VISTA Alumna: Erica Bjelland

“Eg er ein båt utan vind. Du var vinden. Var det den leidi eg skulde? Kven spør etter leidi når ein har slik vind!”

“I am a boat without wind. You were the wind. Was this the way I should go? Who can ask about which way with such a wind!”

Olav H. HaugeNorwegian Poet

This poem hangs at the Norwegian language camp I worked at the summer after I graduated from college. I knew I wanted to do something impactful with my degree, but I didn’t know what exactly that would be. A week later I finished camp, and I started my year of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA with the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL) in the small rural town of Backus, Minnesota. I didn’t know much about National Service before I found RREAL, but it ended up being a ‘wind’ I took a chance on that is greatly impacting my first years in my post-college life.

Just by chance, a professor encouraged me to apply for RREAL’s VISTA position. I wasn’t sure it was for me because I had student loans, the stipend was not very much, and the position required me to move to a rural area.  But I applied because RREAL’s mission of making solar energy accessible to people of all income levels perfectly fit my interests in both social justice and environmental justice. I had a phone interview soon after. The conversation felt natural and hearing more about VISTA & RREAL’s impactful work was inspiring, so I let the wind take me in the direction that felt right.

And that same wind has led me to stay in this charming, beautiful part of Minnesota. After my year of service, I was asked to stay on full-time, and now I am a Program Development Specialist at RREAL. During my year as a VISTA, I learned more than I could have ever imagined about nonprofits, solar energy, poverty, living on a budget, meaningful connections, and myself. My co-workers even taught me how to change a tire! I am so excited to keep working with the most dedicated people I have ever met, and working with communities to fight energy poverty. I am also so grateful for the helpful monthly VISTA trainings at the Initiative Foundation that expanded my professional, personal, and nonprofit skills. Meeting with the VISTA cohort each month also allowed me to connect with so many other people fighting poverty throughout rural Minnesota, and the Initiative Foundation VISTA program is great at providing experiences that teach and allow for trying something completely new.

I realize that just following a gut feeling and moving somewhere totally different can be a privilege and isn’t for everyone, but I know the mindset of being willing to try something completely new is what made my year so impactful and enabled me to grow professionally and personally. I will forever be grateful for my VISTA and RREAL experience and the winds that led me here.