Featured VISTA Blog: Increasing Access to Higher Education through College Positive Volunteerism
By Katie Carpenter
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 third post in a series that highlights individual VISTAs and the increasingly important work they are doing. This post highlights and was written by Katie Carpenter, the AmeriCorps VISTA serving at Middlebury College's Center for Community Engagement. Katie is from Philadelphia, PA and is a 2015 graduate of Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY.
As the VCC AmeriCorps VISTA at the Middlebury College Center for Community Engagement, I support the student-run youth and mentoring programs that our office advises. I decided to join AmeriCorps because I was interested in civic engagement, and felt that this role specifically would enable me to learn about the network of organizations doing work to support youth in Addison County and in Vermont. I have not been disappointed, and it’s been a privilege to work with our community partners that do so much in schools and elsewhere to support Addison County children.
The VCC VISTA acts as a youth and mentoring programs coordinator for CCE-advised student organizations and promotes College Positive Volunteerism. College Positive Volunteerism (CPV) is the idea that children and youth who spend time with college students, hang out on college campuses, or talk about college with an adult role model will more easily envision themselves attending a post-secondary institution. To this end, I get to work with students who are connecting with children and teens in the area by leading after school programs, building one-to-one mentoring relationships, participating in group mentoring, running healthy food taste tests, or supporting youth through their college application process.
These programs are important primarily because of the relationships they build. Mentoring, whether 1:1 or in a group, gives a child or young person an opportunity to feel seen and heard by a caring non-familial adult, being given space to make decisions and pursue their interests. In addition, mentoring is especially valuable because the relationship building and shared activities are rewarding for both mentor and mentee, in the same way that any friendship is reciprocal rather than one-way. Likewise, Page 1 Literacy volunteers run after school programs that share a love of reading and stories across ages, with the purpose of creating positive relationships and experiences related to reading and college.
Why do these relationships, and college positivity, matter? Overall, 60% of high school graduates in Vermont continue on to enroll in a post-secondary degree program the following fall (1). Within that statistic, there is a gap based on parents’ level of education. Among students with a parent who completed a 2 or 4 year degree, 72% continued on to enroll in a post-secondary institution, while the enrollment rate among first-generation students was 52%, a 20 percentage point difference (1). There is also a persistent achievement gap due to economic factors; 94.8% of high school freshman who don’t qualify for free or reduced price lunch go on to graduate in four years, while the graduation rate for students who do qualify is 75.2%. This same trend continues after graduation, causing the achievement gap to widen; 60% of students who aren’t eligible for free or reduced price lunch enroll in a post-secondary program within 16 months of graduation, while among students who are eligible only 43% do.
This matters because educational attainment has real impact on an individual’s earnings over their lifetime. Young adults today with a high school diploma have a median annual income of $28,000, while the median annual earnings of young adults with an associate’s degree or some college is $30,000, and for those with bachelor’s degrees, earnings jump to $46,000. College Positive Volunteerism recognizes that completion of a post-secondary degree is strongly tied to socio-economic mobility, and tries to reduce barriers to access that education.
While equity in education is a huge and complex challenge, building relationships can be a critical piece that helps us imagine solutions. I feel lucky to be able to do this work in the Center for Community Engagement, learning from an amazingly knowledgeable and thoughtful group of colleagues.