Testing the Waters

By Jess Williams

My brother knew ever since the 9th grade that he was going to be an engineer. He went to college, graduated, and now works as an engineer doing well, whatever it is that engineers do. Pretty straight forward career path. As the second child of the family, it also caused me much undue stress and several existential crises. How does someone just know what they want to do with their life? After college, I didn’t have a job lined up, I knew I wasn’t ready to commit to grad school or any one particular career field. I needed something that would allow me to continue learning, gain real world experience, and have a short time commitment. Most importantly, I wanted to do something that had a purpose. National service checked all those boxes.

While the Peace Corps has a much bigger place in the American cultural imagination, I had already looked into this, and learned that the application process takes literally months, and it can be pretty selective. Probably not such a bad thing, as I am pretty bad at picking up languages, and 2 years seemed like a pretty big commitment. So I was on to option 2: AmeriCorps. While the travel that comes with NCCC and FEMA Corps seemed pretty attractive, I knew I had to go with VISTA.

Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) has been sending members to local government offices, colleges, and community driven non-profits large and small for over 50 years. Once there, VISTAs work on one year projects that build the organization’s capacity to serve those living in poverty. This can vary from program and resource development to volunteer management and community outreach.

The nonprofit sector had always been of interest to me, and this seemed like a great opportunity to test the waters and see if it was something that could turn into a career. Not only that, but benefits like loan deferment, education award, professional development and training opportunities made a year in the AmeriCorps much more realistic.

One of the best coincidences however, was that there were AmeriCorps opportunities right in my hometown. I already knew the community, and I would have the added bonus of family support. So after submitting my application and a few phone calls later, I was set. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made.

Over the course of my first year of service I served on a nonprofit board, took my first whack at grant writing, established a data tracking system for 5 separate programs, and gained an entirely new perspective on poverty at a national and local level. AmeriCorps VISTA gave me the opportunity to network with incredibly inspiring organizations and individuals in my community working to address these issues every day. The best part? I was able to work with many of them on projects often given to more experienced professionals in the private sector, and provided with a safe space to learn and grow.

I was also incredibly lucky to have a VISTA project that happened to be sponsored by the Initiative Foundation. Through monthly leadership trainings, I was able to connect with other VISTAs in the central Minnesota region, which provided a great support network and added another avenue to share ideas and resources. I had such a great experience with the Initiative Foundation that my gap year quickly became gap years. Currently I am in the first month of serving as the VISTA Leader for the 2017-2018 cohort. Unlike VISTA members whose project focus on building capacity of organizations, my role as a VISTA Leader is to build the capacity of VISTA members in my region to serve. I am excited to mentor, share, and learn from our new group of VISTAs, as well as connect with the many resources, organizations, and projects the Initiative Foundation supports through community and economic development initiatives in the coming year.

Jess served as an AmeriCorps VISTA at TheShop BBYC from 2016-2017, and as an AmeriCorps VISTA Leader at the Initiative Foundation from 2017-2018.