Sara Sargent: Wellesley College in Partnership with St. Stephen’s Youth Programs

IMG_4003During our close of service MACC retreat on Cape Cod several weeks ago, we were asked to map our personal and professional journey over the past year. It was definitely a challenge to fit everything on one piece of paper and I found that words and pictures were not enough to capture my incredible and complicated experience as a MACC VISTA. However, once I gathered with a small group of my fellow MACC VISTAs to share our maps, it was amazing to reflect on my experience surrounded by a group that went through similar ups and downs and really understood. I feel extremely grateful to have shared this journey with such a compassionate, committed and fun group of people.

This year I served as a MACC AmeriCorps VISTA placed at Wellesley College in the Center for Work and Service in partnership with St. Stephen’s Youth Programs. When I arrived at Wellesley, I very quickly realized that navigating the very distinctive cultures of my two host sites would be an interesting challenge. I also realized that developing community partnerships is a complex process that involves a deep understanding of the community’s needs and the institutional history of the organizations you are working with, and most importantly, clear communication. My idealized view of community engagement and higher education was challenged in a way that helped me to grow and learn about the complexities and the ethical implications of volunteerism and service.

My main project this year focused on supporting and expanding the partnership work of a student led organization on the Wellesley Campus called Stronger Communities, Stronger Schools (SCSS). This organization was established several years ago by a group of students that were serving in the South End neighborhood of Boston through a service learning course. Students in SCSS volunteer with St. Stephen’s Youth Programs and the neighborhood public school, the Blackstone Innovation School. My project this year specifically focused on working with St. Stephen’s to expand a “College/ SAT Prep” program for the teens that staff the afterschool program. Through mentoring the teens, as well as facilitating workshops and helping them fill out their college applications and study for the SAT, the Wellesley volunteers that I advised built meaningful relationships with the teens and helped them navigate the complex process of applying for college. It was very exciting when two of the teens we worked with every week came and told us they had been accepted at some of their top colleges!

A highlight of the year for me was planning two college visits to the Wellesley campus for teens working for St. Stephen’s. Collaborating with the Wellesley mentors, we planned a campus visit that included a panel with first generation college students, visiting the science laboratories and a meal in the dining hall among other things. In their reflections, one student wrote “My favorite moment was when we were able to sit down and ask questions. It helped my understanding of college life and the students going there.”  Another student said, “I learned that many people can feel the same way about things like homesickness/ lack of diversity. That’s how bonds start.” I hope that through building this partnership, the program will expand next year to mentor more teens and provide them with the opportunity to visit Wellesley.

While I hope to leave behind a stronger partnership between Wellesley and St. Stephen’s, I think my most important legacy is the trainings, conversations and relationships I facilitated with Wellesley students that are committed to serving outside “the Wellesley bubble.” I developed a more nuanced understanding of leadership, service and social justice as I learned alongside the students I advised and I grew as a facilitator, advisor and leader. On a campus where community engagement is not a top priority, I have advocated for and supported students that are engaging with the community. Furthermore, I have tried to represent the voice of the community and advocate for the value of community engagement. Building trust and navigating the various expectations, policies and cultures of this world provided me with the skills and perspectives that will help me work for social justice wherever I end up. Thank you to my supervisor Katie, all of my fellow MACC VISTAS, my VISTA leaders and the MACC staff for a year filled with deep conversations, rich learning experiences and lots of belly laughs.

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