Featured VISTA Blog: Catalyzing Ambition into Leadership at Green Mountain College
By Evan Cuttitta
VHEC’s AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program, which falls under Vermont Campus Compact, focuses on improving college access and success for first generation, low-income, and underrepresented students in Vermont. VHEC currently has 8 VISTA members serving in a variety of offices at 6 different campuses around Vermont. This is the fifth post in a series that highlights individual VISTAs and the increasingly important work they are doing. This post highlights and was written by Evan Cuttitta, one of two AmeriCorps VISTAs we have serving at Green Mountain College. Evan is from New York City and is a 2016 graduate of the University of Vermont.
I started my college education without a clue of how to succeed. Three grueling semesters of late nights in the library, my stubborn refusal to not seek academic support, and inefficient study techniques ultimately led to a long list of poor grades and many reasons for self-doubt. Yet the solution was not ‘work harder,’ rather, I learned how to revolve my education around applied learning experiences that forced me to discover what I was good at. Now I am a college graduate who holds a degree – and my VISTA title – because of applied learning experiences which uncovered my own abilities to serve my school and community. Thus I am a VISTA to show students how they are leaders, too. Specifically, I support first-generation college attendees determined to learn the expectations of academia, Pell Grant recipients balancing multiple jobs with courses, and conditionally admitted students learning basic study and writing techniques for the first time. Their experiences reveal how barriers to college access and success are not only interdependent of each other, but also part of their daily realities. Therefore, my job is not to eliminate such barriers, but widen their access to and strengthen their support systems so any student can surmount such barriers.
But how do first-year students, particularly those who experience challenges to their college success before arriving, recognize and trust their own capacity to lead? I assumed students’ self-confidence only required strengthening their academic support systems so they could ‘lead’ themselves to a degree. I established protocols for professors to evaluate individual students’ progress, then recruited teaching assistants and tutors to develop new methods of supporting specific classes. Ultimately, I strengthened their networks, but I did not prove to my students how they were strong on their own. As my students increasingly questioned how to deepen their involvement in the GMC community, I realized this approach did not convey the strengths which I already saw in them. Some students assumed they did not have time for extracurriculars, or felt such activities were only for upperclassmen, or simply did not believe they fit the image of a ‘leader.’ Thus building students’ capacity to sustain their own personal investment in their degree required opportunities for success outside the classroom as much as within it.
Research shows that students often will not pursue engaging opportunities on campus without “faculty and student affairs educators who foster the conditions that enable dverse populations of students to be engaged” (Quay and Harper, 2015, 6). Accordingly, I executed the GMC Leadership Expo: 2 panels, each with 5 students who represented leaders in either academic, athletic, administrative, sustainability, student life, or independent leadership. Thirty-three students listened to the flaws and accomplishments of their own tutors to comprehend a realistic image of an Academic Leader. First-year students were suprised to learn the few requirements in starting a club from their own club presidents. More students grasped how to create co-curricular opportunities for themselves based on the entrepreneurial skills of the Independent panelist. Students witnessed how people just like them learned to serve GMC, whether as a Freshman or Senior, in or out of class. My role as their VISTA conveyed academic success more as a holistic involvement in their college community, rather than consuming devotion to classwork. Following the panel, most audience members retrieved applications for the presented positions to act on their goals. Quay and Harper (2015) affirm that students participating in “educationally purposeful acitivities, both inside and outside the clasroom, are more likely to persist through graduation”. Whether or not students acquire their desired positions, this series clarifies their vision of campus involvement.
The GMC Leadership Expo was explicitly designed to showcase various opportunities for campus involvement, regardless of qualifications or class standing. Implictly, this event conveyed GMC as a breeding ground for leadership. These panelists were friends whom I gradually met through many constructive conversations; the professors who supported this event were colleagues I respected; the audience were students who sought personal development and challenge for their benefit. We were all part of Green Mountain College. Yet I believe we became part of the Green Mountain College community because of a prerequisite to leadership we all held in common: ambition. From their first day of college to their last day of this academic year, I witnessed students set new goals with each new acclimation into college life. Meanwhile, I developed relationships with professors and student leaders who communicated their aspirations for the college so their students could receive a quality education. The ambitions for ourselves and others are the common reasons why we do what we do. Because of these experiences during my VISTA term, I cannot envision the next phase of my career path in higher education to reside anywhere else but within a campus built on ambition. As an advocate for experiential learning and a VISTA, I believe my role is to ensure students can act on such ambition outside the classroom.