Hello fellow VISTAs! I’m Marlee Schilbe, a first year VISTA serving with Ferris State University—Grand Rapids in partnership with the Kent Intermediate School District program Project Northstar. Our goal in this partnership is to increase financial literacy and college access within the community, and within the schools Project Northstar serves.
After graduating from Alma College with a degree in Anthropology and Sociology, I moved to Lansing, MI to try and find my first ‘big kid job.’ Things didn’t quite work out as planned, and I ended up spending 6 unhappy months in The Retail Inferno™ just going through the motions of daily life. I wanted to do something different – something with meaning – and work in a place that would help me develop both personally and professionally. After reading about different VISTA programs, I decided it was exactly what I needed to do; I felt drawn to the AmeriCorps mission and wanted to participate in a year of service. I applied for a few positions in the Grand Rapids and Lansing area, and less than a week later found myself committing to move to Grand Rapids just two weeks after accepting the position. It’s been a bit of a wild ride so far, but I’ve adjusted to Grand Rapids fairly quickly and love living here!
Now about the work: since starting this position mid-November, I’ve been working closely with Ferris State and Kent ISD’s Project Northstar to promote financial literacy and college access to kids who attend partnering schools in the community. So far I’ve been involved in planning and organizing Get Real! Financial Literacy Fair events as well as FAFSA/Financial Aid Workshop Presentations. I’m looking forward to taking the lead on planning at least four similar events with partnering schools, like the Lighthouse Academy, Kent Innovation High School, and others during the remainder of my year of service.
Get Real! is an event that gives students an idea of the costs of being a self sufficient adult. The students are assigned a career, salary, marital status, and number of children; next, they visit a series of expense-based booths to see how much things like housing, insurance, and childcare will cost based on their situation. Having been involved in the planning and execution of the event, I’ve been able to see first had the positive effect it has on participating students. We’ve found that it really wakes them up to the realities of dealing with income and expenses.
This experience has already helped me develop professionally; being in charge of planning events and presentations has given me a chance to work on project proposals, volunteer recruiting, general organizing, and getting to know my community. We’re still in the planning phase of the first Get Real! Event I’m planning through Project Northstar at Lighthouse Academy, but seeing the students get excited about the upcoming event is making all the effort worth it. I can’t wait to see what other exciting and fulfilling activities and programs I’ll be able to put together for the kids in our community.
My name is Alyson Ramirez and this is my first year as a VISTA. I work at the Hispanic Center of Western Michigan and my focus is on college access. This has been a very eventful year at the Hispanic Center. We are currently welcoming a new Youth Director and that means a lot of changes. This VISTA year has taught me the importance of change and being able to adapt to a new environment. I know many of us can agree that change is not our favorite thing to deal with, and at times it can be scary. But I am here to tell you that everything works out in the end. The anxiety will pass and you will most likely survive; I did!
The past couple of months have been very hectic at the center, mostly because we have been preparing for the FAFSA. As some of you know, the FAFSA opened a few months early this year. This meant that our schedule needed to be reorganized and we needed to spread the word as quickly as possible. In order to inform not only our students, but their parents about this imperative application date, we held a parent meeting each month. Before this meeting we contacted school counselors, and students through email, phone calls, and social media. To contact the parents, we planned calls one month before the meeting and then a week before the meeting. This was the biggest meeting we have ever had, and there were over 30 students and family members in attendance as well as six financial aid advisors that participated in helping the students and families actually complete their FAFSA.
I know, for sure, that there are not many of us that actually enjoyed filling out the FAFSA. It is like take that gross pink medicine we all avoided when we were younger. But we did it because we knew it would help us in the end. That is exactly how many families felt. Once the FAFSA was complete they felt accomplished and thankful that they had help. And that is what we are here to do as VISTAs. We help.
So, to all the VISTAs out there that may feel a little overwhelmed and extremely stressed: your help MATTERS. We are all making a difference. Yes, it may be a small difference, but that difference can grow one day to make a huge impact on a student and their family.
Hello fellow VISTAS! I’m Rachel Blomer and I’m serving with the Wayne County College Access Network. This is my first year as a VISTA, and my first professional job (yay to wearing nice clothes!). It’s been a much needed and wonderful adjustment, and I’ve really gained so much professional and personal experience. I’m from Illinois, so moving and becoming acquainted to Michigan and the Detroit metro area has been interesting and a lot of fun. I’ve always had a sense of adventure, and this is just an added experience on top of my position. I even got to see one of my idols live, Iggy Pop; so that alone has been worth it!
Now onto the Wayne County College Access Network; the network is dedicated to increasing the college attainment rate in Wayne County to 60% by the year 2020. When we say college, we are referring to all post-secondary education including professional/technical certificates and academic degrees. We are also trying to lower systemic barriers preventing students from pursuing education beyond high school, and improve coordination of higher education access services particularly to those who come from low-income families or who are first in their families seeking postsecondary attainment. The network is only on its second year, so it’s not well established yet, but quickly growing and taking on momentum.
My position within the network has been to assist with grants, obtain data pertaining to our population, start and maintain a social media presence, and get our name out there with schools and colleges. I’ve come across some challenges, particularly when it came to data collection. I had to complete an asset and landscape map, and I had no idea what they even were. Needless to say, I was worried that I wasn’t going to be able to even start it. Thankfully, we had a Michigan College Access Network training in Traverse City where I received tons of information pertaining to all aspects of LCANs. Basically, the maps show what programs and classes schools offer when it comes to college access and success such as academic supports, affordability, persistence, etc. With this information, along with a data dashboard I also created, we present it to our leadership team (made up of important people in the community such as superintendents, businesses, chamber members, etc.) to decide what needs to focus on and how we can make a real difference within out-Wayne communities. We aren’t at this step just yet, but its right around the corner. We’ve had some setbacks with the grant and we’re still dealing with issues, but we’re going to be done this week or next! It will be a very gratifying experience and I can’t wait to be done with it, but we are also working on another grant we’re applying for due soon. Time is a flat circle, y’know.
After that hurdle, the rest of my time here has been a breeze and a lot of fun. I’m the facilitator of communication between us and all the schools, so I’m constantly going back and forth with counselors about useful information or helping them with whatever they may need. We also have talent tours as a part of the Youth Department at SEMCA, so I assist in helping with matters outside of the WCCAN. We have a Criminal Justice/ Law Talent Tour coming up at the end of January which will be a lot of fun, so I’m excited for that. I’m working on my VISTA initiative idea of instilling a book club for high schoolers, too. I believe that getting students to read in a book group setting will really engage them in critical thought, increase their reading skills, writing skills, and prepare them for the college classroom. The reading list I chose contains literature relevant to their lives, and I wanted to use works not typically used in a high school English class to really capture their interest. I’ve just started with that, so I’ll be getting into the thick of it soon. I’ve discovered that I really enjoy the activities that involve the students and spending time with them, which surprised me. A lot of the students that I’ve encountered are really impressive, talented, and intelligent. It’s honestly always an enjoyable experience whenever I do anything with them.
So far in my service, I’ve had the chance to utilize a lot of talents that were going unused there for a while. This opportunity has been great for developing certain skills and is also a wonderful addition to my resume. Overall, it’s been a great experience and a true testament to see what I’m made of. I’ve accomplished a lot already, and I still have a lot ahead of me as well! I know the work that I’m doing will contribute towards helping a lot of people with college access and success, which is so important in the development of not only the economy, but for peoples’ lives and well-being.
Hello, My name is Jernard Collins and I am a first year VISTA serving with Lawrence Tech University and Jewish Vocational Services (JVS). My first year as an AmeriCorps VISTA has been promising. Expanding my network, building my public speaking skills, and working on my craft while serving my community is all I could ask for (except maybe an extra $100 with my check, but that’s for another blog). This VISTA year has challenged me to face my fears and push through my self doubt while remaining professional and keeping my VAD in mind to help enlighten my community into financial awareness.
The events that I have held, and helped with, have been very beneficial for both the students on campus as well as myself. Engaging with the students on campus is a difficult but rewarding task. One of my first projects was assisting with the Career Services department with their Fall Career Fair. Through this opportunity I was able to connect with employers as well as students, and I was excited to help students connect to different career opportunities. I was also able to host a financial aid table which has really informed the campus about the abundance of money that is awarded every year in scholarships ($46 BILLION). On Average $2.9 billion is left UNCLAIMED. That’s a lot of money to leave on the table. Some students miss out on these opportunities by simply not filling out their FAFSA, so for the months of February, March and April, I will be hosting Financial Aid Awareness tables to help students connect to these scholarships that are missed out on.
Along with the Financial Aid Awareness tables, I will also be hosting Financial Literacy workshops that help students with budgeting, learning more about banking, etc. For my first workshop, which will be held in February, I will have Erin Winters who is the spokesperson for Michigan First Credit Union's Young and Free Michigan program. I’m very excited about this upcoming event! JVS has taught me a lot on the financial literacy side, from mutual funds to foreclosure prevention. I help with data entry and making sure information in our systems is updated for clients that utilize JVS services. This experience has been beneficial to me because I was able to learn of the different services JVS has to offer while also learning about the community we serve.
Overall my VISTA experience has been tremendous. I have learned and grown a lot in these past six months personally and professionally. This is what makes the VISTA experience worthwhile. I was most happy about participating in the MLK Walk on Martin Luther King Jr. Day with the City of Southfield. I had such a wonderful time!
Happy New Year! I hope you enjoyed the holiday season.
I serve at Oakland University for its community outreach and engagement initiative: Oakland University Pontiac Initiative (Partnership). The Partnership is administered through Oakland University's President’s Office and is essentially a collaboration between the City of Pontiac and Oakland University. My focus area of the project is Workforce Development, and the majority of my time is spent at our community sponsor site, Michigan Works! JobLink Service Center in Pontiac. I engage in activities that provide support and/or facilitate access to workforce development resources and services intended to improve employability and, ultimately lead to employment.
Thus far, I have implemented multiple workforce-related strategic partnerships such as Michigan Works! and Career Dress Boutique for the purpose of equipping women in need of professional attire with quality professional attire, free of charge and to build capacity for both groups. Career Dress Boutique and Oakland University School of Nursing Continuing Education and Pontiac School District (PSD) for the purpose of establishing relationships and dressing students in the health care job-training programs for success. Furthermore, students will also receive vouchers for free medical scrubs once they are hired in the healthcare field. By connecting Pontiac nonprofit organization Career Dress Boutique with Oakland University, Michigan Works! and PSD fosters positive working relationships amongst the collective and allows people in need equal access to professional attire who would not otherwise have the opportunity to purchase such clothing. Likewise, silos are dismantled, and everyone can start to embrace opportunities to work together on workforce-related projects which align with Oakland University and Michigan Works! mission.
As a Global Career Development Facilitator (GCDF), I always share workforce information. Moreover, I have accomplished some of my VISTA Assignment Description (VAD) goals including presenting Employability workshops such as Elevator Speeches/ Professional Small Talk for Career Success at Oakland University and Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA). Similarly, I have created and updated marketing materials at Michigan Works! and shared workforce resources and services information with over ten local employers and tons of job seekers. I continue to share resources including landscape scans and community assessments of Education and Training programs, Skilled Trades programs, Networking and Career Fairs, Veteran and Out-of-School Youth (OSY) workforce programs, and companies who are looking for talent. Going forward, some areas of opportunity include reaching more job seekers (especially Veterans and OSY per my VAD), an Oakland University Career Services partnership, Michigan Works! and Oakland University partnership renewal, Career Pathways exploration for the City of Pontiac and other entities. Overall, my VISTA service experience has been incredibly rewarding and challenging in every sense of the words, both personally and professionally. I look forward to continuing to build capacity, create sustainable solutions, empower Pontiac and Oakland University communities, and serving with an open heart and mind. Go MNA AmeriCorps VISTAs!
Thanks for reading,
Shakita Billy, MBA, GCDF
Hey VISTAs! I’m Karly Koggenhop and I’m a first year AmeriCorps VISTA with the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy. I graduated from Oakland University in Rochester Michigan with a bachelors degree in Political Science, a minor in Sociology, a concentration in international relations, and the intent to go on to law school with a focus in international law.
However, as we all know, life happens. After working for half of 2016 at a law firm, miserable with my meaningless “foot-in-the-door” legal filing job, I realized I was living against a motto I have always sworn by: “Do more than exist.” I spent the next 3 hours filling out a heartfelt and intellectual application focusing on the severe economic and systemic disparities that exist in metro Detroit, an issue I have felt incredibly passionate about even before Detroit began it’s “comeback.” With every word I wrote, I felt more and more compelled to fix the big problems that we talk about, but never do anything about, the hidden problems the rest of the world is unaware of, and the individual circumstances people face that sometimes we simply cannot fight on our own.
In May 2016, I originally accepted an AmeriCorps position in Portland, Oregon beginning in August, however as the summer went on, my anxiety became worse and worse about the move. As I turned down my position with Portland, within a week I had accepted my position with the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy. As a crossfitting, Olympic lifting, yoga-doing, all around health-nut vegetarian, it’s safe to say I am exactly where I need to be.
My position with the College of Pharmacy works directly with the Service Learning for Health Professionals course. My start date in November put me right in the last half of the semester, so this current Winter semester is my chance to really dive in! Our class has over 80 graduate students not only in the college of Pharmacy, but medical school, nursing, public health, social work, and kinesiology, learning about the socio-ecological model of health and health disparities between socio-economic classes while directly serving the Ann Arbor community at over a dozen non-profits in the area. As we settle into the class, I am currently designing lesson plans for Community Action Network’s after school programs and two site-specific health presentations for adults at Peace Neighborhood Center.
My year of service just started, but I can already tell that I will be doing much more than simply existing.
Who knew that volunteering as a Pre-K tutor through Reading Corps would turn out to be such a life changing endeavor for me. Last year I saw a listing on Craigslist for a reading tutor. I thought to myself…“I love reading” “I can tutor", so I applied for the position. One month later I was a full-fledged AmeriCorps member, with 20 kids under me from 7am – 3pm Monday through Friday! It was a great experience, but towards the end of my term I felt called to do something else. I still had a passion for reading and helping others, so I looked for other opportunities within AmeriCorps and that’s when I stumbled upon a listing for Read Muskegon.
It felt like fate. It was a position that I felt uniquely qualified for, I didn’t have to move to another city, and after the interview I felt an immediate comradery with the other staff members. I have been with Read Muskegon now for 6 months and while it has definitely come with its fair share of challenges it is everything I had hoped for and then some. I love working with adults in my community both as learners and tutors, I love doing outreach, and I love the feeling of being a part of something bigger than myself! Read Muskegon has opened many doors for me and has given me the opportunity to meet many amazing people. I can’t wait to see what the next 6 months has in store for me!
Each blog post was written by one of our VISTAs!