Looking back on my year as a Richmond Promise Americorps VISTA

By: Sarah Hehrer

When I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree in Social Relations and Policy from Michigan State University in December 2017, I knew that I wanted to work in nonprofits. My peers were attending law school, working on campaigns, and joining lobbying firms, but I always knew that I would be at my best in a nonprofit setting.

So when graduation grew near, I started searching for meaningful, entry-level nonprofit jobs that would get me experience beyond the typical internship. Being an Americorps VISTA member was an option that was really appealing to me, for many reasons. The first is that serving as an Americorps member gave me the opportunity to break out of my comfort zone a little bit and try something new. The second is that as a VISTA, you get assigned projects that are important, work that is meaningful, and you gain professional experience that can otherwise be difficult to achieve as someone just starting their career.

As a first-generation college student who had to work multiple part-time jobs while also taking a full course load, I wasn’t prepared for the challenge of actually starting my career. I had a vague idea of what I wanted to do, but I had no idea how to get there. I had been told for decades that a college degree was the key to landing a good job, but after four and a half years of college and two internships with local nonprofits, I didn’t feel any closer to that than I had been my first semester. I didn’t feel like I was qualified to do anything that seemed appealing or meaningful, but I also did not want to spend time in a job that I knew wouldn’t be satisfying just to make ends meet. Being a VISTA was an attractive option – Americorps ensures that the work VISTAs do is meaningful, impactful, and will benefit both the organization they serve at and the VISTA.

The thing that excited me the most about the Richmond Promise was the people – even in the first interview over the phone, I could tell that the RP team was excited about their work and intensely passionate about the success and well-being of the Richmond Promise Scholars. I really cannot stress enough how satisfying it is to work with a team and for an organization that consistently puts people at the core of their work. I have always felt supported by the Richmond Promise, both professionally and personally. The level of care and compassion displayed by the Richmond Promise towards students, staff, and partners, is unmatched by anything else I have experienced so far.

As a VISTA, you are called to serve nonprofits in ways that build their capacity, to build systems and processes that help to sustain the organization for years to come. My main projects were to help build out our scholarship operations. This includes the application review process, check disbursement, student outreach and communications, and the organizing and analyzing of student data to help us effectively identify how we can best serve our students. I was able to plan and prepare for these tasks, and participate in their implementation, building processes and procedures to help streamline the operation while maintaining equity and keeping our mission student-centered. As my service year draws to a close, I feel confident not only in the quality of the work I did, but also in the lasting positive effects I had on how the Richmond Promise operates.

My favorite part of my experience as an Americorps VISTA with the Richmond Promise is the relationships I’ve built here. My coworkers have become my friends, and through them I have been able to make many more connections, both personal and professional, that have enriched my life in really important ways. Additionally, I have enjoyed working with several of our RP Scholars. Our students are bright, determined, and hardworking, but also intensely kind individuals with incredible senses of humor. Getting to know them and their stories, and learning about their goals helps to put into sharper focus the importance of the work I have been doing with the Richmond Promise over the past year.

A key piece of advice I would give for potential future Americorps VISTAs is to not let the living stipend scare you. It’s definitely not easy living on the stipend – especially in the Bay – but if you can manage it for a year, the professional experience gained, the connections formed and fostered, and the chance to do something unequivocally good makes it so worth it. Being a VISTA with the Richmond Promise has been invaluable to my development as a nonprofit professional, but also as a human trying to move throughout a world that can seem hard and unfair.

Being a part of the Richmond Promise has proven to be a valuable launching pad for my career. I will miss working alongside our amazing RP Scholars and our dedicated RP Team every day, but I also feel excited for my next career step in the nonprofit field and prepared for the challenges that are ahead!

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