As the year of service comes to a close, our AmeriCorps VISTAs set aside time to reflect on the challenges and victories of the past 12 months. For VISTA Gabe Hernandez, the last year has been a whirlwind of activity.
After finishing his undergraduate degree at Oregon State University, Hernandez looked toward joining Oregon Campus Compact to give back to his hometown community of Woodburn, Ore.
Initially he worked on the Woodburn Grow Your Own Teacher program - a partnership between Chemeketa Community College and Pacific University. The program focuses on increasing college access through mentorship.
Eventually the program piloted into French Prairie, Teach, Learn, and Grow mentoring. Hernandez described his role as capacity building – figuring out how to find mentors and promote the program.
Hernandez not only describes the experience as a success but he also sees potential for it to keep serving the community.
“This program has huge potential to serve Woodburn for years," Hernandez said. "Personally, I feel like there is support system behind it that wants to keep moving and improving."
He added that people in the Woodburn community are taking time off their summer breaks to make sure the next VISTA arrives ready to hit the ground running.
For Gabe, the Teach, Learn, and Grow mentoring provided resources for students that were sorely lacking in Woodburn. In addition, the program brought together the largely Hispanic population of students together with mentors who shared their backgrounds.
In addition to sharing stories and understanding, the mentors provided students with a framework to pursue higher education goals.
"It was very empowering, first couple of sessions they would be shy,” Hernandez said. “But toward the end, many of these students wanted to get on a path where they knew where they could get some help."
Hernandez knows the value of having mentors who can set one on the right path. He describes his AmeriCorps VISTA experience as one that gave him the same motivation that he was giving to the students in Woodburn.
He describes a stellar growth from learning professional etiquette to becoming a keynote speaker for the Crystal Apple Awards.
When Hernandez finished his undergrad degree, he knew that he wanted to go on to graduate school, but he was plagued by the feeling that he was not good enough to get his masters.
Hernandez credits his AmeriCorps experience with developing professional and leadership skills.
“[Oregon Campus Compact] gave the necessary skills to be confident to pursue grad school,” he said. Hernandez is returning to OSU to get his masters in the College of Student Affairs Program. He has also received an assistantship in the Center for Leadership Development that will pay for his tuition. His ultimate goal is to work with students of color at four-year universities.
As for the community in Woodburn, Hernandez said it is hard to leave the position. But he feels optimistic the program will continue to grow and give back.
“I see a bright future for the next VISTA coming in,” he said.