By Alejandra Lopez-Cuellar
I began my first year as an AmeriCorps VISTA shortly after graduating from college in the Spring of 2016. At the time, and even now, I had no idea what I wanted to do career wise. After some intensive research, I decided to apply to the California State University STEM VISTA program, in the hopes that a year of service would help me figure out where my passion lies.
I was accepted into the program and during the early summer of 2017, I was placed at an university, where I would support a community service program for engineering students. The program was starting its second year and needed capacity-building support. While I was definitely nervous about my position and all the responsibilities that came with it, I was super excited to help the program grow and support it in engaging students in applying their engineering education to helping local communities.
After settling in, it quickly became clear that I would be in for a tough 12 months. Like many new programs, there are bound to be a few glitches here and there, but it seemed like I was often left on my own to fix things that I needed support in. Managing-up also proved to be difficult. While my team had clear goals for the program, it lacked clear steps on how to achieve them as a group. This proved to be more frustrating than I anticipated,and caused me a lot of anxiety, stress and doubt.
I would be lying if I said a VISTA never thinks about quitting. That there doesn’t come a point in our service where we ask ourselves, am I making an impact? Is this even worth it? Most VISTAs never immediately see how their work impacts their organizations or the communities that their organizations focus on. This sometimes makes it difficult for us to pinpoint the results of our capacity building work, and gives us the feeling that we are not doing enough or that our work is not making an impact. And to be honest, if it wasn't for the support of my amazing CSU STEM VISTA cohort, I don't think I would have stuck around to complete my year.
One thing I have learned,is that a VISTA’s time and dedication is only as strong as the community that they’ve built around them. I knew that I could always count on my fellow CSU STEM VISTAs to help me through my times of uncertainty. You’ll always find me saying, “I had a great VISTA program but a difficult host site during my first year”. I had people I could rely on without hesitation and knew that no matter what happened, they would always remain by my side. My VISTA peers became more than just friends - they became family, loving and supporting me in ways that I never thought I would experience from 18 people that I was only scheduled to spend a year with; bonds that I believe will last a lifetime.
This is one of the main reasons I decided to stay, and make the most of my remaining time. There were moments when I still felt that my work wasn’t making a difference but I pushed those thoughts aside because I knew what I was doing was important. The biggest change I witnessed was the transformation I helped create in the students I supported through my program. Looking at the work they created and how they were able to help folks within their own communities over the year was inspiring. It was my biggest takeaway as a VISTA. I was able to give my students an experience that they may have otherwise not had. And it helped them see how their knowledge and skills could truly make a difference in the lives of other people.
As my first year came to a conclusion in mid-July of 2017, I was (unfortunately) back to where I started … what to do next? It’s also what happens when you’re a Libra (¯\_(?)_/¯). I was not able to narrow down what I wanted to do as a career. I thought I wanted to work in higher education but after my first-year experience as a VISTA, I wasn’t so sure anymore. Slowly but surely, as I began to put the pieces together, I figured out what my next steps should be. And I knew that in order to really buckle down and find the perspective I needed, I had to leave the state I called home, California.
And so within 2 months of completing my first year, I got on a plane to embark on a new journey and began my second year as a VISTA - this time as a VISTA Leader - in New York City for the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC).
Moving to New York City has been a big transition and while it hasn’t been easy adjusting, I’ve had a wonderful experience since starting at the NYIC and have been able to experience what I missed out on during my first year as a VISTA.
As the NYIC’s VISTA Leader, I’ve been able to see a different perspective of VISTA programming. I get to see the capacity building of 15 VISTAs versus just my own work. I can’t help but brag about my VISTAs and how amazing they are. It’s been a joy watching them grow as individuals and professionals, witnessing the skill and energy that they bring to their host sites, and learning about who they are and what their passionate about. It is incredible seeing how diverse and unique my cohort is.
VISTA has been a one of a kind experience that has allowed me to travel, move across the country, make friends with folks who come from all walks of life, and so much more. I’ve grown wiser from the challenges I faced as a VISTA and get joy from all the wonderful memories I carry from my service. And while I’m not the fondest of New York City weather (because California is life), I can’t wait to see what the remaining months of my service at the NYIC brings.