Written By Lillian Senn, CSU STEM VISTA 2016-2017 Fresno State University College of Science and Mathematics
To those who know me, my year of service could appear as a mundane postponement after graduation, but those who care about me know my year of service came from a hunger deep in my heart to give back to a place I felt deserved so much.
While some VISTAs travel across the country to carry out their year of service- I didn’t
even move down the street. I selected to continue with a program I had become involved with my senior year of my degree at my alma mater, Fresno State; the College of Science and Mathematics First Year Experience (CSM FYE). I, like many young “Fresnans,” share the goal of wanting to get out of Fresno, even though most of us end up staying in the Valley. It was common for professors and advisors who felt I showed promise to encourage me to leave the Central Valley, or at the very least pursue a graduate degree away from Fresno State. Therefore, selecting a job that could allow me to escape the Valley and then actually choosing to remain seemed doubly bizarre.
As VISTA members, we share a belief in the power of community empowerment as a mode of positive change. VISTA provides a way for us to explore and gain skills to succeed in our desired fields while knowing we are simultaneously giving back to programs in an impactful manner. Many of us seek first to become VISTA members and then to serve our host site- while for me it was my desire to serve Fresno State’s historically and traditional underrepresented students in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) that led me to VISTA.
Like many of my friends in high school, I was a first-generation and low income student wanting to pursue a degree in the sciences. Unlike them, I decided to stay in the Fresno area and attended a community college before transferring to a CSU, while they went directly to UCs. As we each progressed through college slowly each of my friends changed to non-STEM majors all citing feeling a lack of support from their department and college. Their families couldn’t aid them in navigating the university system; so they felt alone in a competition with their fellow students to see who was worthy of a STEM degree.
In comparison to my friends’ experiences, I had smaller class sizes with professors that focused on creating active learning environments. I also with counselors who helped me craft an academic plan rather than my friends who were handed generic flowcharts to decipher on their own. In the end, I was the only one of my group of friends to finish in their original STEM major. For my friends, the reasons for not completing their intended majors weren’t due to a lack of intelligence, but rather to a lack of investment that I was lucky enough to have.
However, I shouldn’t have had to be lucky.
Entering my last year as an undergraduate, I had decided to pursue a graduate degree in the realm of Higher Education and Student Affairs knowing this field would allow me to help students rather than becoming a professor and risk losing the focus on the students I taught. I applied to the CSM FYE looking as a way to boost my resume and in doing so I was exposed to a focus on students that I had long thought forgotten in the domain of STEM education. The program was in its first year and consisted of a summer experience before classes started where students conducted science experiments and were exposed to campus resources. The freshmen then went on to take two general education courses (a critical thinking and a lifelong learning course) in a cohort fashion with the same professor. The focus was on students sense of belonging, promoting a sense of self-efficacy, and providing them foundational skills through experiential learning to prepare them for their rigorous major coursework. I came back to help the program in the Spring semester as an Instructional Student Assistant (ISA), and found faculty who were eager to learn and adjust to what the students expressed in their daily exit ticket questions as well as to what us ISAs heard from students. During this time the faculty made mention of wanting a VISTA and encouraged me to apply. I couldn’t resist the chance to watch this program grow into its second year.
While my year of service is still barely beginning, I am enjoying my continued involvement as one of the two CSU STEM VISTA members here at Fresno State. It has been amazing to see all that goes on behind creating and sustaining a program like ours. While at times I feel my previous involvement in the program results in faculty assuming too much about my capability, I have experienced immense joy from staying at Fresno State.
One of the most rewarding experiences has been watching the students I led as an ISA step up and take on that role themselves. The resolve of those in the first cohort to reach back and help those of the second cohort was a powerful event to witness. It was then that I saw my program doesn’t simply impact freshmen but creates a “multigenerational” effect in the community that is the CSM FYE. The last day of the summer experience, all the second year cohort students made a large oval- so everyone in the cohort could see each other- the peer leaders of the first cohort then formed an inner ring facing those of the second. And Miranda Lopez, my co-VISTA, and I stood in the middle behind our peer leaders. I was misty eyed as the students and peer leaders realized how the rings would slowly increase and those on the outside would soon move inward and face outward to help their fellow students. I have already had several of my students I helped my senior year comment how “cool” it is to see me helping the program post-graduation. I am eager to see which of my students may one day choose to stand where I do today.