“What are you doing after graduation?”
I bet you can already feel the sweaty palms, smoke-coming-out-of-your-ears, stuttering, fists clenching reaction to those words. Sometimes I’d joke that I would be moving to Iceland, opening a doggy-day care or was going to try to set a world-record for the longest congo line. Graduating virtually mid-pandemic threw me for a loop, just like every other class of 2020 graduate. Before, when The Dreaded Question came up, I never joked that I would move across the country to volunteer for a year. If someone said it to me in one of those petty, passive aggressive moments, I probably would have laughed along in agreement of how unattainable that idea sounded. But, following in the footsteps of 2020, that unthinkable idea happened!
In June 2020, I packed up my car and drove cross country from New Jersey to Tucson, Arizona to begin a year of service with AmeriCorps VISTA. AmeriCorps is a federal, program that employs adults in public service work with a goal of “helping others and meeting critical needs in the community.” AmeriCorps VISTA members focus on capacity building and sustainable programs for the organization they serve full time with, and live on a modest stipend equal to the poverty line in the community they serve. VISTAs also receive an end-of service education stipend and training throughout service. I served as the Diaper Bank of Southern Arizona’s Outreach Coordinator – coordinating diaper and period supply drives, creating new relationships with community partners and clients, and educating the community about diaper need and period poverty.
I could not have asked for a better VISTA site, and I am so thankful for this opportunity. I not only learned about the social service issues that my organization addressed, but I gained skills and knowledge useful in the nonprofit sector that will prepare me for any future job. I found new, varied, informed perspectives from my coworkers, the community, and fellow VISTAs. I explored the beautiful and unique city of Tucson – with its sprawling saguaro cacti, monsoons, Mexican influence, and Sonoran hot dogs. Most of all, I feel more aware of the ways that social services relate to poverty and how community members are the best part of a sustainable solution. I’ll be pursuing my MPH in the fall, and would not have made that decision without my invaluable VISTA experience.
Of course, there are considerations to take when deciding on an AmeriCorps term, or any service time for that matter. For starters, and perhaps the most obvious, is the modest stipend. While the intent is that VISTA members live in and with the community they serve in, I realize that I had a different experience than those in Tucson who live in poverty. I knew that my budget would only last a year, and I had savings to fall back on. Before committing to VISTA, I made sure that I talked with my program coordinators and fully understood the medical support that AmeriCorps provides.
Since I am under 26, I was able to stay on my parent’s insurance and AmeriCorps has programs that help pay for out-of-pocket fees, which was especially useful for insulin and pump supplies in the beginning of the year. My program coordinators also helped my VISTA cohort navigate any social services that people were eligible for, such as SNAP and utility assistance. However, this was the first time in my life that I truly felt like I had to take diabetes affordability into account – something I feel very fortunate and lucky for. Every VISTA gains new perspectives, but this experience in particular was a reality check for me in life with diabetes in the working world.
Similarly to considering the move for college, the move for work or volunteering is also a major factor. Now, there were no health services on campus walking distance away, no RAs, no dining hall – no CDN group chat to turn to when I was 30 minutes from my dorm room and my pump site ripped out and I had no extras. I had to fend for myself, and on top of all that, we were in the middle of a pandemic! I could write another entire blog post about the reflection I had during Covid-19 being high risk, but the biggest takeaway was that I saw moving, working, and meeting new people, for the first time in my life, as a challenge because of diabetes. Of course, a challenge I could face, but a challenge none-the-less. A new personal perspective on what it meant to be independent with diabetes seemed to be a packaged deal with the skills I learned in AmeriCorps. I’m grateful I realized this so I can be more aware of the distinct considerations I need to make when starting something new in the future.
Now, I cannot write in less than 800 words the new experiences and perspectives I gained from AmeriCorps. Topics ranging from climate justice to refugee resettlement mean new things to me than they did one year ago. I am better prepared to live on a budget, to work at a nonprofit, to engage community members in my work, and have new friends from all over the country. I also feel more confident than ever in living independently with diabetes. And, when I hear the “rephrased” Dreaded Question – “What are you doing after AmeriCorps?”, I might not know exactly what I will answer, but if someone says an answer jokingly, I might just consider it!
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