CCSNE VISTAs Complete Early Service Training

The Early Service Training (EST) retreat kicked off last week on November 29th with 48 Campus Compact for Southern New England AmeriCorps VISTAs arriving at UMass Amherst. VISTAs traveled from campuses throughout the three states to take a necessary pause, reflect, and learn alongside peers. The EST has historically been situated slightly before the end of the semester – allowing VISTAs to carefully and critically think about their previous months while gaining momentum for the coming semester. This year, our sessions, workshops and speakers fit into three categories: Learning and Reflection on Successes, Addressing Challenges, and Future Planning.

Day 1 Highlights: Learning and Reflection on Successes

Despite their separate journeys, VISTAs have done incredible work on their respective host sites. The first half of day one focused on illuminating personal and professional successes through a facilitated “99 successes” activity.

This reflection and learning trickled over into the six peer-led workshops where VISTAs chose to attend two of the following workshops:
– Cultural Competency
– Financial Literacy
– Curriculum Design
– Utilizing Focus Groups for Research
– Learning Styles
– Self-care & Work-Life Balance

All of the listed workshops were led by VISTAs or VISTA Leaders.

Day 2 Highlights: Addressing Challenges

Day 2 started early (and with lots of caffeine) as VISTAs rotated in smaller groups between three 90-minute sessions led by program staff and VISTA leaders.

Journey Mapping: In this session, VISTAs were challenged to look at their previous months of service as a collective journey: what kept them grounded? What capacity have they already built for their project or partnership? Big or small, what systems, partnerships, procedures, resources, connections are taking root and beginning to sprout? What challenges are they working through with their supervisor/partner(s)? And what skills, knowledge, or resources are need to grow professionally? Responses were individually reported and placed onto a larger illustration and later displayed for the whole group.

Difficult Conversations: As the title suggests, this session sought to embolden VISTAs to feel more confident approaching difficult conversations and provided some tools for practice. It also encouraged participants to create more “learning conversations”: conversations centered around inquiry, paraphrasing, acknowledgement and listening.

Situational Leadership: A model originally coined by Ken Blanchard and Paul Hersey – this session focused on understanding levels of personal competence and commitment on specific tasks then reaching an agreement on supervisor/VISTA needs in order to work together well.

After a day of back-to-back sessions, the evening wrapped up with a time of big picture thinking and storytelling with Dr. John Reiff. Dr. Reiff has worked in civic engagement and service-learning for over 35 years and has paved roads for universities, faculty and students. In his talk entitled “Living for Change”, Dr. Reiff shared his personal journey to building his life and purpose around service. Operating from a deep sense of conviction, Dr. Reiff challenged VISTAs to turn inward and find the causes that sparked passion and work toward seeing the solutions.

Day 3 Highlights: Future Planning

Our last day was characterized by a morning of affirmations as VISTAs expressed gratitude and acknowledgment for the cohort.

In smaller groups, VISTAs filled out and shared action plans for their respective host sites.

Lastly, there was a collective share out where VISTAs vocalized resources/events occurring in their communities, host sites, and partnerships. Events included: walking tours open to the public, volunteer opportunities, poetry slams and a host of others.

Feedback from the EST showed an appreciation for the time and space to deepen cohort relationships. Many VISTAs expressed that it helped sharpen their perspective and refresh them for the coming semester!