Spending a Year Post-Grad Volunteering

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This week’s blogger is Luke Elzinga, who studied Advertising at Iowa State University. After graduating, Luke applied and was accepted to the AmeriCorps Volunteers In Service to America (VISTA) program. He is spending a year serving in the communications department of Montana Legal Services Association.

One complaint I often hear from recent graduates, myself included, is that ‘entry-level’ positions require 3-5 years of experience.  Gaining three years of experience in your field of study can be difficult to do as an undergrad, especially if you’re not able to land an internship or can’t afford to accept an unpaid one. Recent college graduates who are either not ready to enter the workforce, or unable to find a full-time job out of college may want to consider applying for AmeriCorps.

VISTA members work full-time for a host agency for a commitment of one year. In return for service, members are provided with orientation and training, a living stipend, transportation costs and a basic health care plan. Upon completion of the one-year term, VISTA members have the option of receiving a cash award or an education award.

I was placed as a VISTA volunteer with the Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA), a non-profit law firm that provides low-income Montanans with free civil legal advice, assistance, and direct representation in some cases.  All VISTA programs seek to reduce and prevent poverty in their communities. VISTAs are not allowed to work directly with clients, but instead serve in capacity building roles with their sponsoring organizations.

What exactly the term ‘capacity building’ means varies from one VISTA placement to the next.  In my communications role at MLSA, my responsibilities include updating social media accounts, designing print materials, drafting blog posts, creating an external communications toolkit and refitting the WordPress-based website with a responsive design, among smaller menial tasks.  While not in the office, I’ve had the opportunity to explore Montana with other AmeriCorps members.

With only two more months to go in my term of service, I’ve begun to look for a job with one more year of experience under my belt.  Serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA with MLSA has prepared me for a career with non-profit organizations. Though I don’t plan on going into legal services, I’ve learned valuable skills I can apply anywhere, and I’ve made some great friends and connections along the way.

For recent graduates looking to enter the nonprofit sector, AmeriCorps programs provide a wide range of choices to gain experience and serve your community. If AmeriCorps interests you, I suggest you research it a bit more.  Visit the AmeriCorps website, read more about the history of AmeriCorps, and once you’re ready, sign up at myamericorps.gov to start searching and applying for open AmeriCorps positions all across the United States.

Selecting a graduate school

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This week we will be featuring guest blogger Sawyer Baker, a graduate student at The George Washington University and intern for Pathways to Housing D.C. This post continues last weeks discussion about graduate school.

Things to consider when selecting a graduate school:

  1. Do your research. Education is an investment…a large, monetary investment. You wouldn’t spend thousands of dollars on a home or car without getting reports or looking at it first, would you? Use college breaks to visit schools, if possible. At the very least, get in touch with the coordinator of the program you are considering. Email him or her. Set up a time to talk via phone. Ask questions. Many times, he or she has more information than you could ever find on a website (and maybe even tips for applying!).
  2. Who is on their faculty? Have their faculty members published research on the topics you are interested in pursuing? Faculty will not only teach you, they are doors to research assistantships. They are also mentors, letter of recommendation writers and guides through the maze of graduate school.
  3. Is the school well known and ranked in your field? While the university or college name itself carries weight, after graduate school comes a career (or more school, but that’s a whole other topic) and you want to be marketable. Make sure the school and degree that follows your name merits its place.
  4. Does the graduate student population seem to be involved? Do they have a student organization? Do they seem to be a community? Yes, there is the depiction that all graduate students do is work, go to class, sleep and do it all again. But there is so much more to it than that. Being involved, just like it is stressed in your high school and undergraduate years, still holds true.
  5. Are there available research and teaching assistantships and fellowships available? This is very, VERY important when funding your education. NOTE: Applications for these usually have their own due dates before the general admissions deadline. Be aware of deadlines!

The list could go on and on, but my best advice would be to decide what you love to do. Go all in. If that means finding a job after undergrad and getting started with your career, then do it. If that means taking two years in a graduate program to dive further in, then do it. Weigh the costs and benefits and go with your instincts because they are usually right—even if they weren’t formulated in a “projected resume” assignment for years ago.

Pursuing Your Passion Through Further Education

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Sawyer HeadshotThis week we will feature guest blogger Sawyer Baker, a graduate student at The George Washington University and intern for Pathways to Housing D.C. Sawyer began her education at Iowa State University, earning degrees in Political Science and Sociology. While earning her degrees, Sawyer had the opportunity to serve as an ex-officio member of the Ames City Council, participate in internships on and off campus and served on the Government of the Student Body, all experiences that helped to guide her decision to continue her education by earning a Master’s of Public Administration. In this first of two blog posts, Sawyer shares her experiences and discusses what drove her to apply to graduate school.

In the fall of 2009, one of my first undergraduate assignments was to craft a “projected resume” based on what my next step after graduating from Iowa State University would be: workforce or more schooling. The intent of this exercise was to make us think critically about steps we would need to take during our undergrad years to align ourselves to be successful after graduation. Fair enough. However, after writing the assignment based on the premise that my next step would be more schooling, I admittedly forgot about it. That is, until I was packing to move to Washington, D.C. for graduate school. I found my “projected resume” in a stack of papers—and to my surprise I had accomplished a lot of my faux goals. I projected being heavily involved in student government, having an internship in D.C. for a summer, traveling abroad and continuing my education after my undergrad, all of which I was able to do.

Today, I am currently a Master of Public Administration Candidate with a field concentration in Homeland Security and Emergency Management Policy at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. So, how did I decide to apply to graduate school?

Timing

I asked myself, “Is it realistic to think that I will return for more schooling after starting a career related to my majors of political science and sociology?” I answered no for two reasons: 1) I heard it was difficult to leave the workforce to return to school because one may be caught-up in his or her career. Additionally, one’s mind is primed for education coming out of undergrad and it may be hard to get back into this mindset (though this could be unfounded). 2) Honestly, I did not know if I could afford to pay back my student loans while working and still have the opportunity to go back to school. I love learning and always view it as an investment. To me, the benefits outweighed the costs.

Opportunities for Professional Development

In my field, hands-on experience is needed. When you start the job hunt for an entry-level position, employers often require 3+ years of experience. But wait! I am just now graduating from undergrad. How am I supposed to get professional experience and a bachelor’s degree at the same time? Even with my multiple internships and campus leadership positions, it was not enough. Going to graduate school gave me this experience. My program features a semester capstone project where, as a team, we do pro bono consulting work for an organization. This direct experience often leads to careers. Capstone aside, the connections, alumni networks and career services have led me to opportunities I would have been unable to participate in with just my bachelor’s degree.

Specialization (well sort of…)

What I love most about graduate school is gaining a broad knowledge base in my field of Public Administration while also being able to dedicate portions of my curriculum to a specialization: Homeland Security and Emergency Management Policy. While a MPA is applicable to many government and non-profit positions, being able to specialize also allows me to hone my skills and direct my opportunities and internships down a path where the final destination is a career.

Location

After having an internship in Washington, D.C., I knew I wanted to come back. Therefore, I narrowed my search for graduate schools in the D.C. metro area. My program lasts 2 years, so why not venture out and live in another part of the country?

These were all factors that lead me to graduate school. Be sure to check back in with the blog next week for tips on selecting a graduate school!

Make Your Résumé Stand Out

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tstegmanThis week’s guest blogger is Tammy Stegman, who has been a Career Coordinator in the College of Business, Career Services Center at Iowa State University since 2007.  She graduated with her undergraduate degree from the University of Northern Iowa and her masters of education from Iowa State University.

Look at your résumé. What do you see? Do you have the typical headings? Objective? Education? Experience? Leadership? Good. But, what you have between those headings is what really counts.

In career services, it is common for us to help students on a daily basis in hopes of creating the perfect résumé. What is our goal? We want to assist job seekers with a résumé that includes all the “required” headings I’ve listed. Beyond that, we want to help create a résumé that stands out from the pack, accurately displays your skills, interests and abilities, shows your well-roundedness and achieves the ultimate goal –securing you an interview.

Ask yourself this question: Do you feel confident enough in your résumé that if you met with the employer of your dreams today, you would want to hand it to them? If your answer is ‘yes’ (typically not the response I get from job seekers) then you are in luck. If you are not confident, here are some strategies you can put in place right now to set yourself apart and feel confident about your résumé.

Experience on your résumé is important. Do you have related experience? Have you had an internship that relates to your major and area of interest? If not, here are some suggestions that you may consider. Volunteer somewhere! If you didn’t have an internship or job that relates to what you want to do – seek out a company or organization that could benefit from your skills and knowledge. I’ve heard many stories from successful people doing well in their fields who attribute their success to volunteer experiences. There are many organizations out there that would be eager to have a student work on the company website for several hours per week. Or look to a non-profit agency that could utilize your services in planning an event or contacting donors. The ideal place to look for a volunteer position may be in a smaller company that does not typically have extensive staff.

Do you have classroom projects on your résumé? Think of all the time and energy you devoted on your own or in a team project for a class. These projects are ideal to include on your résumé under a section entitled: ‘Related Projects’. Describe the purpose or goal of the project, what actions you took to complete it and the results from the work. Include enough information on your résumé about the project so the person reading it gains a true understanding of the work you accomplished.

Are you involved? Join an organization. Recruiters like to see well-rounded job seekers with good grades, work experience and involvement. Find an organization that you can join, attend the meetings, and in turn you’ll learn more about that particular field. Look for one that aligns with your goals and interests. If you are new to the organization or your work/class schedule does not allow you to be in a leadership role – that is okay. Attend the meetings and get as involved as your schedule allows. Easy ways to get involved can include helping to plan a meeting or designing flyers to promote the group. You don’t have to do something big to make an impact.

These ideas I’ve shared can help you enhance your résumé and make it stand apart, instead of merely being another piece of paper. Next, you just have to determine who will get your résumé. Wouldn’t it be great if you felt so confident you would be willing to hand your résumé to the employer of your dreams….RIGHT NOW?

The Benefits of Beginning at a Community College

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Chris BowserThis week Chris Bowser, Dean of Student Services at Indian Hills Community College, will be discussing the benefits of starting your college career at a community college. Prior to this position, Chris served as the Enrollment Services Manager at Kirkwood Community College and has also worked for the Iowa College Access Network. He received a Bachelor’s of Liberal Studies from the University of Northern Iowa and a Master’s in Education Leadership and Policy Studies from Iowa State University, where he is currently pursuing a Ph. D.

There are many reasons why starting your college career at a community college is beneficial.  First, community colleges offer a variety of academic programs.  There are programs available for both students who have the ultimate goal of attending a four-year college or university (two-year programs leading to an Associate’s degrees) in addition to those who are looking to study within a program that leads directly to employment (occupational certificates and diplomas).

Another reason to explore starting your college journey at a community college is cost.  Typically, community college tuition is less expensive than that of a four-year college or university.  This can allow students to complete their academic work at a lower overall cost, giving students the opportunity to save some cash while preparing to transfer or getting the needed skills to enter the job market.

It is important to note that even though the cost of attending a community college is lower, the academic programs offered are of the highest quality.  Because many of the programs on community college campuses are smaller in size, faculty can give more attention to students individually.  There is often an open exchange of ideas between instructors and students that can provide a more in-depth understanding of the material for students.

There is no doubt that an education will be one of the most important investments you will make.  Iowa’s community colleges offer a wide variety of academic programs, services to students, student activities, intercollegiate athletics programs and other reasons to make one of them your home as you begin your educational journey.

Graduate Early with Minimal Debt: Erma’s Story

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This week we will be featuring the first of many guest bloggers. Erma Mujic, a Training Specialist with the GEAR UP Iowa program, managed to graduate high school with 40 college credits and complete a Bachelor’s degree in only five semesters of college, the equivalent of 2 ½ years!  What makes Erma’s story incredibly unique, was the hardships she faced just to have the opportunity to receive a college education. Erma immigrated to the United States from a war torn Bosnia at the age of 12, with very limited knowledge of the English language. In addition to her work with GEAR UP Iowa, she is currently pursuing a Master’s of Public Administration from Drake University.

In my family, the word ‘college’ is equivalent to a future without boundaries. My parents, sisters and I immigrated to Iowa in 2001, after struggling to make ends meet in our native Bosnia. The war left the country and our family devastated. We fled from town to town without money or resources, and when the opportunity presented itself, we decided to try and make a life in the United States. Our story was similar to many other refugee families: this new life provided safety, economic opportunity, and best of all, education. Even while we were fleeing from bombs and poverty, the importance of education was always in the foreground. It was my parents’ expectation that I would get a college degree, one way or another. My dad would have sold the clothes off his back, if it came to that.

Arriving in Iowa was just the start of this journey. The beginning was rough as I could not speak more than five phrases of English, and while I was intelligent and received all A’s back home, that did not matter. Since I couldn’t communicate my ideas, my grades and my social life suffered. I will never forget my first report card. Not one single A was to be found on the page. I was heartbroken. Then I decided that after surviving war, hunger, poverty and fear, I had to survive middle school. I put all my energy into studying and learning English. With hard work, I did not need ESL after 7th grade. In 8th grade, I was invited to attend Central Academy, and this changed my entire life. I was challenged and I loved school again. I spent most of my time studying, but with the amount of reading that was required in each class, my English improved dramatically. I continued to attend Central, and made sure to take advantage of all the dual-credit and AP classes that I could handle. Upon graduating high school, I had earned more than 40 college credits. During my orientation at Drake University, I learned that all my credits would transfer and that I would be well on my way to graduate in two years. I could hardly believe this! I would go to college out of high school with half the work already done!

I was at Drake from August of 2008 to December of 2010, and obtained a Bachelor’s of Arts degree in Law, Politics and Society, as well as a minor in Business. Not only did this save time, but a great deal of money as well. Since I had a 4.2 GPA upon graduating high school and had been actively involved in many extracurricular activities and clubs, I was eligible for scholarships within the community and at Drake. My parents are laborers at a local factory with low wages; therefore I was able to qualify for need-based aid as well. I worked since the age of 14 to help pay for books, gas money and other college expenses. Additionally, I lived at home in Des Moines, sparing myself the room and board costs. By making small payments when I could, and utilizing all merit and need-based aid that I received, I graduated from Drake with less than $5,000 in student loan debt.

By graduating early, with low student loan debt, I was able to start a masters program one year after graduating with my undergraduate degree. This December at 24 years old, I will have completed both degrees.

This year marked 12 years of living in the U.S for me. I have lived equal years in each country which I must admit feels kind of strange. Never did I imagine that my life would lead me to Iowa, and that I would find all the opportunities that I’ve had along the way. What I hope you will take away from my story is that there is a way to make it, no matter what your circumstances are. You have to fight for your own future.

Expert Advice on Acing the College Application Process

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For high school seniors, fall is the height of college application season. Iowa College Aid urges all graduating seniors to begin applying to college if they haven’t already so there will be ample time to make the best decision and meet important deadlines. This process can seem quite daunting, so we encourage students to reach out to counselors, teachers and other education professionals to guide them. We spoke with Coe College Associate Director of Admission Josh Kite so he could share advice with students going through the application process.

Students who feel their high school grades aren’t the best reflection of their capabilities should still apply to schools even if they don’t meet all the admissions requirements. A college or university may have special policies or programs to assist students who performed poorly in high school. It’s up to each student to communicate with respective colleges about how he or she will do better in postsecondary coursework.

“The best thing for students to do in this case is be proactive. For example: students can write why their grades suffered their sophomore year and what they are doing now to get on the right track,” explained Kite.  “The more communication a student has with their admission representative, the better.”

Some colleges and universities will require students to write a personal essay as part of the application process. Topics can range from detailing a significant experience that impacted the student’s life, to discussing a current events topic. Students should take full advantage of this opportunity to display their creativity and individuality.

“I will say one of my favorite parts of reading an application is reviewing the essay or personal statement.  This is an opportunity for students to really think outside of the box and showcase their true personality,” remarked Kite.  “There was a specific student that actually wrote her essay in the form of a puzzle.  I found this to be extremely thought-provoking and actually called the student that night to show my appreciation for her essay.”

Lastly, students shouldn’t forget to relax during the college planning process. There is always help available from the student’s potential college, so enjoy senior year and what’s in store next.

“Breathe. I know this can be a very stressful time for a senior in high school, but this is also one of the most exciting times in an individual’s entire life. Also, please never hesitate to reach out to a college admission counselor for help,” advised Kite. “We are here to guide students through the admission process and there is no question too small or too silly.”