VISTA Guest Posts: Teaching to STEM and Back Again
Most people know about Americorps VISTA’s purpose to create or expand programs designed to bring individuals and communities out of poverty. Joining Americorps is an amazing way to make a difference in communities that really need help, and that is the main reason why many people choose to become an Americorps member. It was surely one of the reasons as to why I chose to do a year of service as a VISTA.
However, another one of Americorps VISTA’s purposes that often gets overlooked is how it can help you either change career paths or learn more about yourself before embarking on your journey towards a career. As I approach the end of my year of service, I can absolutely say that the Americorps VISTA program has had this effect on me.
Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to be a teacher. I was confident of this throughout my grade school years, and eventually went to the University of Tampa and graduated with a degree in Elementary Education. My practicum experiences at various schools across Tampa were amazing and rewarding; working in great schools and affluent neighborhoods. I graduated as a certified teacher with the firm belief that I had found what I was meant to do for the rest of my life.
Now, as many recent graduates learn, the job search after graduation can be difficult. I eventually landed a position to teach Language Arts at a Title 1, Renaissance school at an inner city school in Tampa. I like to challenge myself, and thought that teaching the 6th and 7th grades (grades outside of my certification area) would be a great way to advance my skills.
However, as I visited the school and noticed things like the formidable sign in the parking lot warning about vandalism and loss of personal property, spoke with veteran teachers who joked if I would make it past Christmas break, and the paint peeling off the walls of my classroom – my fairy tale experiences in the affluent elementary schools seemed to become more and more irrelevant.
The year I spent teaching at this school (yes – I made it past Christmas break) was the most challenging and yet the most rewarding year of my life. On one hand, I was caught in group fights, sexually harassed, broke up countless physical and verbal conflicts, was consistently cursed out and disrespected, had my classroom destroyed by brawls, confiscated drugs off students, and more.
On the other hand, I also had students come to me on countless occasions to confide in me with information they had never told anyone, write me letters explaining how I was the most influential teacher in their life, made personal visits to students’ homes, worked with some of the greatest people I’ve ever met, and more. I could see that I had made an impact in the lives of students who I built relationships with that I will never forget for the rest of my life.
Needless to say, my last day at this school was an extremely emotional experience, and I felt physically and emotionally exhausted. I was discouraged that after just one year I was feeling burnt out and doubting my stamina to fulfill my life-long desire to be a teacher.
I knew I still wanted to work with youth and in education, but was feeling insecure about myself and my stamina as an educator and as a professional. I also was planning to move to Maryland to be with my boyfriend, and literally had no idea what I wanted to do in terms of continuing my professional development. Disheartened and confused, I began a very random and unorganized search for jobs in the state of Maryland.
It was in this random search that I came across the Maryland Out of School Time Network and their Americorps VISTA program. To be honest, I don’t think I fully understood what their Americorps positions consisted of when I applied, but I knew I would be working to fight poverty and help youth across the state, and that was enough for me at that time.
After applying, I was offered and accepted the Americorps VISTA - STEM Program Coordinator Position, and it was one of the best decisions I have ever made! During my year of service, I have helped create opportunities for young girls to be encouraged to participate in STEM programs, which in turn will help close the gender gap that is so large in STEM careers today.
By encouraging students to participate in STEM programs and get motivated to pursue a STEM career, it guides them towards jobs that will provide them with generous pay and benefits. It also builds a workforce that will help the United States remain competitive in the technological advancement of future jobs.
In addition to helping the youth of Maryland, I really feel that I have come into my own as a professional through my Americorps VISTA experience. I have led the coordination and execution of entire state-wide youth programs, led workshops for experienced professionals, presented in front of school boards, traveled all over the state, written and received monetary grants and in-kind donations, helped to develop the structure of my organization, and more. I have had amazing supervisors who have pushed me to do things that I never thought I could do. All while continuing to pursue my love of education and helping youth.
My experiences as an Americorps VISTA member not only reaffirmed my love for education and helping youth, but also gave me my confidence back as a professional and an educator. It also proved that the risk is worth the reward when it comes to moving to new places and trying new things… which is why I am moving to Beijing, China in the fall to become a classroom teacher again! For those of you who are feeling a little lost in your professional development and career path – I highly encourage considering Americorps VISTA to help guide you. It changed my life and it can change yours too.