Initiated by Chance, Nurtured with Intentionality – My Journey with Social Justice

Written By Nicki Holm, CSU STEM VISTA Member 2016-2017 Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

IMG_8702.JPGMy four years at Cal Poly seemed to last forever, but looking back, it seems like only yesterday I was graduating from high school anticipating the adventure to come. I embarked on my journey as a Biological Sciences major, and little did I know, the department would come to have such a profound influence on my path.

Partially through my first year and already overcommitted – intramural sports, club leadership roles I decided would look good on my resume, and 16 units with two labs while still acquiring the ability to learn in college – a Biological Sciences department email captivated my attention. It was nothing profound, just a simple advertisement recruiting applicants to work for a student-run volunteer organization in the Center for Community Engagement. Intrigued, and desperately in need of a study break, I filled out the application to become a Program Director for Student Community Services (SCS) – a hub for eight programs that coordinate volunteer efforts for different aspects of the community such as senior citizens, SLO homelessness, and the environment. After countless emails back and forth; the most unnecessarily nerve-wracking 4v1 interview for an unpaid position; and shadowing the group as a volunteer at the annual Miracle Miles 4 Kids event, I was accepted to be a Program Director for the Students for Health and Well-Being program.

IMG_5858.JPGThat next year consisted of meeting the group that would quickly make up some of my closest friends, developing relationships with local nonprofits and agencies in need of both regular and one-time volunteers, and recruiting Cal Poly students to fill those volunteer roles. From SLO Marathon to Cancer Well-Fit to Transitions Mental Health Association, my group and I were able to instill a passion for service in countless Cal Poly students while simultaneously meeting the needs of physical and mental health advocates throughout SLO County.

For the remaining two years of my college career, I was lucky enough to continue with the organization that had become home. However, instead of directly planning events as before, I joined a group of six Director Coordinators that managed SCS as a whole. Together, we planned the organization’s annual events, ran weekly meetings, ensured our Program Directors had the support they needed, and most prominently, we collaboratively cultivated a passion for social justice. It was not a passion born overnight, but rather an evolving junction of our interests. After months assisting well-intentioned, yet vastly under supported organizations, and meetings turned into rants about the issues in our community and beyond, the SCS Social Justice Series came to fruition. We drafted a list of topics ranging from environmental racism to the ethical implications of “voluntourism” to intersectionality and its relation to political affairs like capital punishment; we hammered out a timeline for the planning of the to be determined monthly events; and understanding our lack of expertise, we outreached to Cal Poly professors whose research fell in line with the chosen themes. Being from all different majors and choosing such vastly different issues, we fostered a culture of inquiry – welcoming anyone enticed by the prospect of learning and popcorn – and watched our series grow.

IMG_5856.JPGWith my senior year coming to a close and the Social Justice Series having gained traction, the thought dawned on me of “what’s next?”. No longer did conventional grad school seem sufficient, at least not yet. This newly fostered passion for service and justice needed more nurturing, not a lab intended for culturing Streptococcus pyogenes – despite how captivating necrotizing fasciitis is. Just in time, however, the Biological Sciences department came in clutch with an email about an employment opportunity through AmeriCorps – CSU STEM VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America). As I sat there with my computer, emailing my mom about the opportunity and creating my AmeriCorps account, the furthest thing from my mind was any content related to the Aerospace GE I was currently sitting in…sorry Dr. Wright. In the next 17 days, I met two fellow VISTAs for the first time, met with whom would be my Cal Poly supervisors should I be accepted for the position, applied and phone interviewed with the Chancellor’s office, and missed a very important phone call. Fortunately, however, I got to listen to what seemed to be the most nerve-wrackingly monotonous “congratulations” voicemail from none other than VISTA leader, Jeffrey Cabanez, solidifying the prospect that I would stay in San Luis Obispo yet another year.

IMG_5085.JPGFour months into my VISTA year and coming to fully understand my role, I can say wholeheartedly that there is nowhere else I would rather be. This position allows me to explore the very institution that granted me my degree, encourages me to question everything about it, and challenges me to further develop my own understanding of social justice throughout the process. As an Undergraduate Research Coordinator with LSAMP (Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority and Underrepresented Student Participation in STEM), I am able to collaborate with students, faculty, and staff across all departments to increase access to undergraduate research – a practice that largely influenced my undergraduate experience – and train faculty mentors to ensure that opportunities are not only accessible, but also equitable. Though this campus is much more rigid and frustrating than many institutions of higher education, there are already signs of change and I look forward to the future of social justice that I envision increasingly perpetuating the campus and the residing community. In Dean Wendt’s words, “Neutrality will only perpetuate the status quo, it will take intentionality to change it.” Seeing we both have much room to improve, I am ready and eager to embark on this journey of intentionality with Cal Poly.

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