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VISTA Fellows program launched by IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs

Seven graduate students from the Indiana University School of Public and Environmental Affairs are the first participants in the SPEA VISTA Fellows Program, a unique initiative in which the students will gain valuable skills and experience while working full time with anti-poverty organizations and agencies in Indiana and around the U.S.

The program, which launched last month, is a partnership between SPEA and the Indiana office of the U.S. Corporation for National and Community Service, the government agency that administers AmeriCorps VISTA, a national service program designed specifically to fight poverty.

"The VISTA Fellows initiative will provide invaluable career development opportunities for SPEA graduate students while assisting local, state and national agencies as they work on pressing problems related to poverty," said David Reingold, executive associate dean of SPEA and director of the VISTA Fellows program. "We are pleased and grateful that several outstanding organizations have already agreed to take part in the program."

Vista Fellows

Inaugural VISTA Fellows include, from left, Carl Urness, Tzu Chun (Celia) Wang, Julia Sorcinelli, Lacey Dannenberg, Bethany Dusseau, Staci Orr and Nicole Brown.

Print-Quality Photo

The VISTA Fellows program places current and former master's degree students from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs with nonprofit organizations and government agencies, where they will enjoy a unique learning experience, gaining insights that will inform their future classroom and research work at SPEA and developing a stronger sense of career goals and possibilities.

The students will work on capacity-building projects that create infrastructure and increase the organizations' efforts to bring people out of poverty. For example, they may research and develop innovative strategies and activities, develop volunteer recruitment and training programs, research and solicit funding opportunities for programs, study the feasibility of program expansion, and determine methods and metrics for measuring success.

The program is the first in in the nation in which students will earn college credit directly through their work as VISTA members. Officials say the program could eventually expand to additional agencies and organizations, and the approach could be adopted in other states and universities.

"SPEA VISTA Fellows is an innovative program that will provide great benefits for the participants, the agencies where they will serve and, most importantly, for individuals and communities who are trying to escape poverty," said Tarah A. Maners, state program specialist with the Indiana office of the Corporation for National and Community Service. "It fits perfectly with the corporation's priority focus areas, which include education and economic opportunity. We welcome this opportunity to partner with SPEA."

Planning for the program, which is funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service, began in late 2010. Program coordinator Megan Siehl joined SPEA this spring to recruit participants and establish partnerships with the departments and agencies that will host them, including New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's Center for Economic Opportunity and the Indiana Housing and Community Development Agency (IHCDA), which will host two VISTA Fellows.

"With the willingness to serve their community and strong research and analytical skills, the SPEA VISTA Fellows will certainly become an integral part of the IHCDA team as we work to create housing opportunity, generate and preserve assets, and revitalize neighborhoods," said Sherry Seiwert, executive director of IHCDA. "By examining our programs and procedures, we can strategically determine the highest and best use of our resources to have a lasting and meaningful impact on our partners and communities throughout Indiana."

Inaugural participants and their placements include:

  • Carl Urness, New York City Center for Economic Opportunity
  • Julia Sorcinelli, IU Office of the Executive Vice President for Regional Affairs, Policy and Planning
  • Tzu Chun "Celia" Wang, Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority
  • Nicole Brown, United Way of Monroe County
  • Lacey Dannenberg, Second Helpings
  • Bethany Dusseau, Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority
  • Staci Orr, Health Foundation of Greater Indianapolis

Sorcinelli and Wang are May 2011 Master of Public Affairs graduates while the others are current students in SPEA's Master of Public Affairs or Master of Science in Environmental Science program.

VISTA Fellows commit to a full year with the program, from August to August. As VISTA participants, they receive a modest living allowance, health care and other benefits. They also earn credit toward their degrees, including the experiential requirement for SPEA master's programs.