AmeriCorps Leader Spotlight – Nathan Wiesehan
Nathan Wiesehan serves as an AmeriCorps VISTA Leader with Campus Compact VISTA in Chicago, Illinois. He has served with Campus Compact VISTA since 2019.
About Your AmeriCorps Experience
I started serving with Campus Compact VISTA in August 2019. My first term of service was hosted by Loyola University Chicago. As an AmeriCorps member at Loyola, I served in a VISTA project operated by the University-School Partners/Schools 2020 initiative in the School of Education. This initiative is informed by the Community Schools Model, which approaches schools as community social centers where students, families, and community members can access services and resources, and engage in intra-community dialogue. Community Schools strive to build partnerships with community organizations to build social support systems that are often lacking in low-income communities.
At Loyola, I was tasked with building capacity for the initiative by creating systems to recruit volunteers from within the university, redeveloping public-facing communication systems for the initiative and partner schools, improving access to professional development opportunities for teachers, applying for grants, developing a unified social-emotional learning implementation strategy, and facilitating the exchange of resources from the university to the schools. While the VISTA project was significantly disrupted by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we reimagined what we could do under the circumstances and I was able to continue to make a lasting impact while working remotely. My time serving at Loyola was wonderful. I was welcomed into the community so graciously, and I consider the experience to be one of my most professionally formative.
Following my amazing experience at Loyola, I chose to serve a second term with Campus Compact as a VISTA Leader, which began in August 2020. My main focus areas have been training and member development, and communication, while also supporting my teammates to succeed in their projects. My major accomplishments include the successful planning and execution of six events, member orientation, eight webinars, and twelve community of practice meetings; the redevelopment of our program’s website; and the development of our new blog, Our Stories: AmeriCorps in Action. I also support our cohort of members with mentorship, regular check-ins, and by facilitating resource sharing. I am most proud of the anti-poverty work that our team enables, which builds capacity to lift people out of poverty in partnership with over fifty host sites across nine states.
Challenges and Successes
Serving as a VISTA Leader during the pandemic has been a wonderfully challenging experience. At the beginning of my term in August 2020, we had very little idea of what the year ahead would look like. We were constantly rethinking and reimagining our program to adjust to the ever-changing circumstances.
With my training and member development focus, we knew immediately that we would have to take a fundamentally different approach to much of our work. In typical program years, many of our events are held in-person, which was not possible due to the restrictions of social distancing. This put us at somewhat of a disadvantage; not only did we need to rethink our events from a logistical standpoint, but we also needed to reimagine what our community could be without the opportunity to meet one another. By creating intentional opportunities to gather virtually, we were able to build a cohesive network of AmeriCorps members serving across the country who could rely on one another for support, guidance, and friendship. With regards to the logistical aspect, we continually tried new things to improve the experience of our virtual meetings and gatherings. It required us to consider the strengths and weaknesses of our media to reimagine our activities so that we could still offer a rich learning experience for our members and supervisors. I learned so much about running virtual meetings, from basic things like how to use Zoom, as well as more fundamental things, like how people behave differently in a virtual meeting compared to an in-person meeting. Ultimately, through trial and error, we were able to continuously improve, and we created and led an amazing slate of programming that I, personally, am extremely proud of.
Another aspect of the VISTA Leader role that I found challenging was supporting our members and supervisors. While this was often a very rewarding part of the role, it required me to learn a new skill set to help them with their problems. I learned how to listen and analyze, how to look for clues that point to the root of an issue, and how to give meaningful guidance to help work to solve the problem. In many ways, this was my favorite aspect of the role. It was also where I felt most challenged to grow as a leader. At times, it was also the most frustrating aspect. It requires patience to let people solve their problems for themselves. It requires creativity to think about problems in a new way. It also requires a level of acceptance with the fact that, as a leader, you can only give people tools for success and it’s up to them to use those tools. Ultimately, I’m proud of all of our AmeriCorps members and supervisors for working together to build capacity to fight poverty, and I’m so grateful that they allowed me to help them succeed in this work.
One accomplishment I’m particularly proud of is the development of our new blog, Our Stories: AmeriCorps in Action. Early on in our communication strategizing, we realized that one of our areas of weaknesses was telling the stories of our members. Our members do amazing capacity building at all sorts of projects, but we were doing not doing enough to share their voices. The blog is one of several projects we developed to allow them to present themselves to the Campus Compact Network and the broader world. By inviting our members to share their experiences with Campus Compact AmeriCorps programs, we give them a platform to present themselves, their projects, and their host sites. Additionally, with these spotlights, we’ve created capacity for our network of AmeriCorps programs by developing content that can be used for recruitment and publicity.
Advice to Future Leaders
Serving as a VISTA leader is honestly one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had. It’s a very unique role. In my experience, it’s a bit like being an event planner, mentor, trainer, facilitator, recruiter, compliance officer, and executive assistant, all at the same time. The beauty of this role is that you aren’t expected to be prepared to do all of these things on your first day. As VISTA leaders, we’re given space to grow and learn alongside the AmeriCorps members that we are supporting. You will have successes and you will make mistakes. The best advice I can give is to take it all in and use the experience to grow yourself. If you come in prepared to learn while you lead, you’ll leave as a stronger person, and the program will be stronger for it.
More Our Stories: AmeriCorps in Action
Our Stories: AmeriCorps in Action
AmeriCorps Member Spotlight – Kase
Our Stories: AmeriCorps in Action
AmeriCorps Member Spotlight – Beth
Our Stories: AmeriCorps in Action
AmeriCorps Leader Spotlight – Nath