Friday, August 24, 2012

At Year's End: A Reflection on the VISTA Program

Disclaimer: This is really long and probably only helpful to people considering being in a VISTA program.

For those of you who don't know, VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) is a federal loan-payment program for recent college graduates that matches volunteers with nonprofits so that they can serve as "capacity-builders" for the organizations and increase their ability to serve their target demographic. This means that although the organizations that VISTAs work for span a diverse spectrum, VISTAs do essentially similar work--fundraising, developing templates, designing websites, building a volunteer database, writing grants, building community partnerships and more. The premise of the program is that you live and work in poverty, only receiving a basic living stipend ($15,000 a year) and at the end of the program, you receive $5,000 toward future education or toward paying off your student loans.

If you've been reading my blog, you know that I have shared my trials and my successes here with you, but have generally erred on the side of positivity when it comes to regarding my position. This comes as a result of personal belief: in focusing on having a positive attitude, I invite more positivity into my life and I see opportunities where others might have a bleaker outlook. Honestly, it was often this philosophy that kept me from walking out of my office and never returning.

Now that my VISTA year has officially come to a close, I feel as though I would be remiss in not recounting accurately the positive and negative aspects of my year of service for anyone else looking into serving their country through civil service in the VISTA program. (As a side note, there are other federal loan programs, such as City Year, NCCC, Learn & Serve, and many others, but I can only provide a information about VISTA).

As a VISTA, there are certain factors that will make or break your VISTA experience. For example, the program I worked with was part of a large VISTA network contracted through Los Angeles Unified School District, the second-largest school district in the United States, as part of a pilot program. This means that although I was the only VISTA at my three school sites, there were 20 other VISTAs in my program, and all of us experienced the roller coaster that is the first year of a VISTA program. We could commiserate with each other when our supervisors decided to change the terms of our contract because it wasn't working for the school district or for the Corporation for National and Community Service (the corporation that oversees the VISTA program and provides the paychecks). But this also meant that we were working in different conditions, being required to put forth varying levels of effort, while still being paid exactly the same amount. There were benefits and there were drawbacks.

One of the major issues I have with this program has to do with the level of dedication--there is no set standard. I came into this program, high-minded and idealistic. I am passionate about education reform and equality and I am also passionate about service. I give 150% most of the time and I thought this was the expectation of a VISTA--why else would a person sign up to get paid $15,000 a year if they didn't care about what they were doing? After all, I was being paid better as a babysitter before I became a VISTA. But as it turns out, many of the people from my program were merely biding their time while they studied for the LSAT or applied for graduate school, living with their parents rent-free and doing little work for a meager paycheck. During our days of service (federal holidays where we did community work like building a community garden), these were the people sitting on benches complaining or holding rakes and chatting with their friends. Meanwhile, I'm hoe-ing my heart out with a hangover, trying to actually accomplish something important and valuable to the people we are trying to help. But I eventually got over the inequality of effort being put forth and learned to roll my eyes, shake my head and get back to work.

Unfortunately, the management of the program just wasn't something I could roll my eyes and be okay with. First of all, I was hired in August 2011 by someone at the district who had interviewed me along with some of the principals interested in the program. Two months later, this person was "taken off" of our project and sent elsewhere and we were dumped on another district employee who seemed to neither understand the VISTA program nor did she particularly like any of us (with the exception of maybe two VISTAs). The assumption was clearly that we were doing nothing with our time at our school sites. Things started changing: our metrics reporting forms became so involved that they took several hours to complete and were now due on the weekends, some VISTAs were given days off for Spring Break or Independence Day while others were expected to work as usual, some VISTAs were being put on probation for merely disagreeing with our district supervisor. While my VISTA supervisors (VISTAs who acted as our Human Resources department) were generally pretty helpful and responsive, they were also essentially powerless.

And as the months progressed and the closer we got to our termination date, the more awful is became. What were we going to do, quit? No one was going to quit and miss out on a $5,000 payout for completing the year of service just to escape another three months of hell. Except that some of us did. The real shame here is that those who quit were the people who cared the most about their schools and their communities. They were the people who gave of themselves irrevocably and because of the district's ignorance, they failed to see and acknowledge the wonderful compassion fused in the very core of these people. Of course, those who were doing nothing more than hanging out all day at a school site stuck around, but the people that were doing important work were so unappreciated that they had to leave.

Of course, their were daily frustrations at the school site--since our program was poorly communicated to our principals, most of them didn't know we were young professionals (not students) or the extent of what we were capable of accomplishing. I struggled almost daily to have my ideas taken seriously, to be viewed as a valuable member of the school community, and to stay informed of what was going on at my various school sites. But overcoming these struggles allowed me to garner valuable professional experience and it opened doors to new communities with open arms. One of my schools now has an online presence where none existed before and they honored me with a special award and plaque at the year's end. I got to see the looks on kids' faces when they received an attendance incentive award (that I sought out) to go to a Dodger's game for free--something their parents wouldn't have had the money to take them to. I got to meet friends and feel like a part of a team in a foreign community and to feel as though I was important.

If I had the chance to do it all over again, would I? Honestly, I'm unsure. There are a lot easier ways to earn money to pay off your student loans (teaching English as a foreign language in Korea, for example!) and there are many programs that more closely align to my passions. Getting a job in the private sector probably would look better on my resume and I wouldn't have to begin every interview with explaining what VISTA is. But at the same time, I survived it. Finding out you're strong enough to make it through something really difficult is self-satisfying. It definitely fed my desire for adventure and is a motivating factor behind my decision to apply for a job teaching English in South Korea. I made it through with a smile on my face, and despite the fact that next year will probably be more difficult, I know I have the ability to still remain positive about my situation.

So, in closing, I hope I didn't deter anyone from doing a year as a VISTA. Service to one's country is important and valuable. If you're like me, motivated by a positive attitude and a desire to work hard in service, then maybe you should check out City Year, another Americorps program, but full of hard workers focused on positivity. If I could go back in time, this is the program I would have applied for because I am in no way afraid of hard work and I think that their process is much healthier for the volunteer state of mind. Of course, there are so many other ways to serve your country, so don't make any decisions until you've explored all of them. Good luck.


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