Written By Alejandra Lopez, CSU STEM VISTA 2016-2017 San Jose State University Engineering Projects in Community Service (EPICS)
When I decided to do a year of service I was excited to embrace everything that came with it. I knew I would face new and difficult challenges but I welcomed all of it. I saw an opportunity to learn and grow, as a professional and as an individual.
Not long into my search in finding a program, I came across AmeriCorps CSU STEM VISTA. The program had everything I wanted to practice at one point in my career. I would be able to work at a university, provide full-time support to a program working to increase the presence of students of color in STEM, and work with students-to some extent. While trying to narrow down which Cal State University I wanted to apply to, in the back of my mind I kept wondering, will not having a STEM degree or background affect my ability to effectively support the program? It was something I thought of throughout my entire interview process, but it didn’t stop me, I wouldn’t let it stop me.
I was accepted and placed at San Jose State University and would be working in their EPICS (Engineering Projects in Community Service) program at the College of Engineering. I was a little intimidated to be placed in an engineering program since I had little to no experience in the subject. I graduated with an Ethnic Studies Degree and Political Science Minor and began to feel I was at a slight disadvantage. Since starting, I’ve had to constantly remind myself that my education mattered and that I could find meaningful work to connect my knowledge during my year of service.
My first few weeks with EPICS were a lot to take in. I was lucky enough to have the previous VISTA, Romy, working for a few more weeks with the program. An overlap I was grateful for. As time progressed and Romy left, leaving me on my own, I began to gain a better handle on the assignments and projects I was given. While part of me still felt a little uncomfortable, I told myself I had not be given anything I had not yet been able to accomplish. That would change once school started.
The first day of school was on August 24th and I was the most anxious I had been since working at SJSU. I did not expect this much nervousness of feeling inadequate for my position. I started to realize how much course development I would be doing. I don’t want to teach a class, I’m not ready. It only progressed as time went by. I don’t think I can do this. I finally stopped and reflected on this and realized that I didn’t think I was good enough because I was not an “engineer”. I began to fill less and less as an asset to the program and more as a burden. While my supervisors have continued to be supportive and reassure me that I do not need to be an “engineer” to help the program, it’s been a feeling I haven’t been able to shake off.
Part of the problem was that when I sit in the class or am keeping myself productive with my work, I can’t help but think, how is this helping someone in need? Here, I started to truly understand what it meant to be VISTA. I’m used to making a direct impact, and not seeing the cause and effect started to make me think I wasn’t doing my work right. As a VISTA I am not directly working with the communities but helping to build a strong foundation for a program that can make that direct impact on individuals. I may not be able to see the direct impact but realizing the work I am doing and leave behind will keep the program successfully sustainable, well beyond my service year and will help students make that direct impact.
Additionally, the course is designed to get students involved in service-learning and community engagement. I feel most students may be experiencing this for the first time in their college courses, and are wondering how to begin to approach this new opportunity. This will be one aspect I will start to focus in on. My education and knowledge is valid and is vital in the program. I do belong here, regardless if I don’t always believe it or not. My challenge (which I fully accept) is to look at what I am doing from a different angle. There is a solution and I know I can find it. But it won’t be done through traditional means. I need to look inside myself and find creative and effective alternatives for my program that may not have been thought of yet. I will be the change my program needs. My influence as non-engineer whose focus and experience have been on social justice and community-based work, allows me to offer a fresh perspective. My first to step is to have an open dialogue with my supervisors and figuring out what the next step for the program is. This could be surveys, new lectures, marketing, activities to make the students more engaged with their community partners and each other. Who knows, but I know there is an opportunity to grow. The students and administrators I work with will definitely push me out of my comfort zone, something I welcome. However, the important thing to remember about being out of your comfort zone is to have the right support and resources so that you may be able to find some grounding and become comfortable, no matter how small it may be.
As I continue to grow and adapt to my site, I will have to remember to be kind to myself and to take a moment to step back and reflect. When times get rough I will seek support, love, self-love and self-healing.