Preparing Students for the Future – Preparing the Future for Them

Article Author:
Stefanie Perosa, CAC AmeriCorps VISTA member 2017-2018 with introduction by CAC AmeriCorps VISTA Leader, Christine Doka

Stefanie Perosa is an AmeriCorps VISTA member serving at UT FUTURE. Hailing all the way from the sunny state of Florida, Stefanie came to the East Tennessee hills to make a difference in the lives’ of others – and that she has done.

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What is the UT FUTURE Program?

University of Tennessee’s FUTURE Program is an individualized Post-Secondary Education Program empowering young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities to achieve gainful employment in their communities. Our students take specially designed FUTURE courses (Digital Literacy, Life Skills and Career and Life Planning), audit undergraduate courses and have on and off campus internships. Through these, our students foster their academic, social, vocational, self-advocacy and independent-living skills. Upon completion of the program, students earn a vocational certificate, thereby providing them with access to more financial opportunities. We work to make the University of Tennessee a more inclusive and diverse student body that focuses on our students’ abilities and strengths.

What initially motivated you to serve through AmeriCorps/our program?

Two years ago I graduated from Stetson University in Deland, Florida. When asked what my plans were, the only thing I was sure of was that I didn’t want to go to graduate school yet because I was unsure of what I wanted to pursue. I spoke to a few Peace Corps reps but decided that I wasn’t ready to fully commit. Through my discussions with friends and family about the Peace Corps, I heard about AmeriCorps and kept it in the back of my mind. I took a year off of life-planning to wait tables, teach art to kids, and travel. When my year was up, I applied for a lot of big money-making jobs. These were “techy” jobs in large cities, as I was envisioning myself becoming some cool, successful young professional; a lifestyle that I am not sure I was ready for or would have gained as much from. I’ve always known that I need a job that allows me to work towards some type of greater-good; something service-oriented that aligns with my values and allows me to utilize my strengths. It is also worth noting that I have a very wide-range of interests – this complicates decision-making about grad schools, degrees, careers, hobbies and an array of other big and small life-choices. I decided to apply for AmeriCorps once and for all after doing a little research and seeing the meaningful, compassionate work that can be done. Originally from Florida, I was brought here to Knoxville because my sister goes to school at the University of Tennessee. My mom also moved to Knoxville a year ago. I purposefully looked for an AmeriCorps position so I could be with them. I am so thankful and fortunate that life circumstances brought me up here to the FUTURE Program.

FUTURE at Beardsley

Was there a difference between what you expected and what was reality at your site?

When I initially applied for AmeriCorps, I thought I was signing up for something more State-National-like – for example, performing direct service, being outside often, being active, etc. I did not do my research well enough and applied to be a VISTA, which, as we know, is focused on indirect service. I came to discover that I had an office job. Initially I was less than thrilled because I was selfishly unsure of how much fulfillment I would gain if I wasn’t helping people directly. However, my unpreparedness worked out in my favor…

As for the position itself, I had no idea what to expect, as is with most jobs. Before my first day, and even in my first few weeks, I was scared. I had never worked with young adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities before. I knew I wouldn’t be working with them directly, but I had very limited knowledge on the program operations, our students’ day-to-day activities and how in-depth my interactions would be with them. What if I messed up? These are people’s lives we’re talking about – what if I waste someone’s time, cause someone to get behind, scheduled a mentor incorrectly, etc.? I thought that my interactions with our students would be limited and that my main focus would be strictly on the undergraduate peer mentors that I recruit, schedule and manage as their Peer Mentor Coordinator. I didn’t have a single clue as to what I was doing and I spent many weeks feeling horrible at my job. I felt that I did not yet know enough to suggest and implement ideas that, according to my VAD, I felt as though I was supposed to be having to build capacity. In reality, I needed time to learn and develop a relationship with the program, staff, mentors and students to find my role and place within FUTURE. Throughout this tough learning curve, I never felt unsupported by AmeriCorps staff. My VISTA Leader was great at listening to all I had to say. The staff was present and communicative through a supervisor transition. When my current supervisor came in September, I felt even more supported and valued (I’m so lucky) and was often encouraged that I know more than I think I do. I learned that I may not be able to tackle all of my long-term goals throughout my service-year, but I could definitely take on some of them.

 IMG_6497Although I do work very closely with our volunteer peer mentors, I did develop relationships with our FUTURE students. Because I didn’t have any experience with I/DD, I acted based off of basic instinct; to listen as intently as I would anyone else, to care, to be present and to overall treat our students as people, (because they are people!) – with hearts, minds, feelings, ideas, wants, needs, strengths, weaknesses, and goals. I learned quickly that in order to be efficient and effective in this position, I had to get to know our students and how they need to be best supported, because I schedule, train and manage that support. It just so happens that one of my strengths (thanks, StrengthsFinder) is Individualization – a value that we as a program take pride in, implement daily and work hard to maintain. I am continuing to learn about our students, to strengthen my relationships with them and to ultimately better advise my mentors. These friendships, and the level of trust this circle has developed, has taught me more than I ever could have expected; about the disability community, about physical accessibility and employment and educational accessibility, about disability rights, about the impacts that mentors make, about volunteer motivations, about post-secondary education programs around the state, about family dynamics, and about the workings of a large university atmosphere. I went to a small liberal arts school, and part of my learning curve involved understanding the university, the connections, the people, the money, the departments, etc. All of this runs very differently than the small school atmosphere that I became so used to.

I have played an active role in the evolution of this program and I am profoundly thankful for it. I didn’t know that I would come to love the students we serve, the mentors I manage and the colleagues I work with as much as I would. I didn’t know that I would feel so valued, so challenged, so frustrated, so happy and so hopeful all at the same time. I knew I would learn in this position – like how to become a better communicator and how to manage people – but I could never have anticipated the breadth, depth and importance of all that I have learned over these seven months that transcends work-related skills. I have become a better advocate and hopefully a more compassionate, patient and motivated human.

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What has been your single most defining memory thus far?

I do not have a single defining memory, but my favorite memories are an accumulation of moments. Some of those moments include getting thanks from a parent or hearing that a student earned a 100 on an assignment. Some other moments involve problem-identification in our staff meetings, having honest and valuable discussion and implementing strategies for improvement. It’s been the communication and teamwork that has the absolute best intentions for supporting these students. It’s congratulating mentors who got that job, or got into grad school, whom I’ve written recommendation letters for. It’s the impact that this program has had on students’ lives that I got to be a part of, directly or indirectly. It’s increasing the visibility of the program and others like it through shout-outs from the University. It’s UT students submitting interest forms to become new mentors. It’s envisioning the potential for the program and being excited about new opportunities. It’s getting the approval to use the University seal on our students’ vocational certificates.

What has been your greatest challenge?

The amount of time and energy spent at FUTURE without the financial gain was extremely difficult to handle at points. My greatest challenge, however, is not here yet. My greatest challenge will be leaving FUTURE and saying goodbye in May and August (May, because that is when the students leave!) I worked so hard to get to know the students and their families this year, for me to then leave them. I worked hard to get to know my 90 mentors, for me to leave and introduce someone else as their coordinator. Over the summer, I will be working with my supervisor on programmatic things to prepare for our newest FUTURE class, and then leave and not see it all come to fruition. There is so much potential and energy around FUTURE and the university currently – I sense it and feel it all the time. I see what FUTURE can be and I would give anything to be a part of it. It’s going to be incredibly difficult to walk away, but I am so excited for all that is in store for FUTURE and I am thankful that I could be a part of its story.

How has serving with AmeriCorps VISTA helped you in your career path/goals?

As a potential employee or employer, I can look at my boss or my hiring team and advocate for hiring someone with an intellectual or developmental disability or autism, because I have seen first-hand all of the amazing work that they can do. I have learned about and explored graduate programs in social design, and I now know the type of work environment to aim for.

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This blog post is a collection of personal reflections and expressions. All opinions represented are those of the author and do not represent the official opinion or views of the Knoxville – Knox County Community Action Committee, CAC AmeriCorps or any other party referenced.