Featured VISTA Blog: Discussions and Reflections on Diversity and Privilege in Higher Education
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 ten 2017-18 VISTA members serving in a variety of offices at six different campuses around Vermont.
Written by Andie Gemme Andie is a Saint Michael's College alumna serving as a VISTA in Champlain College's Office of Diversity and Inclusion.
Sitting in my overheating car in the parking lot of a coffee shop at 7:30 AM about a mile from the beach in Ventura, California, I had no idea what I was about to walk into. All I knew was that I was exhausted and had to drive to Santa Rosa later that day once my friend and I were both done with our job interviews. I had no idea that the phone interview I was about to have for an AmeriCorps position at Champlain College would be the beginning of a life-changing experience. Sounds dramatic, but it’s true. Looking back at last fall and the work I was doing in outdoor education up and down the coast of California, I could never have guessed the drastic shift that was going to occur in my life. Working in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion at Champlain College as a white, straight, cis woman has been complicated and difficult at times, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
The Office of Diversity and Inclusion, or ODI as it is more commonly known, is a safe space on campus for students that may hold different marginalized identities to hang out, relax, be themselves and be around their friends and a community in which they feel most comfortable. The students that I work with are some of the most resilient, strong, and hardworking I have known. The ODI is their home and the students that utilize the ODI and spend time there are their family. My role, since I started last November, has been to be a core part of the team that helps develop programs, work with students, and support the office as it goes through a big period of transition. Since last fall, our staff team in the ODI have been working to keep important programs up and running, while introducing new ones that will keep students engaged and feeling connected to the ODI, Champlain College, and Vermont.
One of the biggest groups of students that we work with are our CARE scholar students, which stands for Champlain’s Achievement, Retention, and Excellence program. This program brings a group of students every year from our partner high schools to Champlain on a scholarship and provides a variety of support programs to assist in the transition to college, Vermont, and a predominantly white institution (PWI). One of the biggest and most important aspects of my role as a VISTA in this office thus far has been spending time with these first year students. Spring semester was the first full semester that I spent at Champlain and I spent a lot of time building relationships with students in my office—so I can better serve them and provide the type of support and programming that they are looking for. This past summer we hired a new Associate Director, Bianca Bellot, while our office space was also renovated and expanded. We head into this fall semester with a fresh face and I am excited about where we are going.
While the actual planning and support of programs is a huge part of my service, the most impactful portion of my service has been connecting with students. Being part of students’ lives and having conversations about privilege, race, and the ways in which these students struggle every day at a PWI has been invaluable. While I constantly struggle with where my own role lies in this space and the best practices for diversity and inclusion work with my own privileged identity, I am overwhelmingly thankful for the opportunity to serve in this office. I am learning every day in this position and educating myself as much as I can so that I can better work with, understand, and support the underrepresented in a diverse student body.
As someone that holds a very privileged identity, it is an uncomfortable process to begin including discussions of race, privilege and power into your everyday language; it becomes exhausting. However, this exhaustion is something that many students have dealt with their whole lives, and it is important to recognize and appreciate that.
Reflecting on what it means to hold my own identities in this and many other spaces has shifted the way I live my life. While I definitely miss living out of my tent sometimes, I believe that the service I am doing to help ensure student’s success in and access to higher education is one of the most important things I could be doing right now. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.