Written by Nina Levine, CSU STEM VISTA 2014-2015
Being a VISTA has been, by far, the most unpredictable adventure I have ever embarked on. My four-years-ago self, fearfully departing on the quest of college has nothing on me. When I saw the job posting for CSU STEM VISTA, I first thought, “What the heck is that?” Once I learned that it was California State University Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics Volunteers in Service to America, I thought, “What the heck is that?” After doing a little more research on AmeriCorps and VISTA, I still didn’t know what to expect out of this program, but I applied anyways because I was about to graduate with my Bachelors of Science in Civil Engineering from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and wanted a gap year before heading to Graduate School.
Presently, almost three months into the job, I am so glad that I took the leap of faith in applying for the VISTA position. My project at San Jose State University (SJSU) is working in the Jay Pinson STEM Education Program. We work with local schools, community partners, and SJSU Service Learning Students to share the awesomeness of STEM with younger students, in the form of STEM focused after school programs. I’m pretty weird in that sometimes, I enjoy the party planning more than the actual party itself, so when I learned about the capacity building component of VISTA (as opposed to direct service), I was beyond thrilled. For those of you don’t know, direct service is working hands on in the program, and capacity building is doing more of the behind-the-scenes things to prepare for the direct service providers to perform their service. In my program, the SJSU Service Learning Students who go into the classrooms and work with the 4th-8th graders are providing direct service, while I’m in the office, building capacity for the program by developing content for the curriculum, figuring out logistics, researching new ideas, working with our partners, etc.
I’m not going to lie – at first, I asked myself why I was doing this. I’m not gaining any Civil Engineering experience (which is ultimately the direction I see my career heading), so why am I wasting my time? As my period as a VISTA has been progressing, I am constantly discovering new reasons why I should be here, and it feels great! I could go on for days about all the factors that have convinced me, but I’ll spare you all the gory details and share with you my most favorite reason: T.E.A.M.
Yes, Together Everyone Achieves More! My co-VISTA taught me that cute little acronym, and it’s so true. The Jay Pinson STEM Education Program is very small, and because of that, everyone has to pull their weight. And beyond everyone pulling their own weight, we sometimes have to step out of what our “job description” is and do what it takes to get the job done. This means that there has been a little bit of direct service happening on my end, but I’m actually glad for the opportunity, because it allows me to see if what I’m planning is being implemented correctly (whatever that means). The experience gives me direct and immediate feedback on what works and what doesn’t work, and I think it’s made my capacity building much more effective.
The other thing about the team that I love so much is that I’ve been really lucky in that my team is made up of a bunch of awesome people who work really well together. My co-VISTA and I are total opposites when it comes to our strengths and weaknesses, so where he falls short I excel, and where I lack skills, he shines. Again, I will reiterate that I am very lucky in this regard, because I know that being placed with such a cool partner is rare. But besides my co-VISTA, our other team members have influenced me too. Our team is very diverse in that we have SJSU student employees, folks who have been in the community for a very long time, and individuals who are so passionate about STEM education that it drives the rest of the team when we need inspiration. Because of the diversity in ages, ethnic backgrounds, education levels, socio-economic status, etc. on my team, I have had a lot of interactions with different people that, as a Civil Engineer, I might not have come into contact with.
Serving as a VISTA has been an invaluable experience because I’ve been able to work on projects that are unique and interesting, with people that are so passionate about our cause that I’ve come from “Why am I doing this?” to “Why didn’t I do this sooner?” If you or someone you know is thinking about applying for a VISTA position and are on the fence, I highly encourage that you do it. It might not be quite clear at first what you’re gaining from the experience, but it will become apparent in time, I promise.
And for those of you still not convinced about the good that comes from being a VISTA, take your time – we’ll be here when you’re ready.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” – Dr. Seuss