Video shot and edited by Tiffany Nguyen, CSU STEM VISTA 2015-16 Cal Poly Pomona Maximizing Engineering Potential
Written by Jeffrey Cabanez, CSU STEM VISTA 2014-16 CSU Chancellor’s Office Center for Community Engagement
At the beginning of my first VISTA Year, our CSU STEM VISTA group attended a retreat in Big Bear Lake where we participated in a variety of team building activities, including high ropes courses, low ropes activities, and trust falls. This culminated in a final exercise where we had to get our entire cohort (including professional staff), over a tall wall approximately 15 or so feet. It was a life-changing weekend due to the bonds we formed with one another. This would help shape the first year of the CSU STEM VISTA Program.
Fast forward one year later to today, four of the VISTAs from the first cohort returned (myself included) and we welcomed 12 new VISTAs, all of whom were eager to bond, learn about one another, and unknowingly about to jump off of trees. The activities, for the most part, remained the same. At the beginning of this year’s retreat, Karol, one of the two facilitators for the weekend, said something along the lines of “These four [the returning VISTAs] have been through this before, but they aren’t the important ones. This weekend is about you. This weekend is about your team.” There was an emphasis on building a collaborative team dynamic and creating a safe space for personal growth. I took a step back in the activities to allow the new VISTAs to explain their ideas, grapple with difficult tasks, struggle, but most importantly, grow. Going into the weekend, I was so focused on the cohort’s development and creating this space for growth that I forgot that the retreat was also about me.
It was during one of the high ropes courses where I saw my personal growth. To set the stage, there was a 20-foot ladder attached to a tree approximately 40 feet high. There was another tree that was about 30 feet away, and one long tightrope connecting the two trees. Every 6 feet, there was a rope hanging perpendicular to the tightrope. The premise is you have to: a. climb up the tree b. balance on the tightrope using the perpendicular ropes c. get across the tightrope. This would push anyone with fears of heights away. But it wasn’t the heights that scared me the most. It was the notion of falling.
Karol mentioned in passing that when people say they are afraid of heights, it’s not generally about the height itself, but the fall that the height entails. And I think that really resonated with me and became a theme for the weekend. The 40 foot drop illustrated my confidence; I was afraid of being confident. Self-doubt, something that I struggled with during my first VISTA year, began to creep back up. While walking up to the ladder, a few thoughts came to my mind, including: “What if I fall off the tree?” “I don’t think I can do this” and, my personal favorite, “Why was I chosen for this position [referring to my new VISTA Leader position]?”
The only thing that went through my mind while I was climbing and going across the tightrope was that I had to do this. With the constant encouragement from my fellow VISTAs and my supervisor, I was able to complete the ropes course. However, it was the moment after that stuck with me the most. As I was being lowered, I just started to cry. I’m about 83% sure they were tears of joy, as I had just completed a ropes course that I was almost certain I wouldn’t finish. My supervisor came up to me and gave me a big hug, followed by the rest of the group.
Following the hug, I took a few minutes to reflect on what I had just accomplished and why I was crying. Those tears did not only signify me pushing my physical body to the limits, but they captured my biggest take away: leading by example. I knew that some of the other VISTAs going after me were terrified, and I did my best to calm them down before I went. If I quit half way up the tree climb, what would stop the other VISTAs after me to do the same? Aside from being happy that I was finally back on the ground, my completing the ropes course demonstrates that being pushed outside of my comfort zone is where I do the most growing. Taking on another term with AmeriCorps, and especially a VISTA Leader term, is me going outside of my comfort zone. I know that I have all the support from my supervisor, co-leader, and VISTA cohort, and I know I can excel at this job because of that.
Feeling rejuvenated after the weekend and by everyone else’s energy, I cannot wait to see
how this year plays out. I am excited for all of the VISTAs to excel in their work. There will be ups and there will be downs; that’s just the field we work in. Even though we are scattered throughout 11 different CSU campuses, I feel so connected and invested in this group. A year ago, I left Big Bear with a sense of belonging and community within this program. This year, I left Big Bear with a sense of belonging and community with the new cohort, but also newly found confidence that I did not think I had. Sometimes, all it takes to inspire confidence is jumping off of a 30-foot tree and falling into the arms of your supporters.
*I do not claim that any of the aforementioned measurements are accurate. They are all estimates.