Passionate about social justice, Emily Ward, a 25-year-old Colorado native and AmeriCorps VISTA Leader, who previously served with AmeriCorps as a Colorado Reading Corps literacy tutor, continues her journey to help make the world a better place.
Now a California resident, Emily serves as a VISTA leader with the CSU STEM VISTA program at California State University Chancellor’s Office Center for Community Engagement. The CSU STEM VISTA program “provides a one-year national service opportunity for dedicated professionals to apply their skills, knowledge and talents to meet the needs of our STEM students in the California State University system.”
Previously a volunteer with Epic Experience in Colorado, an organization which empowers adult cancer survivors and thrivers to live beyond cancer, Emily will spend the next 9 months helping support the cohort and lead 18 VISTA members who are stationed at the CSU campus.
What inspires you to volunteer?
I find meaning in life through connections with other people, and to me, that’s what volunteering is all about: growing relationships. We are all in this together! We all want to belong, be loved, and be understood. I am continually inspired to volunteer because it brings me in contact with wonderful, diverse people. I want to do what little I can to make this world better for all of us.
Describe your volunteer role.
I am currently serving with the CSU STEM VISTA program as the VISTA Leader. This program is operated via an AmeriCorps VISTA grant to the California State University Chancellor’s Office Center for Community Engagement, and it strives to eliminate race, class, and gender inequities in undergraduate STEM programs. Each of the 18 VISTA members in this year’s cohort are stationed at a CSU campus to build capacity for programs that align with our mission. My job as the leader is to support the cohort. I help design and facilitate professional development trainings, run social media for marketing and recruitment, and offer social-emotional support when members need someone to talk to. The cohort model, and the intensive leadership development and training it provides for the members makes it unique. It is a joy to help my fellow VISTAs maximize their potential in serving historically under-resourced student populations.
What has been the most rewarding part of your work?
My work is so rewarding because it aligns with my personal values of human dignity, equity, compassion, and education. I feel extremely privileged to have the opportunity to work with a team of people who uphold those same values and are so deeply intentional about every aspect of the work we do. No one is perfect, but we all try our very best to bring equity and compassion to the forefront of every meeting, training, guidebook, et cetera.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
My experiences as a volunteer over the years continue to reinforce the truth that everyone has a story. It’s human nature to jump to conclusions about someone based on their behavior in a brief encounter, but you never really know what they are going through. When I served previously with AmeriCorps as a Colorado Reading Corps Literacy Tutor, there was a young boy I tutored who had some challenges regulating his behavior in class. He was a “problem child” for many because they didn’t know his story, his personal struggles, his desire for stable relationships. Throughout the school year, we became very close and his behavior dramatically improved during our sessions. I hold this experience close to my heart and try to remember it when frustrating or discouraging situations arise in everyday life.
Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?
I am so excited to see my current cohort continue to grow through challenges they face during their terms of service! Each one of them brings so much to their respective campuses, and I am honored that I get to assist them. We have an in-person training next week in which we will continue to deepen our understanding of our leadership skills, our identities, and cross-cultural communication. Each member of the leadership team, myself included, has put a lot of effort into the training sessions we designed and will be facilitating: there are going to be some very meaningful conversations and a lot of fun!
Why do you think it’s important for others to give back?
I think it is important for people to volunteer or give back because I truly believe that it is our responsibility to do so. I’ve always loved the MLK quote “no one is free until we are all free.” That sums it up nicely for me.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
Anyone can make a difference. No, you won’t single-handedly fix pervasive, systemic issues, but you can always try. You can always use what power you do possess to help someone else. To lift someone up. To heal yourself and others. To use your voice to speak out against all the “-isms” in this world. I’m just one person, and I’m sure everything I’ve done to help bring about a more equitable society is a mere drop in the ocean—but I can use the skills and talents I have to help my team help others. Our drops matter too.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Emily? Find local volunteer opportunities.