An AmeriCorps VISTA Supervisor Talks Career Readiness at USG

January 14, 2021
by Sara Wells, ACES Career Readiness Manager, Center for Recruitment & Transfer Access, Universities at Shady Grove

When I say “I’m a career coach,” I’m not just talking shop or sharing a former job title.  In actuality, I am letting you in on a core part of my identity.  It gives me unrivaled joy to help others discover the intersection of their skills and passion.  It is my goal to help as many as I can locate the sweet spot where talent and mission intersect to form a financially self-sustaining career. As such, I have committed myself to the cause of increasing career readiness in underserved youth. There is a side effect of this focus on coaching, however – and it means that my colleagues, friends, and family are subject to unsolicited career coaching – whether they want it or not.  No holiday table is safe, even a virtual one.

I think this is why I am so drawn to the AmeriCorps VISTA program.  Thousands of volunteers serve annually, committing a year or more of their lives to capacity building in organizations striving to fight poverty.  Throughout my career, I have had the opportunity to lead and mentor multiple AmeriCorps service members in the non-profit education industry.  Each member I have had the privilege of serving with has been incredibly unique in terms of interests, age, gender, goals, and passions.  Uniting each of them, however – is an interest in gaining professional development experience through service that would allow them to commit to fighting poverty as a long-term career.  What a perfect scenario for an unsolicited career coach!  Over the years I have built lifelong friendships with AmeriCorps service members – and I have seen these incredible volunteers move into positions of leadership – often assuming a position I previously held.  The sense of pride in this cyclical journey of career development is immeasurable.

The true highlight of my involvement with national public service has occurred over the past few years through my organization’s partnership with Campus Compact Mid-Atlantic (CCMA).  Early in my career I knew that I wanted to help young people break free from poverty, but I was admittedly small-minded in my approach to the problem. In my youth, individual people – educators, religious leaders, and volunteers – built meaningful relationships with me that helped to pull me out of generational poverty in rural Appalachia.  Naturally, I set out on a career in which I tried to replicate such service.  And while there will never be a substitute for the power of one-on-one connection and front-line service, my current work has shown me that systemic change is required for lasting and sustainable impact. Alignment with the right capacity building supports can actually make a dent in seemingly insurmountable problems. CCMA is the support that I need in my current role managing career programs for underserved youth at The Universities at Shady Grove (USG).

At USG, we specialize in building academic and career pathways that level the playing field for all to pursue education in Montgomery County, MD. In 2016, I joined our regional education campus, which houses degree programs from nine University System of Maryland institutions. My task was simple: design and implement a career readiness program for 100 mostly first-generation college students. The program should follow them from high school through college degree completion, and the goal would be to see if career readiness made a difference in outcomes and student success. Spoiler alert – it did. Students involved in the Career Experience Opportunities (CEO) Program outperformed their first-generation peers who weren’t in the program on measures of GPA, persistence, degree completion, and career experiences.  Mission accomplished, right?

Without CCMA – perhaps so.  You see, the same week I started at USG, the very first CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA, Melissa Herrera, started on our campus, and she was assigned to work with me.  From day one, CCMA made it clear that the purpose of our AmeriCorps VISTA grant was capacity building and sustainability.  CCMA staff nurtured our pilot program – seeing value in our unique approach to building career skills through civic engagement, progressive career experiences, and coaching.  With guidance and support from CCMA, I sought to provide the AmeriCorps VISTA service member with challenging opportunities to support expansion and sustainability of our project.  Together, we crafted what felt like hundreds of drafts of a strategic plan which would map steps for scaling up the best-practices which proved successful in our little 100-student pilot.  In actuality, we probably only trudged through research and wordsmithing on a half a dozen drafts before we ended up with the final product that would ultimately be approved by the foremost institutional leaders in our county.  With the capacity building support provided by CCMA, our organization was able to scale up a successful career readiness support project to serve 2,500 students annually – an expansion which was approved and funded by leadership at Montgomery County Public School, Montgomery College, and The Universities at Shady Grove.  For her efforts, our CCMA AmeriCorps Service member received the Nick Ramundo AmeriCorps VISTA Member of the Year Award, my patented unsolicited career coaching, and eventually the skills required to beat out other candidates for a full-time position in higher education at The Universities at Shady Grove.

Alone, we would have impacted the career success of 100 students, which is no small feat.  With the collective impact and larger scale focus of Campus Compact Mid Atlantic we were able to do so much more.