AmeriCorps VISTA Marlu Abarca: College Changes Everything in Des Moines

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Marlu AbarcaIowa College Aid has five AmeriCorps VISTA members working on the College Changes Everything  initiative in Des Moines, Burlington, Council Bluffs, Marshalltown and Ottumwa. Marlu Abarca, a graduate of Grinnell College, is on day 52 of her 365 days of service as an AmeriCorps*VISTA for Iowa Campus Compact. Campus Compact is a coalition of college and university presidents committed to fulfilling the public purpose of higher education.

When I first heard there was a volunteer position that was designated as a national service movement to eradicate poverty through education, financial literacy and college access, I thought, “sign me up!” When I told my parents that I was turning down jobs to volunteer for a year…they thought “come back home!”

As someone who is originally from Los Angeles, CA, my parents and I always assumed I’d come back home after graduating from college. But when employment prospects began to appear in Iowa and not in L.A., my parents and I quickly tried to come to terms with the idea of me being 2,000 miles away from home, family and friends—a feeling with which we were much too familiar. As a first generation college student, getting to Iowa was an uphill battle. I attended high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District where the classrooms often overflowed with students, books were in short supply, and students lacked motivation to do well in school. Although I always found doing well in school very rewarding, like many of my fellow Latino “at-risk” peers, I did not fully grasp the significance of going to college.

The college application process was not what I imagined. I quickly had to assimilate into a world of pre-college education. I had to navigate the waters of recommendation letters, resumes and personal statements. Luckily, I had an amazing college counselor who came to my AP Government class to show us how to apply for a PIN on the website. She also helped me become a finalist for the Posse Foundation scholarship, a full-paid tuition scholarship to top-tier colleges and universities around the country. Through this process I found the very place that would spark my interests in working in higher education and college access: Grinnell College.

The thing that made my final high school years stressful and anxiogenic, but also unforgettable, was the very thing that made me aware of gaps in our culture and education system that made it difficult for me to attend and successfully graduate college to begin with. It was my last year interning with Latinas/Latinos Al Exito that made me realize the impact of mentoring and having someone simply explain what college is and how affordable it can be! One of my goals for this year of service is to work closely with the Iowa College Student Aid Commission during the College Changes Everything Campaign and be a resource to Des Moines Public High School students who need help navigating the college admissions and financial aid process as I did just five years ago.

The biggest challenge I see going into my year of service is probably limiting the amount of projects and programs I commit to! With so many great efforts by the Governor and the state of Iowa to address poverty reduction through education, I just don’t see how I am going to hold back involvement. It is something that I have been working to improve during my time at Grinnell—and with such an inviting community on Drake University’s campus, I can already see that participating in some of their student groups’ efforts towards college access may be hard to resist.


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