My Undergraduate VISTA Experience…by Thomas Smith
On Sunday , December 9th I had the pleasure of participating in my convocation ceremony as a Graduate of West Virginia University (WVU)with my Bachelors Degree in History. The experience was both memorable and rewarding, but especially relieving as I began my VISTA term during my final semester. I began working for the Mountaineer Boys and Girls Club during my freshman year of college as a work-study student and remained with the organization throughout my college career. When a VISTA position became available at the club, I saw an incredible opportunity. I have worked alongside several AmeriCorps members during my tenure at the club and was relatively familiar with the AmeriCorps by the time the position became available. I wanted to be a VISTA because I subscribe to the AmeriCorps mission and principles and I knew that they aligned well with the values of the club. Although I was excited to begin my journey as a VISTA, committing to service and education bears several challenges that I had to overcome along the way.
Through several Boys and Girls Club trainings and the additional resources offered by AmeriCorps, I had a plethora of information concerning time management, however putting those tools into practice is much more difficult. This semester I took 12 credit hours of classes, 6 of which were online, allowing for flexibility in my schedule (a wise choice). My other 6 hours took place in the morning and my schedule at the club did not interfere, the only serious scheduling conflict I faced was the initial training in Atlanta, in which I emailed my professors weeks and in advance and was able to be exempt from class for the week. My VISTA supervisor, Malina, asked me to create a time table of how I would use my service hours to meet the objectives of my VISTA Assignment Description(VAD) this was extremely helpful as it made me realize the value of my time and also kept me on task. My days became long and busy but also rewarding. I realized a sense of accomplishment by the end of my day, because I had spent my waking hours advancing my education and making a contribution through my VISTA assignment.
One of my favorite courses I had at WVU was economics, not because I enjoy numbers (I hate numbers), but because of economic principles that can be applied to everyday life. One of the most important lessons I learned was about the value of time, specifically opportunity cost, which is defined by investopedia as “1. The cost of an alternative that must be forgone in order to pursue a certain action Put another way, the benefits you could have received by taking an alternative action”. By accepting the contract of VISTA service, I knew I was making a full-time commitment which could come at the expense of other opportunities and events offered by the University or at the expense of ‘social’ opportunities that may arise as a result of living in a college-town. All in all I was willing to forgo those ‘alternative actions’ for my VISTA service, I readily accepted the responsibilities of service because I value the experience and felt the need to take advantage of the opportunity. I still made time to enjoy college, I just had to do so in a responsible manner that did not compromise my commitment to service.
Benefits of Service
If serving as a VISTA didn’t have apparent benefits to my education, I never would have pursued the position in the first place. As it relates directly to the college student, I’ve found that one can certainly apply the experience directly to academia. First and most importantly is practical experience. Although I am a history major, I want to pursue a career in academic non-profits, I truly love working at the Boys and Girls Club, because the work is impactful and rewarding and also enjoyable, I am extremely grateful I have a job that is fun. I reference my experience all of the time in class and with peers because I know far more about the work than can ever be expressed in a PowerPoint or in a textbook. If one leaves their VISTA year without a wealth of knowledge about their assignment, they are doing themselves a colossal injustice. To this point, the experience has been extremely educational and the professional development skills I have learned are invaluable and certainly applicable in any profession. I did not find it difficult to apply the skills and work ethic promoted by AmeriCorps to academia and this practice proved to be beneficial. By applying the same approach to my academics as I do my work, I was able to realize a high level of productivity. To say being productive is ‘fun’ may be misleading, but when I’m scratching items off my to-do list I certainly feel a sense of satisfaction.
College was a fantastic experience for me and I’m glad I chose the University and career path that I have. In many ways I consider myself a non-traditional student. Despite the fact that I fall under the umbrella of a traditional student, my commitment to the Boys and Girls Club and presently VISTA have had an impact on my experience that introduces a non-traditional element, that I frankly find advantageous in the pursuit of future employment. Is juggling a full-time work schedule and a class schedule difficult? Yes. Would I do it any differently? No. My experience in non-profit has taught me so much about what it means to be a valuable employee and team member. Beside the professional development skills, non-profit work really teaches you about people and institutions, you begin to understand how government works, how schools work, how students learn, what parents experience, how poverty affects people, what causes poverty, and most importantly how people help one another. It’s extremely encouraging to see people genuinely care for others and choose a path that is designated for that purpose.