Life as a VISTA: A Volunteer in Service to America

“Sorry, but what is a VISTA?” is a phrase I have heard many times when I have tried to explain to those who ask, what it is I do for a living. I have always had a complicated time explaining this. So far, none of my “jobs” have ever been able to fit into a one-word phrase or a sentence of explanation, so I simplify it. “I’m a teacher, I work with the environment, I work with kids.” These things people understand, or at least they can nod their heads and pretend that they get it. I can’t say I’m not guilty of this myself.

There have certainly been times a person tells me they work in business or they have a position working with technology and I have nodded my head and smiled. Everyone has different passions and we don’t all understand them, but what being a VISTA has taught me so far, is that our passions deserve the respect of a full explanation whether people understand it or not. My position as a VISTA isn’t just a job that fills the requirements for my graduate program, being a VISTA means growing professionally and personally. So I will share three major realizations that the VISTA program has taught me so far.

1. Be proud of what you do- it doesn’t matter how much you get paid, or how long our work day is, if you’re answering phones or teaching kids, what matters is how you treat others, your co-workers, customers, and yourself. Being proud of what you do ultimately makes for a healthier and happier work environment. The outcomes are more positive and you end up representing yourself in a more positive way which can lead to creating lasting relationships. Be proud of the work that you do because every person has a purpose.

2. Never stop trying- When we aren’t proud of the work that we do sometimes we stop trying. In the teacher world they call this burn-out, but anyone can experience this. Burn-out from a negative outlook on our jobs is way too common these days. The American 40 hour plus work week can be grueling, and if we aren’t proud of what we’re doing or happy about it, burn-out comes fast and easy. The moment we stop trying is the moment we fail. This might seem like a dramatic statement but think about what drives you, where do these improvements come from? Trying, that’s where they come from. When we try, we’re moving forward, we’re daring to test the waters even when we aren’t sure that it will work. We’re taking a risk because we believe that there is more we can do.

3. Encourage others- as a VISTA we build a community because no one quite knows the experience of being an AmeriCorps VISTA member like other VISTAs. And through this community what I have learned is the importance of lifting each other up. In a world where competition for jobs, recognition, and money is fierce, our support for each other is incredibly important. I’ve learned that we can’t expect to succeed if we don’t work together. Collaboration is key. We can’t expect ourselves to have every answer and every skill, thus relying on others to support our efforts is smart and effective way to improve.

However, even with these realizations I still find myself using some of the same phrases I mentioned above to describe my job as a VISTA and I have come to notice a pattern. Every career I have had this far in my life, elicits a response of, “Oh! Good for you, that must be so hard.” In a condescending tone or “Wow, do you think you will want to do that for the rest of your life?” Receiving these responses to my life’s work has conditioned me to feel a pressure to constantly be looking for a position that “does more” but in reality, I AM doing more just by working hard, being compassionate, and helping to find solutions.

What I have come to question as a new VISTA however is, is anyone ever really “doing enough”? And the answer I think is simply, “no, no one ever is.” There will always be more to do, there will always be more we could be doing. It doesn’t matter if there is always more to do, what matters is that we try. What matters is that we put our whole heart into the work that we do, whether it’s temporary, or a life career whether you’re a lawyer or a sales clerk. Humans are flawed the world is flawed therefore we must try and try again, because there will always be more to do.