Featured VISTA Blog: Fostering Active Citizenship at the Dewey House
By Karen Obertubbesing
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 second post in a new series that highlights individual VISTAs and the increasingly important work they are doing. This post highlights and was written by Karen Obertubbesing, the AmeriCorps VISTA serving at University of Vermont's Dewey House for Community Engagement. She is a 2016 graduate of UVM's Rubenstein School of Environmental and Natural Resources, where she earned a bachelor's degree in Environmental Studies. Karen is a lover of running, dogs, and currently lives in Burlington, VT.
“Home is where all justice begins.” –Barbara Kingsolver, Small Wonder
A couple of weeks ago I started re-reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Small Wonder and I saw this quote: “Home is where all justice begins.” This quote captures what I believe it is we do at the Dewey House: we create a sense of home and belonging, where students know they matter to the community. We provide access to resources for success through advising, a scholarship program, and opportunities for involvement to establish a sense of community and identity. Using the Dewey House as their home base, students learn about the issues that light their fires and figure out how to use their skills to create positive social change. With Deweys, justice may begin at home but it certainly does not end there.
Most of the residential Deweys are first-time, first-year students, adjusting to college life and all that entails—living independently from family members, coexisting with a roommate or two, managing their own schedules and money, and making new friendships. Some of the Deweys are first generation college students and experience the added challenges of learning to navigate an institution of higher education, perhaps without the support and resources from their families that other students have. Some Deweys experience marginalization in a predominantly white institution, some are searching for affinity among peers around their gender, sexual orientation, or religious identities, and still others are learning how to be successful in the university setting with various other challenges. While the Dewey House is not the only place these differences show up in the student population of over 10,000 students at UVM, we are in a unique position to be able to offer individualized support and resources to our students.
Through the Community Service Scholarship Program, or CSSP, I provide support to over 30 students. The scholarship recipients are required to log at least 80 hours of community engagement per academic year, though many far exceed that requirement. They also submit monthly reflections about their community engagement to further their learning and develop writing skills. In a collaborative effort between the Dewey House and the Student Financial Services office, the CSSP students are selected to create a diverse cohort based on a variety of factors, including the strength of their applications, financial need, and different identity markers such as race, gender, or first-generation college student status. By being a part of CSSP, the students receive financial support to make attending the University of Vermont more affordable and accessible while also receiving social support to facilitate their learning and help foster a sense of civic commitment.
My role as the Dewey House VISTA is essentially to support our student leaders, the Community Service Scholars, and the Dewey House community as a whole. A lot of times, I do this by connecting the Dewey students with on and off campus partners and resources. Sometimes I might connect students with faculty or staff about particular academic or co-curricular opportunities, such as a CSSP student interested in a chickadee banding project or some students who ran a table at Fresh Check Day to support mental health awareness. Sometimes I direct students seeking affinity with peers to our identity centers (Mosaic Center for Students of Color, Women’s Center, LGBTQA+ Center, Interfaith Center). When students are struggling, I may direct them to resources such as the Advising Center, the Tutoring Center, or the Counseling and Psychiatry Services.
At the Dewey House, we are able to provide resources for success and support for development. When students have the right resources and support systems, they are more likely to stay in college, have higher GPAs, and take on more leadership roles, among other benefits. At the Dewey House, we also provide resources specific to community engagement and social justice work so that we go beyond simply making higher education accessible in the short-term through our scholarship program. We support students to look inward to their own experiences, outward to the grand challenges facing the world, and then to get to work on tackling the complex causes of inequity and injustice in all their forms so that one day higher education will be accessible to all. As a VISTA for the Dewey House through Vermont Campus Compact, I see very clearly how what I do supports the goals of making higher education accessible and meaningful for our students while preparing them to be engaged citizens in democracy.
Learn more about Karen's VISTA site, the UVM Dewey House for Community Engagement, at https://www.uvm.edu/~dhrlc/.