5 Ways to Make the Most of Your VISTA Year

By Mary Niedermeyer, Employment and Training Coordinator, CAPI USA

Most of you who are reading this have probably been accepted into the PSEI cohort. If that’s the case, congratulations! Get ready for a challenging yet very rewarding year. Here are 5 tips to help make it your best year yet.

  1.     Get to know your cohort.

For those of you who are coming from out of state, this tip is a given. However, for you Minneapolites, you might wonder, “Why would I do this? I already have enough friends.” The cohort model is one of the most valuable and unique parts of your PSEI experience. For many current PSEI VISTAs, the bi-weekly meeting is a time for some pampering (because let’s be real, as VISTAs, we don’t get a whole lot of pampering). Whether it’s relaxing through feasting on great food (locally catered – we don’t skimp on our food), talking (or venting) with one another about our service, or going on a bike-ride through Northeast Minneapolis to various breweries, the cohort is designed to provide support, growth, and fun during your time as a PSEI VISTA.

  1.        Use your professional development funds.

This might seem like a no brainer. But unless you plan everything out, it is actually harder than it might seem to use up all of your $400 professional development fund. Especially since there are plenty of free opportunities presented by Phillips such as the bi-weekly speakers and well-attended conferences hosted by Minnesota Council of Nonprofits throughout the year. However, using your funds wisely can make your VISTA year even more valuable. Take time to set reasonable goals at the beginning of your service, and then use your professional development funds to help you reach those goals. For example, if one of your goals is to gain experience in grant writing, use your funds to pay for a few grant writing workshops. Through strategically using your professional development funds, you will be able to look back at your service year positively and see how much growth you have reached in just a short time.

  1.        Take initiative at your work.

Not every service site functions like a well-oiled machine and not every supervisor will hold your hand. Therefore, if you receive a supervisor who is not very attentive or a service site that doesn’t seem very organized (a fairly common thing at many nonprofits), do not play the blame game. Instead, take initiative and responsibility for your own experience. Let your supervisor know that you are seeking work to do, and if they don’t have anything for you, ask someone else. As you begin to successfully complete projects and demonstrate your competency, people will take notice. Nonprofits are historically under resourced and understaffed, so if they see that you know your stuff, your responsibilities will slowly grow. Take initiative to make the most out of your year of service!

  1.       Look for leadership opportunities.

Regardless of your experiences (or lack thereof) during college, you are never too young to begin cultivating your leadership. The nonprofit world is thriving in Minnesota, and there are plenty of opportunities for those seeking leadership skills: become a board member for a small nonprofit, join a planning committee for a Minneapolis event, apply for a fellowship program, or volunteer your time at a large nonprofit. Through developing your leadership skills, you will not only be expanding your experience but you will also be setting yourself up for a more positive year and future.

  1.     Network!

During your VISTA year, you will have many networking opportunities. Whether it is through meeting employers at job fairs, connecting with other community based organizations, or just getting to know others in your PSEI Cohort, networking is one of the most valuable assets in this day and age. Networking can seem intimidating and scary but you are not alone. PSEI provides a variety of networking trainings throughout the year that assist with the process and build confidence. Because when it all boils down, networking is all about building meaningful relationships. Not only does networking help you land a job out of the VISTA program (and let’s be real, that’s everyone’s goal), it also enhances your knowledge of “best practices” and helps you perform better in your current position. And who wouldn’t want that?

With these 5 tips, you will be ready to start a stellar year of service! Take a deep breath, and prepare for a life-changing year full of professional development, challenging yet rewarding experiences, and great friends that you will always remember.