Mistakes I’ve Made, Lessons I’ve Learned…Wisdom from a Second-Year VISTA

Marissa Pherson, AmeriCorps VISTA

Marissa Pherson, AmeriCorps VISTA

A second-year VISTA and new blogger shares her thoughts with new members of her team.

Over-communicate with everyone! In the beginning, I didn’t communicate enough with off-site program staff. They’re super busy and may not be easy to get in touch with, but be persistent and do your part.

Keep track of names, contact info and the type of contact. Another way to think of this is: Imagine on your way home from work one night you get hit by a bus and are in a coma (god forbid). The world continues to go on without you – whoever has to take over for you needs to have something to go on. Can they figure out your mess of notes?

On this note, start with the end in sight. What about the VISTA that replaces you eventually?  Do you want to have to write a procedures handbook to pass on to them during your last week as a VISTA or do you want to prepare it as you go along? THIS is creating capacity! Don’t make the next VISTA re-invent the wheel you’re building!

Speaking of which – don’t obsess over whether you’re doing too much direct service in the beginning. Especially in the beginning – you don’t know enough about the organization to build its capacity. The first month, at least, is just you getting to know everyone and all the programs and connections you want to make. Set your sights high but be realistic – you don’t know what you need to know yet. You’ll get a TON done in your last few months. Your productivity and capacity building is not going to be at its max your first month – so don’t be hard on yourself for feeling lost.

Direct service and admin work gives you the tools to build capacity. Clearly it’s not your position for your entire term. For example, I did an overnight shift at the shelter in the first month I started. If I was going to be telling people about volunteering at the shelter, I wanted to be able to speak from experience (however limited).

On that note, admit when you have no clue what you’re doing or what you’re (or your boss is) talking about. It’s okay. Don’t pretend. Really. Google it. Ask another VISTA, your supervisor, or a co-worker. Staff will use jargon, acronyms, and terminology that they assume you know. GA, SSI, SSDI, MFIP, Section 8. Flat out ASK – what’s __? It’ll remind them – hey, I just got here – clue me in!

Take advantage of the opportunities presented to you. Think about what you want out of your year. You’ll have access to many opportunities over the course of the year. Recognize these as opportunities for development for your future. Take advantage of these opportunities. Again with thinking with the end in mind: you’ll be looking for a job in about 275 days. So build your network every day. This isn’t being selfish, it’s thinking in your own self-interest. If that means you talk to someone about their job over lunch once a week, you shadow for an hour a week, you sign up for any and all interesting (and cheap) conferences, workshops, networking lunches.

Explore things like institutionalized racism, white privilege, the culture of poverty. The majority of VISTAs I know have their bachelors and know what these terms mean. But when we learned about these big ideas, we didn’t have the same opportunity to see it up close like we can when working within an organization impacting poverty. A disproportionate amount of people who experience homelessness are African American or American Indian/Native American. In what ways could that be a result of institutionalized racism? Is it an indicator of institutionalized racism? What about our culture of violence? Many of the youths who are homeless have been abused.

Look at the big picture. How does all this talk of health care reform, service cuts, and the down economy impact the poor? I’ll give you a hint: the poor are hit hardest by a bad economy than any other group. In what ways are they the most vulnerable? What increases their vulnerability? How is our economy set up?


  • Dress code. There is no dress code at the organization I serve (not true everywhere – look in the personnel handbook…). Ladies – wear what is comfortable for you. Careful with the tight pants, low-cut shirts, skirts, and heels. Take your clothing cues from the women you work with (meaning: keep it casual). Guys don’t have as many options, so they don’t need much advice. Can’t go wrong with a pair of khakis and a shirt with collar until you get a feel for the culture.
  • AmeriCorps VISTA health benefits are pretty good. You might have to make some calls to Seven Corners or your healthcare provider, but it’s worth it. So – if you’re in an ambulance, don’t freak out about how much your trip to the ER and the ambulance will cost you. You’ll be fine!


  • Live frugally – cut the fat in your budget (internet, phone, cable) and spend the rest on what is important to you. – Join a credit union (mine is AMAZING!), pay your bills online, switch to pay-as-you-go cell service, ride the bus (buy a pass by the month if you can), ride your bike more, etc. Frugal doesn’t mean stingy – it’s spending in alignment with your values.
  • Put money in a savings account. Who knows how long it’ll take to find a new job after VISTA? We all need an emergency fund and a retirement fund (remember: we don’t qualify for COBRA or Unemployment). Yeah, we don’t get a 401k or 403b, but we can still set aside a few bucks a week as untouchable. Nobody else is going to pay for our retirement. Might as well start saving now. I have mine in a flexible CD – I can deposit into it, but I can’t withdraw from it as easily as my regular savings account.
  • On that note, read up on personal finance and actually apply it to your life. There are plenty of books at the library about this. (Get a library card if you don’t already have one – make use of InterLibrary Loans!). Online, try Mint.com and MyMoney.gov. They have handy calculators to help you see the reality of interest rates. http://www.lssmn.org/debt has great info too. There are also loads of personal finance blogs and articles. Suze Orman is one of my heroes. Check out suzeorman.com

Online resources on poverty and homelessness (join their e-newsletter lists, follow their blogs, etc):

Career resources:

7 thoughts on “Mistakes I’ve Made, Lessons I’ve Learned…Wisdom from a Second-Year VISTA

  1. Bravo! Well done, well written. I am sure this will help many new VISTAs.

  2. Great advice! It’s always better to hear tips like this directly from a VISTA who is right in the action.

  3. Awesome – the one thing I’d modify here would be the institutional racism research – I wouldn’t limit research/understanding/immersion to this one topic, as it may or may not be relevant for your project.

    My first year as a VISTA was with digital divide issues, so that’s what I really threw myself into, and technology as an educational tool. My second year involved youth prevention (drugs, violence, sex, etc), so focusing on at-risk behaviors, and how these behaviors differ for youth than for adults was what I looked into.

    I think it’s more about being actively engaged – this could be focusing on your project, but it could take other forms. The political side right now of national service is fascinating (to me) . .

  4. Nice job, Marissa!

  5. Thank you Marissa for sharing! Great points to put to use!

  6. Pingback: Really? Another year?: Committing to Another Term of Service « The New Service

  7. Thank you Marissa! This is excellent advice, especially for AmeriCorps, but can apply to nearly anyone new to a profession. Ernie is right too – become actively engaged! We spend so much time in our careers, it becomes a statement about who we are. But don’t let it become your only social outlet – make some friends outside of your AmeriCorps circle. That support network of friends is important to your well-being. If your AmeriCorps adventure takes you to a new city, become familiar with the the city, even if it means studying a map or riding the bus around a few extra times.

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