The University of Arkansas at Monticello has received a federal grant to establish the first local AmeriCorps VISTA project. In the fall, UAM applied for funding to become one of the newest projects of AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America), which is overseen by the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency.
The UAM application outlined opportunities to improve higher educational attainment in southeast Arkansas. Ben Olsen, who has served as the CNS Arkansas state program director since August, had noticed there was not as much of an AmeriCorps presence in the Delta region.
He has been working to engage more regional colleges and universities with VISTA, because few other organizations in the region have the capacity to support such a program.
“On a campus, you have a hub of resources; they work closely with local governments and K-12 school systems. Each project requires a lot of synergy throughout the community. UAM is well-positioned to create that synergy, which is one of the many reasons their application was selected,” Olsen said.
AmeriCorps is a network of national service programs that aim to improve lives and foster civic engagement, VISTA being one of those programs. One of the areas VISTA targets is increasing academic achievement, the subject of the UAM project.
“We’re very excited to be part of the impact the project will have on these seven counties,” said Dr. Karla Hughes, UAM chancellor. “Our region has very high poverty rates and low rates of college attainment. When you don’t have parents or friends who have seen success in higher education, you’re not as likely to attend yourself, or you may not even know where to start,” Hughes said.
In the first year, AmeriCorps VISTA members, who will be based on the UAM campus, will travel to 16 schools in southeast Arkansas to get face time with high school students and their parents. VISTA members will help students identify and overcome their roadblocks to applying to and attending college. Some of the expected barriers are understanding the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), understanding which degrees result in which careers, and when ACT tests need to be taken.
College preparation begins well before the senior year of high school, and the mentoring meetings, starting during the sophomore year of high school, are intended to align students’ high school plans with the programs they want to pursue after graduation.
Recent college graduates are not the only eligible VISTA team members, though Hughes says they may be well-suited as recent navigators of the college application process.
“People who have seen first-hand the challenges of being a first-generation college student may be especially capable of connecting with these students,” said Hughes.
VISTA members must have earned a bachelor’s degree, but are not required to have attended UAM. Olsen explains that universities are in a prime position to recruit for VISTA projects because of their contact with seniors or recent graduates seeking employment.
“It’s a great post-graduation pathway for students,” he said. “VISTA offers meaningful skill-development for volunteers, while serving the communities these students are already living in,” Olsen said.
Each year, the UAM VISTA grant will provide for hiring four VISTA team members who commit to one year of service.
“In meeting with leaders across the Delta, it’s repeatedly brought up that graduates move out of the communities often because of a perceived lack of meaningful ways to stay and continue to make a difference,” said Olsen.
Project goals are to increase the rate of high school graduates who attend college or technical programs, through mentorship of students and families in seven southeast Arkansas counties.
Benefits to serving as a VISTA member include bi-weekly paychecks, a health care allowance, optional room and board plans, state vehicle use, federal non-competitive eligibility status, and an educational award option at the end of their service year.
Awards can be used by members toward past student loan debt or toward continuing their education in the future.
VISTA members will not be recruiting for or driving students to any certain school, and instead will identify programs that align with each individual student’s long-term goals. This includes finding certificate, two-year, and four-year programs that set up that student for career success.
“When more students pursue higher education tracks, we all benefit,” Hughes said. “It’s a symbiotic approach. We’re working with county liaisons and school districts to get more students attending colleges and tech programs. In doing that, these VISTA members will also help us identify ways we can become more accessible to students who are experiencing these barriers to attending college,” Hughes said.
UAM is the only four-year institution in the state that offers open enrollment. In recent years, approximately half of the entering freshmen class at UAM consider themselves first-generation college students.
“Our Southeast Arkansas community is full of young people with high potential. They just don’t always know what options are available to them – what educational opportunities they can pursue,” Hughes said. “It’s our vision that VISTA members will show these students how many doors are open to them and set them up for success on the paths they choose.”
According to Olsen, AmeriCorps VISTA first and foremost serves an anti-poverty mission. Founded during the JFK administration, AmeriCorps VISTA’s stated mission for members is to “bring passion and perseverance where the need is greatest.”
VISTA projects vary, but have similar goals toward reducing poverty and food insecurity, and improving opportunities for economic development.
“UAM’s application was particularly compelling because we can start to address poverty and increase economic opportunities when we enable young people to pursue further educational opportunities,” said Olsen.
UAM is one of five new AmeriCorps VISTA programs in the Arkansas Delta region.