I knew I wanted to do something different after I graduated from college, but I didn’t know what that “something different” would be. I knew I wanted to do something that meant something, both to me and to others in the community. And I was tired of talking about problems and solutions in the classroom; I wanted to encounter those problems and solutions face-to-face.

In my senior year, I saw a posting for an AmeriCorp VISTA position on my college’s online job board. I was vaguely familiar with AmeriCorps, had absolutely no idea what it meant to be a “VISTA”. But I was sold by the position description, “Serve the St. Cloud community through increasing access to healthy food for low-income communities. The VISTA will lead an effort to implement EBT acceptance at regional farmers’ markets.” This was it. This was the opportunity I had been looking for, so I applied and did a little research.

In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy had created the Peace Corps and shortly there after, he conceived the idea for a national service program to serve as its domestic counterpart. After President Kennedy’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson continued to fight for a national service program to work within communities struggling with poverty. And VISTA was born. VISTA is the acronym for Volunteers In Service To America. Those that serve within the program are called VISTAs. The inaugural cohort of VISTAs consisted of 24 individuals, representing 15 different states, and ranging in age from 21 to 71. Fifty years later, 220,000 individuals have served as VISTAs in all 50 states and U.S. Territories. In 1994, VISTA was incorporated into the network of AmeriCorps programs. (VISTA and AmeriCorps have a rich history of innovation and social justice, more than I could ever cover in a single post. Take a look at this visual timeline to learn more.)

I began service in the fall of 2014, a couple of months after earning my undergraduate degree. My cohort, like the inaugural cohort, consisted of individuals from different states, of different generations, and each with different passions. We gathered together each month at the Initiative Foundation to learn professional development skills like conflict resolution, how to search and apply for grants, and how to identify and talk about our individual strengths. Most importantly, we gathered each month to share our stories and support one another in our work.

My experience as a VISTA gave me the confidence to participate more fully in my community. I joined the board of directors of two agriculture-based organizations, I worked part-time at my local food co-op, and I regularly attended community events. Serving as a VISTA gave me a tangible outlet for my passions. I was able to target my energy into something powerful and with real outcomes: by the end of my first year of service I had met with over 20 farmers markets and CSAs and the number of farmers markets accepting EBT in central Minnesota had doubled!

I continued to serve for an additional year as a VISTA Leader with the Initiative Foundation. I grew tremendously as a professional and gained exposure to the world of community and economic development. I grew my skills as a mentor, taught myself website design, and was encouraged to take on my own projects to enhance the Initiative Foundation’s AmeriCorps VISTA program. No other experience has shaped my professional development so strongly. In the fall, I will begin graduate school to study Applied Community and Economic Development and hope to one day work at a foundation that cares as deeply about their community as the Initiative Foundation does.

My two years of national service gave me the opportunity to put passion into action. And for that I will always be grateful. I wish that experience for anyone with a desire to serve their community and make it stronger.

Katie served as an AmeriCorps VISTA with University of Minnesota Extension from 2014 to 2015 and served as a VISTA Leader with the Initiative Foundation from 2015 to 2016. She currently lives just north of Chicago and works at a food co-op. She will begin graduate school at Illinois State University in the fall.