We 40-somethings are a small (though powerful) sector of AmericorpsVISTA, and I’m thrilled to be part of it. After all, so many of us in VISTA, no matter what our ages, are doing it for the same reasons: to learn and to be inspired. For the past three months I have served in the Civic Engagement division of Michigan Nonprofit Association in Lansing, MI. My wise colleagues here are guiding me in a powerful learning experience.
As a professor of music history, I was looking for exactly this sort of instruction in joining VISTA. After several years as a visiting professor, I wanted to move ahead into higher education policy and advocacy. I wanted to have a broader impact on higher education than I could have by teaching music, to make the system more accessible, protective, and just. But how to fund the training that I would need without adding to my sizeable student debt? Americorps is about learning by doing, and it sounded like a great way to gain this experience. It has been amazing to learn from people here at MNA who work every day to give the students of my home state a better education.
A big part of my tutelage here comes from service with Michigan Campus Compact, an affiliate organization managed by MNA. Our program director Robin Lynn Grinnell, along with colleagues Shelley Long and Mel Steward, has built inspiring programs designed to encourage volunteerism on Michigan campuses, and to help kids gain access to higher education. My assignment at MiCC is to help design a program to support first-generation college students of the state who have tested into review coursework. We want to help them stay in school and thrive. MiCC’s program is based upon Connect2Complete, an initiative of Campus Compact’s national office.
A college success program requires a lot of research and thinking, because success programs are relatively new within higher education. We’re still learning with every new program. For me, this project has meant an immersive study of student support practices. I spent November and December absorbing a formidable array of concepts in educational research: structured pathways, intrusive support, behavioral economics, equity literacy. . . the list goes on. Now, we are preparing a survey that we will send to every college in Michigan, so we can learn even more about what students need from us. Developing a program like this is not a quick process, but our students deserve the diligence. It definitely is worthwhile to see the process through to the end.
No experience in education advocacy is complete without some real-world, peanut-buttery, K-12 projects with the kids, and I’m excited to be coordinating MNA’s signature project for Global Youth Service Day. We just had an inspiring meeting with a prospective partner organization, the Refugee Development Center here in Lansing. The refugees of the RDC exemplify resilience and strength, and at such a young age. The program there, run by the fabulous Erika Brown and Bruce Winters, helps kids to manage their stress with balance. It offers them language arts to help them express themselves, and soccer to keep them strong. Now we are trying to arrange for MNA to support Erika and Bruce in their effort to develop a service learning program for the kids, to help the students become leaders in their new hometown. (As a humanities professor, I have to note that their program is a beautiful example of how useful humanities can be when situated in a real-world context.) We plan to recruit college students as project mentors, and of course the adults and collegians will be learning so much from the kids. It is immensely inspiring to collaborate with so many idealistic younger people who have so much to show the world.
Each blog post was written by one of our VISTAs!