A passion for service is a special trait, powerful in an individual and even more effective when that individual is working with a team. Two programs emerging from the University of Mississippi’s College of Liberal Arts are focused on organizing community service efforts to maximize their impact on the UM campus and beyond.
The Volunteers in Service to America, or VISTA, program, established in 1965 and incorporated into AmeriCorps in the 1990s, has had a rapidly expanding presence on campus, growing from one volunteer in 2010-2011 to 23 volunteers in 2013-2014. VISTA volunteers are tasked with finding creative and sustainable ways to develop or expand educational opportunities. To achieve this, they work within and outside the university, serving educational and nonprofit organizations across north Mississippi in exchange for a modest living allowance, health benefits and an education grant.
Allison Van Pelt: AmeriCorps VISTA
“Our VISTAs are doing great things in communities around north Mississippi,” said Stephen Monroe, assistant dean of liberal arts. “They are supporting nonprofits and schools that serve low-income children and adults. Our VISTAs write grants, create and improve programs, recruit volunteers and build bridges back to our flagship university and its many resources.”
In a few short years, north Mississippi VISTA volunteers have racked up many accomplishments, creating new service opportunities and enhancing existing programs. VISTAs partnered with Lafayette County and the LOU Volunteer Center to organize and plan the community’s first ever 9/11 Day of Service and Commemoration and MLK Day of Service. The VISTAs created a peer mentoring program to benefit low-income, first-generation Mississippi college students, and they helped launch the Horizons summer learning program to ensure that low-income children do not experience summer learning loss. The VISTA project at UM is now the largest in Mississippi, and its impact continues to expand.
The UM VISTAs have diverse backgrounds. Some hail from across the country, some have graduate degrees, some have not yet attended college, and many are recent UM graduates who span the disciplines. Their shared qualities are their passion, intelligence and aptitude for communication, Monroe said.
“To serve in VISTA, you have to be willing to live in poverty while you fight poverty, and that’s a big commitment. These are Americans willing to answer the call to national service, and they are making a positive impact on Mississippi—and on our country.”
For many of those volunteers, participation in VISTA has been a successful launching pad to graduate studies; previous volunteers have gone on to study at Vanderbilt, Harvard and other institutions. All participants gain professional experience in grant writing and other marketable skills.
Although VISTA is a one-year limited engagement, the program’s best results occur when VISTA volunteers use their time to set the wheels in motion for sustainable programs that can continue long after their year of service has ended.
The story of VISTA’s first north Mississippi volunteer provides a shining example of how the “pay it forward” effort can work. The volunteer, Hildreth Davis, a retired community college teacher, created a service-learning plan to be implemented through the College of Liberal Arts. Although faculty members had long been interested in incorporating service learning into their classes, there had not yet been an incentive or support to establish the course components. With Davis’s help, Monroe was able to develop a service-learning development plan that resulted in nine new service-learning courses that have benefited more than 600 students. Davis also contributed to the creation of the UM College Corps, a student service leadership organization that now boasts 72 members.
The UM College Corps is a new model for service on campus. Students are assigned to a nonprofit or school in Oxford or Lafayette County for the entire academic year, contributing 10 hours per week. At the end of the year, students who have successfully completed their hours are eligible for the $1,200 Segal AmeriCorps Education Award. Funding from the Mississippi Commission for Volunteer Service is supporting the College Corps. The program has its origins in the College of Liberal Arts, but students from other schools are also participating. Both the service-learning development plan and the College Corps are being supported and encouraged by the McLean Institute for Public Service and Community Engagement.
“Along with many others, I am extremely excited about the creation of the McLean Institute,” Monroe said. “As a university, we needed this coordinating infrastructure. We will now be more organized and more effective as we research and address some of Mississippi’s most pressing problems.”
Mary Margaret Saulters,
College Corps member
The College Corps was formed in response to needs expressed by local leaders who saw a benefit to working one-on-one with students over an extended time. The program has 12 partners. In the last three years, College Corps members have implemented a Spanish language initiative at the Boys and Girls Club, helped the Leap Frog Tutoring Program expand by some 30%, organized food donations for Oxford’s 9/11 day of service, and joined with VISTAs to clean a town park in Como. Also, 17 College Corps members are placed as volunteers in “Jumpstart” programs in two Oxford-Lafayette day care programs that prepare children with the math, language and science skills they need to succeed in kindergarten.
One recent College Corps member, Mary Margaret Saulters, received major recognition for her efforts to remedy regional social and food inequalities, including the 2013 Governor’s Initiative for Volunteer Excellence Outstanding College Student award and a 2013 Newman Civic Fellow accolade from Campus Compact, a civic engagement coalition.
“Through the College Corps, our students are meeting the needs of local nonprofits,” Monroe said. “They are supporting these vital, frontline organizations through reliable and committed service. College Corps members do the things—little and big—that need to be done.”