Surprise. That is always the first reaction that I receive when I tell people that I relocated “all the way” from Charlotte, North Carolina to Mansfield as a young twenty-four-year-old guy. That surprise turns into something close to shock once I tell them that I returned to Charlotte from Denmark to visit my parents after finishing my two-year Master’s Degree in Sport and Event Management at the University of Southern Denmark.
Why did you come to Mansfield then?
At first, I was quite confused about this sense of shock about my decision to come here. I thought, “Why not come here? It’s just another city on this planet we call Earth, with human beings just like anywhere else, and with dodgy weather just like… Denmark.” Perhaps I was being too laid back about the situation, being strangely nonchalant about things yet again. Maybe I have no idea what on Earth I’m doing? Maybe I am crazy?
Though it be madness, there be method to it.
My generation is supposedly one that is desperate to make a difference in the world, fight for social good and, as was said in one of my favorite superhero movies X-Men First Class, “to be the better man.” Because of this, I too felt called to dedicate myself to doing something that is not only truly meaningful, but also a genuine challenge for me. After doing a lot of research, I found that the AmeriCorps VISTA program (Volunteers in Service to America) was a perfect fit for this purpose and that the position at NECIC was, simultaneously, a phenomenal challenge for me.
So here I am in Mansfield, about three weeks into my experience as a VISTA. However, I’ve been told that talking too much about oneself is rude, so let’s not make this about me. Given that I am here as an AmeriCorps VISTA member, I want to share what my experience has been like so far.
So far so good
Other than the inhumane amount of paperwork – something that is probably to be expected with any federal program – the process of becoming a VISTA was a pretty unglamorous affair. That said, the most enjoyable part of it was definitely the Pre-Service Orientation, or PSO (note: I was technically not a VISTA yet during the PSO). Close to 150 VISTA members from various states across the Midwest/East Coast attended this three-day training event that took place in Oak Brook, Illinois (a short drive from Chicago O’Hare airport). It was a fantastically educational event where we learned about the theories and perceptions of poverty in America. The greatest benefit of this training was that it prepared us mentally for our upcoming year of service. We absolutely had to get rid of all our biased and flawed perceptions of poverty if we were to succeed in our mission to eradicate poverty. Above all, it was a humbling but refreshing experience (and extremely luxurious, given the beautiful hotel we were placed in).
Undoubtedly the most striking moment of my time as VISTA came when one of my father’s friends asked me about what I do for work. I explained to him that I was about to move to Mansfield to become a VISTA and, unsure if he had ever heard of the program, was about to explain what it was all about. Thankfully, I didn’t have to do this because he knew all about it already, so we just chatted for a while until I had to leave. What made this exchange so memorable was what he said to me as we shook hands in departure:
“Thank you for your service to the country.”
I had honestly never had these words directed to me in all my years of living on this planet. Not only that, but I am probably also the least patriotic person in the world. I absolutely never associate anything that I do to national service even though the term VISTA stands for Volunteers In Service To America. To be frank, I always associated such praise to those in military service. But for some reason, I could not stop thinking about these eight simple words.
At the end of the day, I’m extremely grateful for those words not just because they were extremely kind, but also because they made me realize the most important thing about my upcoming year as VISTA.
This really is much bigger than myself.