"The first VISTA I worked with and probably the reason I chose VISTA over other things was Jessica Baxter (Peace College VISTA, 2008-09). I feel like she really helped our campus grow as far as recognizing there are things in the community that students can do and getting us pumped about it. It was really an eye-opener for me in realizing what I was passionate about."
Saarah has since shared her passion for service with students at two campuses, Lenoir-Rhyne University and UNC-Chapel Hill. At LR, Saarah instituted the school's first Hunger Banquet, and she started a student group to focus on homelessness and food security. For much of the past year at UNC-Chapel Hill, she has worked to strengthen the SMART mentoring program in collaboration with community partner Volunteers For Youth. The program pairs 20 college students with local 8 to 13-year olds in a year-long relationship. Saarah believes her experience building partnerships with community organizations at LR prepared her for the work she's done with the mentoring program, making her "comfortable" in her role as liaison and capacity-builder.
"I spent a lot of time working with student leaders to solidify a structure that wasn't there before," Saarah explains. "Creating documentation, creating a way to log mentor hours, forms to ease the matching process.... We completely changed the orientation for incoming mentors." She has helped developed skill workshops for mentors and mentees. Now, she is focused on transitioning the project to new staff and even holds Skype meetings with student leaders over the summer to be sure the project is ready to go this fall.
Saarah has also worked with fall, winter, and spring alternative break projects that address Latino issues or rural poverty in eastern North Carolina. To refine those experiences, she visited the partners in Robeson County and in Dunn, clarified needed service activities, and prepared training materials to orient students to the history of the communities. Working with these groups gave Saarah some of her toughest moments as a VISTA, but also one of her proudest.
|Saarah and former VISTA Carolyn Byrne|
Saarah grew up in both Chapel Hill and in Washington, D.C. - "both are home" - and she will head north to Silver Springs, MD when her VISTA term ends. She plans to continue work with non-profits and is especially interested in mentoring programs or organizations that support high-schoolers transitioning to college.
After two years of helping campuses engage with communities, Saarah's advice to future Campus Compact VISTAs working with student leaders is simple: "understanding and listening to student voice is really important." As she learned from her first encounter with an NC Campus Compact VISTA, students have the power and ability to make things happen.