Hi y’all, Maggie Eckerson here! I am the CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA member spearheading the Pathways to College initiative at the Catholic University of America. This project calls on university students to rise up to the challenge and help create pathways for students of color (primarily Black and Hispanic) to reach their post-secondary academic and career goals. This mentoring program, which specifically serves middle school students, provides them with exposure to college and career opportunities, giving students an opportunity to remain engaged with their mentors and to learn more about the skills they will need to be successful in college.
I came to this position with previous Peace Corps experience, which helped me understand the different approaches to service-learning and gave me upfront knowledge of a capacity-building environment. This position however, has opened more doors than Sulley did in Monsters, Inc.
I began my year of service in the off-season, familiarizing myself with the assignment and researching ancient circle practicums to use as a basis for our program. I based our Solidarity Circle program on the Joven Noble curriculum, dedicated to helping students discover their identity, belonging, and purpose on campus. This program would serve as a prerequisite to our Mentoring program.
I quickly learned that recruitment during the height of COVID would take some creativity and imagination. I spent the first month of school tabling in front of the dining hall; banging an ancient Chinese gong, bringing a jumbo three-foot-tall Peep (who would later go viral as a CUA celebrity) or whispering to the Sisters in an attempt to reel folks in! We managed to recruit a solid number of participants for our first Solidarity Circle session and even had multiple students and facilitators eager to extend their sessions! Our Solidarity Circle program helped us raise awareness and recruit mentors for our Middle School Mentoring Program: the main event!
However, COVID put our Solidarity Circles and Mentoring program to the test as positive cases delayed our sessions and also resulted in numerous dropouts. Nevertheless, we persevered and locked in four extremely dedicated mentors (all graduates of our Solidarity Circle program). This success is a testament to the enthusiasm of our students and consistency with our programs. In fact, we got a surprise for our resilience: an all-expenses paid Ziplining excursion!
Many surprise opportunities have come from this position. My boss, Javier Bustamante, the Director for the Center for Cultural Engagement, entrusted me with interviewing candidates for his Assistant Director position, giving me great insight into the panel interview process at a higher education institution. Javier has been such a wonderful supervisor and has allowed me to take the lead on multiple campus-wide events including the Lunar New Year celebration, Global Fest, Coffee Hours and even to introduce two new traditions to campus: Gregorius the Jumbo Peep and Jazz Night as an addition to the annual MLK Teach In!
Let me start with the legend of Gregorius. For Easter, I brought in a rainbow three-foot-tall peep to the Center for Cultural Engagement and opened an interactive hugging and photo booth! I created an Instagram account for the peep and encouraged students to take a photo and tag themselves. I woke up the next morning to over ten messages with photos of the peep. The German club even booked Gregorius for appearances in their meetings and lectures! I’d love to leave Gregorius at the office but he is very special to me (and expensive). Due to the success of the Peep however, The Center for Cultural Engagement has ordered one for their office! The tradition of Gregorius the Peep will continue.
Speaking of traditions, I was so excited to have the opportunity to introduce Jazz Night to the campus! As a new feature for the annual MLK Teach In, I hired my childhood friend and martial arts sparring partner, now one of D.C.’s premiere Jazz artists, Mr. Elijah Jamal Balbed and the EJB Quartet to perform a set and facilitate a Q & A lecture on D.C.’s Jazz History. I was raised in a Jazz household and grew up attending performances at legendary Jazz venues such as Bohemian Caverns, Twins Jazz and Blues Alley. Elijah and I even had the same Clarinet and Saxophone teacher as kids, only he became successful and I was the person introducing him! I am very honored to have established a new tradition to the community and facilitated a business relationship between a loyal friend and Catholic University!
Through my position as an AmeriCorps VISTA member, a couple of business doors have been opened for me as well. I merited an invitation from the Catholic University Sustainability Department Head to serve as a panelist at the annual Catholic University Climate Change Conference. Not only was I able to share the stories of the Q’eqchi Mayan community I lived with as a Peace Corps Health Educator in Belize but I was also given a prime opportunity to network with federal agency professionals as I pursue a career in the federal government. This May, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime to continue my passion as I accompanied Catholic University students as staff photographer on the Service and Justice Immersion program. I traveled to El Salvador and assisted the students in building bridges of solidarity with the poverty-stricken communities of San Salvador. In recognition of my contributions to the Catholic University community, the Vice President of Student Engagement has offered me a position in the Office of the Dean of Students!
Before beginning my current CCMA AmeriCorps VISTA position, I was told by multiple AmeriCorps VISTA alums that the work pace would be slow and uneventful but my experience was quite the opposite! I am incredibly grateful to Javier, my students, and AmeriCorps for giving me more opportunities than I could have asked for in professional development all while having a chance to share my love for culture and jazz with the community!