back in the saddle

I am so not ready for spring semester. Of course, spring semester started on Tuesday (well, with the snow day it started on Wednesday).

I’m gearing up for a crazy month at work next month, with 1 open house, 1 faculty candidate visit, and 2 speaker series presentations. One of the presentations is from a UConn MPA alum who helped out in Newtown after Sandy Hook. I’m pumped about that, but all those events mean that I’ll be running around like a madwoman coordinating logistics, etc.

I also got to write the annual appeal letter for the department! I’ve always wanted to dabble in development, so I was super excited to actually write it myself.  Those one page requests for donations seem pretty short and straightforward. Well, I was wrong. After several weeks, revisions, and input from multiple colleagues and faculty members, that damn thing is finally done. Now I really respect what fundraising professionals do. It ain’t easy, yo. I get to stuff envelopes all week, but hopefully all the hard work will be worth it and we’ll rake in some serious cash!

Because of snow I only had two classes last week-Financial Management for Public Organizations and Policy Analysis.  I can tell I’m going to love Policy Analysis–it’s with one of my favorite professors, and the material is super interesting. Basically, we’ll get to learn how to analyze and propose solutions to public problems using economics and other frameworks. Financial Management has promise–the course is about managing money for public and nonprofit organizations (as the title probably told you). I’m not naturally inclined towards finance, but I know these skills will be useful once I leave UConn and embark on my career. Plus, I’ll get to listen to another semester of my professor’s deadpan jokes.

Clearly I’m only writing to procrastinate from my two problem sets already due this week.

Oh, how was winter break you ask? Let’s just say two words: Netflix (watched 5 seasons of Parks and Rec, rewatched 3.5 of Supernatural, and also something else I forgot) and Boston (Fabulous New Year’s with three of my favorite people in the world. Also bubble tea.). Also work.  But that goes without saying.

Maybe I should just plan my trip to Baltimore….

Grad school!

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I am officially done with week 2 of graduate school! I basically dove right in last week and have been going nonstop ever since.

For those of you who haven’t talked to me lately, I’m pursuing my Masters in Public Administration (MPA), which is like a hybrid of an MBA and a Master’s in Public Policy. Basically, I’m learning skills that will help me pursue a career in the public sector, whether in government or in nonprofits.

So why did I choose this degree? My liberal arts education gave me a great foundation for my career–strong writing skills, presentation skills, research and analysis skills, etc. However, through my AmeriCorps VISTA service, I realized that I needed more quantitative skills in order to move forward in my career. It was also the right timing to go back to school in my personal life.

Right now I’m taking four courses:

  • Public Budgeting and Finance
  • Intro to Public Policy
  • Quantitative Methods (ie STATS)
  • Analytic Tools for Public Problems (ie MICROECONOMICS)

Since I haven’t had any math in 6 years, save for when I was prepping for the GRE, it’s been a little tough. I know it’s going to be a lot of work, but I’m ready. Much readier than I would have been if I’d come straight out of undergrad.

I’m also working 15 hours per week as a graduate assistant/work study student .I’m mainly coordinating events, like open houses and the department speaker series, but I’m also helping screen applicants for a senior faculty search. Come winter I’ll probably help out with recruitment for students for the program. (Yes, my VISTA Leader skills translate! That was a relief).

In other news, my family vacation to Disney World rocked! I got Minnie Mouse ears. They’re sequined. And awesome. The end.

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Catching up…again

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So my past couple weeks have been super crazy. I took the GREs right after Thanksgiving,dealt with a minor family crisis (everything is ok, by the way),  and have been working on graduate school apps. Basically, I haven’t had too much time to relax even when I’m not at work.

Speaking of work…things have been CRAZY. Every other month I make site visits to each of my VISTA’s host sites to check in with them and see how they’re doing on their projects. Each site visit lasts about an hour, and I have to make about 10 of them this month (starting in February I’ll have to do 12!).  I love doing site visits–they help me get out of the office and get to know the VISTAs on a more one-on-one basis. It’s easier to hear how people are actually doing on site visits than in the bigger group meetings.

We have also been recruiting for 2 new VISTAs to start in February. Our state office wanted us to add in a screening interview process before we start forwarding applications on to the sites, so we have been developing and piloting that process. I actually enjoy conducting screening interviews–I’ve gotten to talk to some pretty cool people in the process! However, it has taken up a lot of my time lately so I haven’t had much down time in the office.

Not to mention MLK Day. But that’s a whole different beast. Separately, all these things are manageable, but all together it’s been a little stressful.  But I’m doin’ it, and enjoyin’ it. I’d rather be busy than have nothing to do.

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This cat exemplifies how I feel about all the stuff I have to do at work right now. I also just love this gif

And of course, on Friday the shooting in Newtown is something else that’s been going on. I live about an hour away from there, and I don’t really know anyone who lives there, but my heart goes out to those poor children, teachers, friends, and family members who were affected by the shooting that day. I can’t even begin to fathom how they feel. To have something so terrible happen in my home state has really weighed heavily on my heart.

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).

Counting down

  1. I am beyond excited to start my VISTA Leader position in a couple of weeks! Basically, a VISTA Leader serves as a mentor and coordinator to multiple VISTAs working on a multi-site project.  I’ll be facilitating meetings, helping out with some statewide VISTA training,  recruiting the 2013-2014 VISTA team, and reporting. I also get to do some internet stuff to market the project, which I’m really pumped about.  All in all, I think this will be a great change of pace from my current assignment and will definitely keep me busy. I met up with the project’s current VISTAs and VISTA Leader last night for a happy hour, and I’m beyond ready to begin.  I’ve also connected with next year’s VISTA team on Facebook. I know the job is going to be tough, but after this year, I’m totally up for the challenge. 
  2. The Cape Cod Bear made it all the way up to Provincetown! He also has his own Twitter account. Part of me kind of wishes that I had glimpsed him while I was on the Cape last weekend. Then again I was sleeping in a tent last weekend so a visit from the bear probably wouldn’t have been welcomed. 
  3. I have a mandatory all-staff meeting at Six Flags New England next week. I’m a little excited but I’m also not looking forward to driving up there although my fellow VISTA Jacqui graciously offered to meet me in Hartford and carpool the rest of the way up).
  4. I am craving falafel right now like no other. I tried out Mamoun’s in New Haven for the first time last week and fell immediately in love. The falafel place I go to in West Hartford doesn’t even compare anymore, tastewise or price wise.   I should have picked some up while I was in New Haven last night but I’m sure I’ll have plenty of opportunities to get me some Mamoun’s when I start working there next month.
  5. R. Kelly’s autobiography Soulacoaster is officially coming out soon. I really want to read it, but no way am I paying $20 for it. Even the ebook version is $20! No way am I shelling out $20 bucks for an ebook copy. Kells, I know you need money, but cut a sista some slack. I’m a national service member living off poverty level wages. I can’t spare 20 bucks for your book! Soulacoaster is also the kind of book I’d be embarrassed to borrow from the library. Oh well, at least I can enjoy his new single, Feelin’ Single. (Disclosure: I haven’t actually listened to it yet. I hope it’s as good as the song he yodels in). 

Friday Five: TV Time edition

  1. I hate to say this, but am I the only one that was a little underwhelmed by the How I Met Your Mother season finale?  The big reveal of the bride was no surprise. I also felt like a lot of the jokes fell a little flat (i.e. baby Erikson’s middle name, Victoria’s return, etc.). I think the jokes and gags had the potential to be funny, but something just seemed a little off about the episode to me. Yes, Barney and Robin are endgame. That’s great. I just really want to find out who the damn mother is. I don’t wnat to see another dead-end or rehashed Ted relationship. I’ve stuck with this show a long time, and there was a time when I was really obsessed with it (Disclosure: I started watching the episodes on DVD in 2009, so I know I’m not like one of the early adopter fans, but STILL. That’s a lot of TV to watch).  Maybe I was the only one who just wasn’t feelin’ it. 
  2. And speaking of disappointing TV…I think I’m over the Real Housewives of New Jersey.  The first few seasons were a lot of fun, but season 4 so far has been full of hate. I mean, the first couple episodes were driven by Teresa’s cookbook and a comment Teresa made to her brother OFFSCREEN. Teresa is no angel (see how she treated Danielle in S1-S2), but I just can’t stand all these grown women gang up on someone.  Caroline is a know-it-all, Melissa is fake, Teresa is a fool, Kathy is a pot stirrer, and Jacqueline is wishy washy. The episodes I’ve watched this season are more painful than fun, so I think it’s time to give up on RHONJ. 
  3. On another note,  the agency where I work is having the annual all-staff meeting at 6 Flags New England. While I’m not super excited about driving all the way up there, I am excited to ride some roller coasters. I haven’t been to a theme park in so long. I think the last time I went was when I went to Fright Fest with my friends Lindsey and Michelle freshman year of college.  I’ll only have a few weeks left here before I start my next service year, so this should be a fun way to wrap things up for me. 
  4. David Wright’s flip-out at Terry Collins for pinch-hitting for him. It’s so refreshing to have the Mets actually actively entertaining me rather than depressing me this year. That’s all I have to say about that. 
  5. I broke one of my biggest life rules this week and bought a pink Mets hat. I vowed to myself long ago that I’d never buy girly/pink team accessories.  I was looking through the MLB.com Shop clearance section and saw this little beauty.  If you know me personally, you know that I cannot resist hot pink. It was on clearance, it was cute, and I can totally wear it to the beach! 

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.