Written by Shannon Palka, CSU STEM VISTA Member 2014-15
On Monday morning, instead of driving to my office at San Diego State University, I got in a cab and headed to the airport. This is easily one of the best parts of my job, I thought.
About two hours later, I got off a plane in San Jose. Before even reaching baggage claim, out of nowhere, I saw Jaklen, my friend and CSU STEM VISTA colleague, running up to me and wrapping me in a giant bear hug. She was with Noe and Nina, and seeing the three of them immediately brought a smile to my face.
I’m thoroughly convinced that my eleven colleagues in the STEM VISTA program are the best coworkers anyone could have in the early stages of his or her career. They’re smart, vivacious, driven, and some of the most caring and charismatic people I’ve ever met. They have different interests, skills, and passions, and they inspire and motivate me to do my best work. When I need help, someone invariably has the skills or knowledge I need to help move my project forward. Even more importantly, they’re all genuine and kind and just good people to be around. With them, I feel comfortable. I feel at home.
A few hours later, all twelve of us met at a retreat center nestled in the sequoias along with Kristina, the VISTA Program Manager, Judy and Ana, both of the Center for Community Engagement, and Cathy, our facilitator. On the schedule was reflection, food, career development, and action planning.
All of us are working within the California State University system to build partnerships with faculty, staff, students, alumni, and local communities to support the academic and professional success of traditionally underrepresented CSU science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) students, as well as K-12 student success in STEM. We’re collaborating with industry partners, local community organizations, and schools to increase hands-on learning experiences such as service learning, internships, and undergraduate research. These experiences are known as high-impact practices (or HIPs) and lead to increased graduation rates and enhanced job-ready skills. In many ways, all of us are doing very different work, but we’re united by a common theme and overarching goal: improving education to ultimately alleviate poverty.
One of our first exercises of the three-day retreat was documenting our “peaks and valleys,” the highs and lows of our first seven months of service. Maybe it’s the nature of public service, or maybe the nature of being a young professional, but we all had similar paths: struggling to stay motivated, then feeling rejuvenated, all around the same times, from all corners of the state. In many ways, I think, this mirrors the university experience, where you and your peers tend to experience similar patterns of growth and stagnation. And here we were, coming together for motivation, camaraderie, and to learn from one another’s experience and expertise, in the same way you would lean on your peers for support in college.
It dawned on me.
Is CSU STEM VISTA a high-impact practice in and of itself? Think about it. We all have Bachelor’s degrees already, but HIPs are supposed to extend beyond the classroom, anyway. Texas A&M explains it well: “In a high-impact learning experience, you will actively pose and solve problems, work collaboratively in a community of peers, experience real-world applications of knowledge, and reflect on your learning process.” The CSU Center for Community Engagement (CCE) has facilitated all of this for us. We spend every day thinking about the root causes of poverty and how to effectively address them. The twelve of us continually feed off each other to benefit our projects and promote our own professional and personal development. We’re applying the theoretical knowledge we learned in school, considering it alongside our own experiences, and using it to create sustainable change across California. And now, here we were. We were reflecting on our own peaks and valleys together.
Either intentionally or unintentionally, the CSU STEM VISTA program is modeled after the same practices that promote personal, professional, and intellectual growth amongst undergraduates. I have become intimately aware of the difference HIPs can make in the life of a student, or of a young professional, and I returned to San Diego energized and eager to make a difference.