The Far-Reaching Impacts of VISTA Service

Nathaniel Harrison is the Assistant Director at the Tennessee Office for Refugees. He has supported people with refugee status in many ways throughout his career. Recently, he reflected on his service as an AmeriCorps VISTA working with Refugee Youth Mentoring programs in Tennessee.

“Mentoring… is about developing a relationship with someone who cares about you, and having that person walk with you through thick and thin.”

Several months ago, I completed a year of AmeriCorps VISTA service with the Tennessee Office for Refugees. During my service I provided state-level oversight of Refugee Youth Mentoring programing. This included guiding VISTA members placed within refugee resettlement partner agencies as they developed and implemented programs matching refugee youth with members of their community to build skills focused on long-term integration.

When I started my VISTA service, I was the last member to join a six-person VISTA cohort. Early on, I engaged my more experienced colleagues to better understand their vision for the future of each agency’s refugee youth mentoring programs. One of my colleagues shared:

“Mentoring… is about developing a relationship with someone who cares about you, and having that person walk with you through thick and thin. While our mentors can also help with navigating college applications, identifying and setting goals, updating resumes and more, at the end of the day a mentor is someone who encourages you, advocates for you, and cares about you.”

Their words highlight the impact that youth mentoring programs can have on youth and how the power of a personal connection can support individuals though challenges. As I reflect on this comment, I can also relate it to the experience I shared navigating challenges with my VISTA cohort. During our service, each of us were challenged at some time as we developed programming. We struggled to belong as we worked remotely and coped with the precarity of a pandemic world. Throughout our service we supported each other while navigating personal and professional challenges, and we dedicated ourselves to a program that we envisioned could make a difference in people’s lives. Our collective experience navigating challenges strengthened our bond as a cohort just as mentees and mentors do through a mentoring match.

VISTA service brought a group of people in different stages of their lives together, and over time, one by one, our one-year service terms ended. Many of the cohort transitioned from VISTA members to full-time positions with the agencies where they served. Others went on to different challenges in graduate school or in other career opportunities. Over a year later, I still connect with my colleagues from that first VISTA cohort. It’s not as often as I would like, but when we do connect, we still encourage, advocate, and care for each other as we encounter and overcome challenges in our lives – just as mentors and mentees do in the programs we spent our service creating.

In the first year of the program, the Refugee Youth Mentoring Program has grown across the state, building a community of VISTA members, volunteer mentors, and refugee youth.