For VISTA Volunteer, Serving Community Brings Personal, Professional Growth

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At the heart of Iowa College Aid’s mission is the idea that education after high school is possible to every Iowan, regardless of age. To help bring deliver that message, Iowa College Aid’s “College Changes Everything” program works at the community level with a variety of different Iowa towns to help build momentum at the grass roots level.

Key to that success are the community-based VISTA volunteers through AmeriCorps. Celebrating 50 years of Volunteers In Service To America, these volunteers dedicate a year of service to working in towns to help be agents of positive change. In Council Bluffs, IA, Ben Thorp has served as a VISTA member working with the Council Bluffs Community School District as part of the “College Changes Everything” program and other Iowa College Aid programs such as the agency’s “3-Step Process” which helps students apply for college, complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and celebrate college-going during “College Decision Day.” As Ben completes his year of VISTA service, he reflected on his experience serving Iowans:

I didn’t have a lot of expectations about my year of service, about where I was headed or what I was doing, and I think that ended up being for the best. When I got here it was a fairly free-form gig: my job was to figure out how best to serve the school district students get to college, but beyond that description there wasn’t much in the way of guidance.

For me then it became about communicating as much as possible with students, counselors (especially), and teachers to figure out what was needed, what was best, what could be the most helpful. My sense is that this, really, is what community work is all about: working with people to figure out what they need and then finding the best way to provide it. Relationship then, is the most important bridge towards this. Getting to know the people you’re serving personally as well as professionally has been one of the things that I’ve really come to value because it helped me to better understand what kind of work mattered in the community and how I could be a part of it.

I don’t know that there was a moment of “this is why I’m serving” for me, there were certainly moments that were great to be a part of, in particular the kickoff to the Pottawattamie Promise Scholarship program that is providing 40 students in the district with full ride scholarships to attend IWCC in the fall, something they hope to extend to every student in the district by 2018. Overall though, I’m not sure this year answered my bigger questions of how we can create a more equal society and where exactly I belong in that work.

Personally and Professionally is where the biggest changes were made this year. I feel much, much more confident and capable as a person (both as a work person AND as a everyday person person). While this year didn’t carve out exactly what I want to do moving forward it definitely gave me the confidence to pursue the things that I care about which I think has been the better lesson. One of the best pieces of advice I got this year was from a community organizer in Omaha who told me “there are the people who do service work that are there because they think it’s the right thing to do and there are the people who do service work because it’s what they WANT to do. The people who are here because it’s what they want are a million times more helpful.” For better or worse that really spoke to me. I have a a sense of civic duty and a desire to help, but I’m not really sure where best I fit in and what work I can both be engaged and helpful in. For that, I am still searching.

For more information on the AmeriCorps VISTA program, visit their website. For more information on “College Changes Everything,” and to discover more about VISTA openings around the state, visit Iowa College Aid.

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