A Year of Growth and Learning in the AmeriCorps VISTA Fellowship

Three current Brown University AmeriCorps VISTA fellows reflect on their experiences working alongside our partners in Providence.
by Alexander Scheffel '19
April 30, 2020

Brown University VISTA fellows Alexander Scheffel '19, Emma Oliver Heintz, and Loreal “Lo” Bell joined the AmeriCorps VISTA cohort in the fall of 2019 in roles at the Swearer Center, Generation Citizen, and Breakthrough Providence.

While the nature of their work has changed in the past few weeks, our AmeriCorps VISTA fellows continue to collaborate remotely with our team and their placement sites to increase capacity and advance the Swearer Center's mission of building on community strengths and addressing community challenges. In part one of our VISTA spotlight series, they share what attracted them to the program, and how it will influence their next steps.

Alexander Scheffel '19

AmeriCorps VISTA fellow with the Community Partnership Team at the Swearer Center

What made you decide that this was the perfect VISTA program match for you?

I was familiar with the immediate surroundings of Swearer as an alumnus of the university and wanted to contribute my time and service term to the community that had hosted me as an undergraduate.

What’s the most rewarding part of your VISTA experience?

The most rewarding part of my VISTA experience has been meeting the Swearer staff and community partners and interacting and learning more about their organizations. I find it really inspiring to listen to the work that our community organizations are doing to improve and further positively impact the state.

Has your VISTA experience helped to define your career plans?

It has! My dream career is centered on helping others, in whichever capacity that might be. Working with the Swearer Center Community Partnership Team has helped me gain substantive experience in the nonprofit sector, and realize that I enjoy the work involved in coordinating with regional organizations and the local community. I want to further this experience as I take my next steps.

What’s Next?

I am interested in pursuing a career with the U.S. government. Whether that be with the Department of Defense, Justice, or State, I hope to contribute in a meaningful and impactful way.

Loreal “Lo” Bell

AmeriCorps VISTA fellow at Generation Citizen

What do you enjoy most about being a VISTA fellow?

I enjoy my worksite and supporting the Generation Citizen initiative of action civics for all youth. I also enjoy working with college students as well as helping to extend the D.C. program to community members with our Community Corps pilot program.

How was your experience moving to Providence?

With the help of my program director, I was able to find housing before I moved here. I’ve enjoyed the resources with the Brown Fellowship as far as the Brown ID and I’ve encountered friendly people. 

What advice would you offer to any applicants considering the VISTA fellowship?

Understand that sometimes there will be days where you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing and that’s okay. Learn to live in that space and ask your support system for guidance. We all have had moments where we were just figuring it out as we go and eventually we did.

What's next?

Continuing working in the nonprofit world and applying to grad school.

Emma Oliver Heintz 

Communication & Development AmeriCorps VISTA fellow at Breakthrough Providence

What’s the most rewarding part of your VISTA Experience?

If I’m being honest, when I started, Breakthrough Providence (BTP) was a bit of a mystery still! When I learned about BTP, I got the basics from the summary the Swearer Center provided for me, a quick look at the website, and the VISTA assignment description seemed interesting which drew me in. I had already had experience working in a school and a small nonprofit.  So I wondered what a small nonprofit focused on education looks like, how the skills I had could be of use and the skills I wanted to grow or hadn’t had the opportunity to learn would develop there. I went into my VISTA year thinking that BTP looked like a place where I could really learn. Right off the bat, it exceeded my expectations. 

I met the team and getting to know them really made me feel like this was the perfect match for me.  While BTP is small, with four full-time employees including myself, the rest of the team brought such dedication, passion, and hard work. BTP is a part of a larger group called Breakthrough Collaborative that has sites across the United States and one in Hong Kong. But our Providence site brings its own passion to our mission. BTP does not just focus on creating college pathways for academically motivated students and creating a teaching pipeline. We encourage our students to be aware of socially significant identities and systemic issues present in our society. In other words, BTP has a social justice component that makes us unique. 

Has your VISTA experience helped to define your career plans?

It definitely has! At a base level, I want to find a career where I can make the world a better place. There are so many systems throughout the world that are broken or not benefiting everyone. Often as an individual, I get overwhelmed by the fact that I can’t do as much as I want to change the world to be less oppressive; to value human diversity. In fact, at times, changing the world felt hopeless. However, when I began my career search, I wanted to learn more about nonprofits, community development, and what it means to be a social worker. Working at Breakthrough Providence has led me to develop my skills to advocate for people in need. It has really expanded my knowledge of how a small nonprofit runs and everything it takes to make it successful. Moreover, it has encouraged my career aspirations to be a part of this larger conversation as a social worker and look for ways to change or create social policies that prevent oppression, discrimination, and poverty, and support more inclusivity locally and globally. 

What’s Next?

I applied to grad school to pursue a master’s in social work and I got accepted! Starting in fall 2020, I will be attending the University of Connecticut's School of Social Work concentrating in Policy Practice.  

The Brown University AmeriCorps VISTA Fellowship is a full-time, post-graduate service and fellowship opportunity through the Swearer Center at Brown University. VISTA fellows are matched with a local organization, state agency, or a Swearer Center department to build capacity in organizations fighting poverty. To find out more, visit the Brown University AmeriCorps VISTA Fellowship page on our website.