A Year of Service by Mary Kate Luft

January 2, 2020

Typing away in a cubicle within the depths of the Clifford and Camille Kendall Academic Center, you can find me, the CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA ACES Career Readiness Coordinator, creating and streamlining career readiness curriculum, providing logistical support for career readiness events, and supporting data analytics and reporting in order to sustain career readiness programming that ensures the Universities at Shady Grove (USG) ACES scholars not only obtain a degree but are ready for post-graduate success.

But wait, what does my super long title even mean? CCMA stands for Campus Compact Mid-Atlantic, a non-profit association of public and private, two- and four-year colleges and universities in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Delaware. CCMA is a collective of higher education institutions committed to advocating for and supporting collaboration between academics and civic engagement. CCMA manages AmeriCorps VISTA projects, where VISTAs are focused on building campus-community partnerships to fight poverty.

And what is VISTA? AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) is a federal service program designed to fight poverty. Think PeaceCorps, but members serve communities in need in the United States rather than abroad. AmeriCorps VISTA members dedicate themselves to a year of service in a community where they serve as a builder of capacity and sustainability for a particular poverty-fighting project.

Now we know what CCMA and AmeriCorps VISTA are, but perhaps you’re still wondering, “What is ACES Career Readiness?” (I do apologize for the large number of acronyms). The ACES Career Readiness Program is housed here at USG, but provides career readiness programming to the larger ACES (Achieving Collegiate Excellence and Success) program in 14 high schools across Montgomery County. The ACES program – a collaboration between Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), Montgomery College (MC), and USG – provides individualized support and interventions in order to increase college enrollment and completion, especially among student groups that are underrepresented in higher education. The Career Readiness component was developed to ensure that students not only obtain baccalaureate degrees, but are also workforce-ready upon graduation. Currently, ACES Career Readiness programming is only provided to eleventh- and twelfth- grade students, but it will continue to expand each year to serve ACES scholars at Montgomery College, and then finally the ACES scholars at USG.

USG ACES students visit the FDA on a career immersion trip.

As you might imagine, a “year of service” is not necessarily the most lucrative or glamorous job. Yet the hardships of low-pay and a long commute are outweighed by the incredibly meaningful work I’m able to do. Although I’ve only served the ACES Career Readiness Program for four months now, I have already witnessed the impact it has on students in the ACES Program. Within my first month of service, I attended my first career immersion trip to Emergent Biosolutions. Many MCPS juniors who had only received a brief introduction to career readiness a few weeks prior were in attendance. I observed the students as they treated the immersion more as a field trip and less as a professional opportunity. A few weeks later, I attended another immersion to the Food and Drug Administration and was taken aback by the impressive level of professionalism exhibited by the MCPS seniors who attended. These students came professionally dressed with notebooks and questions ready, and gave their full attention to the FDA professionals with whom they interacted. The difference between the juniors with little to no career readiness programming and the seniors who had experienced a full year of programming astounded me and illustrated the impact of the ACES Career Readiness program and the need for it. I’m excited imagining how well-developed and prepared these young ACES professionals will be by the end of their time at USG and feel fulfilled knowing that I am playing a role in their and future ACES students’ success.

In addition to serving students in need through professional development, I am gaining professional experience that will help me in my future career. While I am still unsure of exactly what I want to do long-term, I am utilizing my skills in writing, editing, and collaboration, while also building skills in data analysis and reporting, curriculum development, and more. Additionally, I’m gaining experience working with an incredible team in higher education to build a project that develops and changes daily, leaving me a more flexible, creative, and collaborative professional for whatever comes next. I am excited for what the future holds and thankful for my experience as a CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA serving the ACES Career Readiness Team at USG – so far – and am looking forward to continuing my service for the next eight months. Although I could do with fewer acronyms.

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