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Get to know a VISTA: Anna Jen

Anna Jen is a former NeighborWorks AmeriCorps VISTA alumna from Fresno, California who served in Roseburg, Oregon at NeighborWorks Umpqua from 2012-2013.

She graduated from Whitworth University with a Bachelor of Arts in international business and will be pursuing her Master of Arts in sustainable international development at the Heller School at Brandeis University this fall.

Currently, Anna works at Neighborhood Partnerships in Portland, Oregon as a Team and Partner Support Specialist working with the Individual Development Account (IDA) program.

VISTA Anna Jen stands next to the Umpqua Local GoodsHow did you hear about the VISTA program? What made you decide to do VISTA? Why VISTA particularly?

I first heard about the AmeriCorps VISTA Program through a few college friends who served the year after we graduated. It seemed like they were working on really interesting projects all over the country. So after two years working and living abroad, I decided to consider VISTA positions as I began to apply for jobs in preparation for my return to the United States. Part of this was because I wanted to gain valuable experience in the nonprofit world and I knew that the VISTA program would be just the platform to do that.

I was particularly drawn to VISTA because of the focus it takes on poverty alleviation. After spending significant time in a developing country, where I was exposed to the harsh reality of extreme poverty and inequity, I wanted to get involved in combating those issues on my home turf. I knew that I wanted to move back to Oregon and work in economic development, and the perfect position came up.

What was your VISTA project? Major project highlights?

My main project was helping to launch a social enterprise retail store, Umpqua Local Goods. The plans were laid before I started my service year, so right at the beginning of my term, my supervisor just let me jump in as part of the team that created the foundation of the store and got it up and running.

Most of my responsibility was to create systems and processes, recruit vendors to sell their goods, implement a point-of-sales system, create a marketing and branding strategy, design the website and social media presence, and do community outreach to get people on board with our mission. After my VISTA year was up, my site hired me on fulltime as a program manager and I was able to continue to run with Umpqua Local Goods, expand it to include a small coffee shop, and help establish it as a staple in the community.
“My VISTA service reinforced my interest in economic development and gave me an incredible experience that has been useful as I pursue my career goals.”

Which social justice issue are you the most passionate about? Have your passions changed after your VISTA year has ended?

I’m passionate about economic development — using business to improve communities and people’s lives. This can take many different shapes, from microfinance to small business development and support, access to capital, and job training programs.

Other issues close to my heart include human rights, particularly combating human trafficking, and empowering women and girls. My VISTA service reinforced my interest in economic development and gave me an incredible experience that has been useful as I pursue my career goals.

Do you feel like your VISTA term has helped in your professional career? If so, how?

Yes, definitely! As a VISTA at a small organization, I was given a lot of freedom to run with my projects. I had a lot of responsibility and learned the ropes of program development and implementation firsthand. I also was able to gain experience in areas that interested me, such as marketing, grant writing, and website development. These skills have proved to be useful since the end of my VISTA term.

What do you currently do?  Do you still work in community building and engagement?

I currently work at a non-profit in Portland that advocates for affordable housing and runs the IDA program — a statewide matched savings initiative that helps low-income people save for a major life purchase (first-time home purchase, higher education, start or expand a small business, home repair, purchase equipment needed to secure gainful employment) and move toward the path to financial stability. For every $1 a participant saves, it is matched with $3, and there’s the potential to have a total of $12,000 by the end of the program. Also, throughout the program, clients go through budgeting and other financial capability classes.

In the fall, I’ll begin my Master's in sustainable international development at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. The program is a year studying in Boston and a year abroad doing a practicum, where I hope to focus my research on economic development programs and services that are being provided to newly arrived refugees in Europe — in an effort to help them get back on their feet and achieve self-sufficiency in their host countries.

Eventually, I’d like to do community building and engagement on an international level by working as a program manager for a major development organization like the United Nations, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, or Mercy Corps.

What is your proudest project memory/accomplishment from your VISTA year?

Working as an integral part of the team that launched Umpqua Local Goods is definitely my biggest accomplishment. Learning the day-to-day responsibilities of opening a small business and keeping it going was a huge learning curve, but helped me develop so many practical skills and learn to appreciate the hard work and challenges that entrepreneurs face.

What was one of the hardest obstacles for you to overcome during your VISTA year? How did you overcome it?

Honestly, I think the hardest obstacle was adjusting to living back in the United States again and being in a new city where I didn’t really know anybody. But the support I received from my service site, the people who I got to know in the community, and the other AmeriCorps members who were also in the Roseburg area, made my year amazing and full of learning and growth.

What advice would you give to someone interested in doing VISTA?

I would say to go for it! Especially if you plan on having a career in the community development field. Serving as a VISTA can be difficult for sure — living on the stipend, working at an organization where you might not have much structure, being away from family and friends, etc. But in the end, you’ll gain valuable experience and a solid look at what it’s like to be in the trenches of non-profit work.

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