The VISTA Relay Race

Zulema Aleman is a CSU STEM VISTA serving at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. 



According to the online encyclopedia Britannica, a relay race is “a … sport consisting of a set number of stages (legs)… each leg run by a different member of a team. The runner finishing one leg is usually required to pass on a baton to the next runner…”

I like to think that a VISTA project that continues from year to year is a relay race. Each leg is a project year, the baton is the actual project, and the runners are VISTAs. The race is only successful if you are able to pass the baton off as smoothly as possible. Similarly, you can only be successful and build sustainability in a VISTA project if the VISTAs can hand off the project to one another and eventually the campus community with a smooth transition.

I’ve had some experience with this myself, as I am currently the third VISTA serving immigrant students in STEM at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, so I would like to share some of my knowledge about sustainability to current and future VISTAs.

There a lot of variables that can play into what steps you take, but generally, these are some things to consider and questions to ask yourself daily as you think about the sustainability of your VISTA project.

Consider how you are involving the community you are serving. Are you seeking and encouraging input on next steps and action from the community? Are you involving them not only in the brainstorm and design process, but also in implementation?

Consider what offices, departments, programs, and positions are already in place that can help carry the mission of your project. How can other offices, departments, programs on the campus get involved so the change permeates and sustains across the campus community?

Consider how you are shaping the movement. What voices and faces are visible?  Who is the face or the contact of the work you are doing? Are they individuals who will still be part of the community in 2, 5, or 10 years?

Consider how you are maintaining records of the work you are doing for the community. Are you saving meeting notes, drafts of workshops, flyers, budget breakdowns, grants, budget proposals, and any other information that the community can use in the future to continue the change? Are you creating a contact list and ensuring that the contacts and connections you’ve collected know other campus community members involved in the work? Are you saving all this information in a location and a format that is easy to access?

These are all questions I ask myself as I come to campus every morning. When I do a presentation, table at an event, or even step into a meeting, I make it a point to consider all of these questions and include those who are going to continue the work after me. I want to ensure that my leg of the race, the last leg, will be as efficient as possible. I will pass off the baton to the community in hopes that our work will be standing for years to come.


Fear of Growth: An Open Letter to Future VISTAs

Dear Future CSU STEM VISTA member,

It was nearly a year ago that I received my bachelor’s in Biology from CSU San Marcos. Like most other prospective graduates, I was thrilled about graduating, but nervous about what would come next. On the day of Commencement, I spoke to hundreds of students, their families and friends about the fear of failure. During my speech I kept thinking to myself, this was likely the last time I would see my graduated peers at CSUSM.

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Noelle giving her speech at CSUSM’s graduation.

As much as I wanted to revel in finally being “done”, it was not the case. By the time July came, I was back at CSUSM, not as a student, but as a CSU STEM VISTA.  I couldn’t help but wonder if in the next year, I would gain anything from being in a similar role that I worked in as an undergraduate student. The fear of not knowing if I would grow, weighed heavily on me. Reflecting on it now, I made the best decision for my immediate future.

Coming back in summer and into the fall semester, I quickly learned that my role in STEM Tutoring and Supplemental Instruction has evolved. One aspect of my role that has expanded is the opportunity for relationship building with faculty. As a CSU STEM VISTA, I have had more opportunities to foster relationships with them, in comparison to when I was an undergraduate student. Partnering with faculty allowed me to strengthen student and faculty interactions that were not presented before because students seemed intimidated by their professors. Bridging the gap between students and faculty helped the STEM Tutoring and Supplemental Instruction gain faculty support and make this a joint effort in enhancing STEM student success.

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Collaboration is key when working with a student-run tutoring center. The success of tutoring and SI would not be possible without solid working relationships between staff and coordinator.

Another aspect that my role has evolved is the ability to lead. As a CSU STEM VISTA, it has taught me how to be an effective leader. Not only am I responsible for managing a team of 50 employees, but they also perceive me as a mentor. With these responsibilities, CSU STEM VISTA provided me with the freedom to act as a voice for my team. With this freedom, I have learned how to effectively listen to my team and drive them to success. This has shaped me in becoming an effective leader because it allowed me to gain soft skills that I can utilize in future leadership roles.




Grassroots: Growing a Movement from the Ground Up

How does a grassroots movement begin? What are the key components? Does it have to be a certain size? Like, how many people are we talking? And What even is a grassroots movement? These are questions I’ve been reflecting on as an AmeriCorps VISTA at California State University, Bakersfield (CSUB).

After reading a few different definitions of grassroots movements, here’s how I define them: a group of people who rely on engagement, organization, and outreach to connect communities and catalyze change. So I wondered, can I consider my work as an AmeriCorps VISTA part of a grassroots movement?

As the CSUB Edible Coordinator, the most common question I get is, “When will the garden be ready?” Hearing that question over and over again motivated me to get something (anything) planted out in that gloriously barren and dusty field known as the future spot for the Edible Garden. And as of today, May 9th 2018, we have over 150 plants out in that (no longer barren but still quite dusty) field.

Planting is a family (and friend) affair!

So how did we get here? I use the word “we” in the previous sentence with the utmost intention, because it took a village, and this case, some seriously dedicated farmers. Here’s the funny thing about me being an Edible Garden Coordinator- I have no farming or agricultural experience. Like none.

Once I joined forces with students from the Agriculture Business club, I started to believe we could really start a garden. These students donated time, materials, and knowledge to clear the land, prepare the soil, and dig garden beds. Every single plant we now have was donated by a local farmer and a local edible schoolyard. On the planting day we had tables, and of course, lemonade- all donated from the local community. People heard what we were doing and they reached out to support us. And just like that, our movement grew.

Summer guides young gardeners at the CSUB Edible Garden Earth Day Event.

Sure, there might be easier ways to get things done. For example, blank checks are nice! But what are we really trying to do with this garden? It’s always been my goal to create a welcoming, comfortable space for students and community members, so why not have them take the lead in creating that space? Maybe starting a garden isn’t a typical form of a grassroots movement, but I would argue that the powerful act of planting cannot be understated.

We are working to start conversations about sustainable agriculture, healthy eating, and food insecurity. We are creating leadership opportunities for students who can now say they were instrumental in starting a small farm. We are fostering community relationships through open events and gatherings. Most importantly, we are working to end student and community hunger. And WE are starting a grassroots movement.


Step It Up: Have Courage and Be Kind

Kimberly Henderson is a CSU STEM VISTA serving at San Jose State University. 

Step It Up: Have Courage and Be Kind

Kimberly Henderson at MESA Day with a 3D scanner on the left and VR station on the right.

One of my first projects as a CSU STEM VISTA with the San Jose State University STEM Education Program was partnering with Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA). MESA hosts weekend workshops called STEM Academies and an annual large event called MESA Day. My supervisor and I agreed that I would develop and facilitate an hour workshop focused on leadership and computer programming skills, as well as create a full MESA Day STEM Creations workshop. Continue reading “Step It Up: Have Courage and Be Kind”

Serving for Justice

Throughout the United States racial justice, equity, and equality are topics in the mouths of many. Institutions across the country are searching for ways to combat the oppressive systems in which our country functions. Here at Humboldt State University (HSU), my VISTA service site and alma mater, we are looking at transforming one method of learning into a tool to unite the community.

 HSU is experiencing a catalyst that is putting racism at the forefront of our students’ and faculty’s agenda.

Continue reading “Serving for Justice”

Graduate School: fighting for social justice post-VISTA

Sunny skies kissed palm trees as they swayed with the gentle wind. Bricks paved the ground for miles, and endless fountains ordained every part of campus. I cringed at all the cardinal and gold. Yes, the Bruin in me was conditioned to flinch at the sight of those colors. But, the onset of emotions I felt when I first stepped onto USC’s campus, the first school to send me an acceptance letter for a Master’s in Public Policy program, was caused by more than a historical university rivalry. Past the gates that contained the prestigious university, I stopped because too many questions flooded my mind. Who goes to USC? Am I supposed to be here? Can USC help me help others?

Continue reading “Graduate School: fighting for social justice post-VISTA”

A Brief History of DACA and CSU STEM VISTA

Created by CSU STEM VISTA Casey McCullough

We are at a critical time right now for immigrants in the United States. There is constant and inconsistent change around the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which impacts the futures of 800,000 DACA recipients and all immigrants who would benefit from immigration reform. These inconsistencies often leave the undocumented community and allies with anxiety and uncertainty, as their livelihood, safety, and future in this country are threatened.

As my 2nd year of VISTA service supporting the undocumented community, on the central coast of California, comes to an end I have been reflecting on all that has happened over the last two years. Below I share a brief and incomplete history of DACA and the CSU STEM VISTA program.

To view the interactive version of this timeline click here.