Name: Shannon Palka
Alma Mater: University of San Diego
Background: I’ve never been the kind of person who knows what they want to be when they grow up. But I’ve had a pretty good idea of who I want to be. My whole life, I’ve known that I want to be the kind of person who strives for a better tomorrow because, before I knew the word “equity,” I knew the world wasn’t fair. Before I understood “privilege,” I knew I benefited from living in a society that values my white skin and my parents’ zip code. And before I could define “liberation,” I knew I would never experience freedom until every person experienced it. I have pursued opportunities related to social justice as a way to engage this passion and take tangible steps toward increasing equity in education.
In my first year of college, I became a founding member and Executive Board member of a Coaching Corps chapter. Coaching Corps is a nation-wide, student-led movement to increase access to after school sports programming in traditionally underserved urban communities. College students volunteer as coaches and serve as role models, teaching positive peer relations and cultivating a college-going culture. We also hosted Take Your Team to College Day, an event where our coaches brought their teams on campus for a tour, lunch in the dining hall, and practice on the football field. This event was the first time many of these students had seen a college campus, even though there are several four-year institutions in San Diego. Coaching Corps was supported by VISTA members and, badda bing, badda boom…now I’ve served two years with AmeriCorps VISTA.
Ah-ha moment: The importance of our work was reinforced to me at the beginning of this year. I work part-time at a restaurant where many of my co-workers are first-generation college students, and because I recently graduated, first-year students regularly came to me with questions about classes, student life, transferring, etc. One young woman wants to be a marine biologist. She told me about how hard she had to fight to make her parents see that a college education is worth the time and money it takes. She’s exactly the kind of student our programs are designed to support. Getting to know these students as co-workers and peers, without the power dynamic that sometimes exists as a result of the VISTA-student relationship, helped me reconnect to my work as a VISTA Leader.
Advice: One year is really short. Some days are hard. The budget can definitely present a challenge. But you are strong and capable, and you can survive. You can thrive. When you feel overwhelmed or exhausted or sad or angry, breathe. Communicate what you’re feeling and what you need. Focus on what you can control. A year of national service has the potential to be extremely rewarding and fulfilling, but if you let yourself get bogged down by the fact that this work is hard, you won’t walk away with the same sense of accomplishment and gratitude.
Legacy: I want to leave behind a charge to my colleagues to continue testing their assumptions, questioning the norm, and challenging the process. Never say, “This is how we’ve always done it.” We do important work, and it’s important we do it well. Reject complacency, and always strive to be better than yesterday.