oh, quick sidebar: I was the one who forgot to put that person’s name in. EPIC. FAIL.

Eventually we figured out who we forgot, placed the person’s name in the envelope, and all was well (I was not branded as the VISTA Who Stole Christmas–major relief there. People in my area of the office still haven’t forgiven me for that time I accidently burned a bag of popcorn. My reputation couldn’t bear the burden of ruining Secret Santa).