Written by Shannon Palka, CSU STEM VISTA 2014-16 CSU Chancellor’s Office
Sometimes, I wish I had a job that I could stop thinking about at 5:00 p.m. Instead, I talk about social justice at dinner, and I read about equity initiatives on the weekends. Ideas for projects often come right before I fall asleep. My corps is on my mind more often than not. And that’s hard. My mind rarely rests. My heart never does.
But at the same time, I never have been and never will be someone who’d be happy without an all-consuming job. It’s just not who I am. I’m drawn to really big, really important fights. Even if I didn’t get paid to do it, I’d probably spend the majority of my time thinking and reading about social justice. I’d feel unfulfilled without a job that I can pour my whole self into. And so the day-to-day activities are tiring. And so some mornings I wake up with dark circles under my eyes. Some days, I only make it to five o’clock because of coffee and my wonderful co-Leader Jeffrey.
VISTAs only perform indirect service. That means we do hard, sometimes thankless, behind-the-scenes work in the fight against poverty. Many of us will never meet all the students who benefit from our programs. We may never see the longitudinal research which demonstrates that they got high-paying jobs in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, or math) field. But remembering the big picture, remembering that we’re fighting poverty and working toward equity in education is sustaining and rejuvenating.
We know a few things about our fight against poverty.
- The California State University educates a lot of students who have faced barriers in their educational journeys. One-third of CSU students are the first generation in their families to attend college. About 60% are students of color. Campuses like Long Beach and Northridge each enroll more low-income undergraduates supported by Pell grants than the entire Ivy League.
- The CSU has trouble retaining STEM students. Only 35% of students who began their freshman year declared a STEM major actually graduated in with a STEM degree in 6 years. About 15% graduated with another non-STEM degree and 49% didn’t graduate at all. The 6-year graduation rate for African Americans in STEM is less than 15%. Retention rates of students interested in STEM are definitely not stellar for any demographic, but for traditionally underrepresented minority students, the numbers are dismal.
- Jobs in STEM pay well. If we can make STEM degrees, and by extension STEM careers, accessible to low-income and traditionally underrepresented students, we can drastically change their projected lifetime earnings.
- Traditionally underrepresented students benefit disproportionately from participating in high-impact educational practices. CSU Northridge found that Latino/a students and Federal Pell Grant recipients benefit disproportionately from participating in HIPs, closing the achievement gap, and then performing better than their traditionally represented peers.
Remembering all this and seeing my place in the fight against poverty becomes a bit of a thought exercise. The difference I’m making isn’t always tangible. There are days when the connection is very clear to me, and days when it’s not. When it’s not, I’m endlessly grateful that I’m not doing this work alone.
In July, at the start of this year, I stared at a wall. A tall, wooden wall, which I was told I’d have to climb over. This, for me, was the scariest part about the ropes course we did in Big Bear. Fraught with anxiety, I helped spot my new cohort as they went up and over the top. I didn’t want to climb it. I wanted to shrink into the dirt. But I couldn’t. It wasn’t about me or my fears. We were a team. And when it was my turn, I closed my eyes and felt myself being lifted up until my corps grabbed my hands, pulling me the rest of the way up. It was effortless.
That, to me, is the beauty of this team and of this program. We do hard work. It’s draining. Sometimes it’s scary. Sometimes I need more help than I’d like to admit. But on the days when I can’t climb by myself, there’s 19 people around me, lifting me up. There’s 19 people spotting me, making sure I don’t fall. And on days when I feel strong, I can return the favor. And together, from all corners of California, we lift up STEM students.