VISTA Service in Higher Education: Making College More Equitable
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 Sarah Petrokonis. Sarah is currently serving as the AmeriCorps VISTA Leader for Vermont Campus Compact.
“What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children” (John Dewey).
These are words that reflect the work that the Vermont Campus Compact VISTA program is dedicated to in supporting college access and success for first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented individuals across the state. Low-income students and students of color have historically been excluded from higher education, with deep and longstanding inequities impacting students at a very young. Systemic barriers to education—in addition to a lack of diversity in college faculty, staff, and curriculum—further exclude underrepresented students and perpetuate this issue. When considering that disparities in education attainment are entwined with socioeconomic inequalities, this trend is particularly troubling.
When looking at the higher education landscape in Vermont, AmeriCorps VISTA for Vermont Technical College, Zoe McDonald, explains, “[A lack of] college access isn’t always visible. In central Vermont many students face limited access to transportation, mentors, and demanding high school curriculums. [A lack of] college access also limits which programs students choose to enroll in, their career paths, and lifetime earnings.” Across the nine offices where our VISTAs serve, AmeriCorps volunteers have created sustainable programs and events that work to reverse these trends. Through their service, volunteers have helped to build college aspirations, change defeatist attitudes, expand college access, and ensure college success among first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students.
My first service site as an AmeriCorps VISTA was located in rural Alabama, in a town where the majority of residents were low-income and predominantly African American. I served middle school and high school students in town through a non-profit arts center that provided free classes and other resources to the community. One young student I worked with was exceptionally creative, personable, and bright. He was interested in music and engineering, and at the time was fascinated by the mechanics of roller coasters. But when asked about his aspirations post-high school, he replied that he’d either join the military or become a truck driver—a job his father held, and the route that many young adults took in the community. Other options, he stated, he just didn’t see in the cards for him.
This student’s experience speaks to the data that the Association of American Colleges and Universities has found. Even though black and Hispanic individuals represent 33 percent of the college-age population (ages 18 to 24), they only represent 14 percent of students at the 468 most selective four-year colleges. However, I am happy to say that in the case of this particular student a notable change was made. Spending time with the group of professionals working with the organization—who held college degrees and were artists, carpenters, and professors by trade— shifted his aspirations and gave him a more positive outlook on his future. He not only realized that there were other opportunities after graduating high school, but that those opportunities were also available to him.
Inequities in higher education can also be seen across levels of income, as the gap in attaining degrees is widening across class lines. In 1970, students from high-income families were six times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24 than those from low-income households. In 2013, students from high-income households were eight times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree. In the four decades that have passed, the rate of students from high-income families earning a bachelor degree has nearly doubled, while the rate for low-income students has hardly budged.
To combat this, VISTA sites like Saint Michael’s College are reaching out to middle school and high school students from low-income families to provide support and opportunity to potential first-generation students. AmeriCorps VISTA member, Kirstin Nygaard, recalls a recent event she facilitated for a group of students from a small, rural school in upstate New York. At the beginning of the event, the morale was low and students expressed uncertainty. Conversations amongst students were along the lines of, “College? Maybe I’ll just go to a two year school,” “I’ve never been on a college campus before,” and, “I don’t know anyone who went to college.” However, after spending the afternoon on campus and speaking to college students and recent graduates—some of which were also first-generation college students—interest was piqued and the tone of the group changed.
Kirstin’s service, along with the service of our other AmeriCorps VISTA members, enables students to see college as an option for their future, where before it may have seemed that they didn’t have that choice. Our VISTA program continues to support student-centered programs that sensitively and holistically address the diverse needs of under-represented students across the state. In the process, we are working to reverse problematic trends of low-income students and students of color being excluded from higher education to ensure a more vibrant and equitable higher education landscape.