CHC VISTA Alumni Spotlight: 2010-11 VISTA Rachel Berkowitz reflects on how VISTA service shaped her life

Name: Rachel Berkowitz

AmeriCorps VISTA service term: 2010-2011

Hometown: Plantation, FL

Current location: Atlanta, GA

Education: BA in Anthropology from Northwestern University, MPH candidate 2013 from Rollins School of Public Health, Emory University

1)      What about your VISTA experience influenced where you are today?

My VISTA experience fundamentally shaped my current direction in public health. I worked with a community health coalition in Rice County, MN, supporting collaborations between systems-level organizations and community leaders. I saw the strength of collaboration and community-driven work to improve the wellbeing of an entire community as well as specific families and individuals. I saw the value of a system that was responsive and open. I learned that I love being a part of bringing people together and strengthening a community’s capacity. In my Masters of Public Health program, I am focusing on Community Health and Development within the Global Health department, and I hope to be able to work in the future illuminating the strength of communities and supporting their own work.

2)      What was your most memorable moment as a VISTA?

I am so grateful to have many moments that continue to impact me from my VISTA year. One of my favorite moments is from the Mental Health Coalition meeting that happened in February of 2011. We had spent a great deal of time developing this meeting, inviting individuals from throughout Rice County, and thinking critically about how this meeting could truly jump start conversations around mental health and the Coalition itself. The meeting had its strong and challenging moments, but at one point I remember looking around the room and seeing everyone engaged in passionate conversations about their experiences with mental health resources in the County. To have been a part of initiating these animated conversations, and to realize that people were excited to drive things forward, was so special and impactful. To know now that these conversations provided a beginning to what is now a strong and evolving Coalition far beyond what could have been imagined during that first meeting is such a powerful realization in retrospect. It is proof of the power of collaboration among incredible, dedicated people and engagement with issues of genuine significance to a community.

3)      Describe your current career endeavors.  Who or what is inspiring your work these days?

Currently I am in my second year of a masters of public health program at Emory University. I hope for my career to progress in such a way that I have the opportunity to be a part of community-driven movements for change within the US and outside of the US. I would like to work at a grassroots level and at a broader policy level during the course of my career, advocating for the incorporation of community voice. At this moment, I am not certain of exactly the sort of role I will play or where such a role will be in my immediate next step, but I am certain that I want to continue to be involved in community work that seeks to strengthen the health and wellbeing of community members.

4)      What book should everybody read, and why?

I recently read a wonderful book by political philosopher Michael Sandel entitled Justice.  In it, Sandel presents several philosophical perspectives on the idea and manifestation of justice in society. It was really thought provoking and written in an accessible way (I am far from a philosopher, so the accessibility was much appreciated J). Seeking justice and equity are important driving forces in service-based work, and this book provided a context for reflecting on the meanings behind those powerful words. I know for me it is very easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day and not pause to reflect on what is driving the work and whether or not the approach is the best. I think this book provides guidance for that kind of pause.

5)      What are you passionate about?

If it wasn’t already obvious…I am very passionate about community-driven work. We all have so many gifts and drives within us, and those are the characteristics that ensure lasting, positive, and useful change in a community. Community members know what their community needs and what resources it has. I am passionate about being a part of work driven by those realities and community members that encourages partnership among all different types of resources and professionals.

6)      Do you have any advice for the current 2012-2013 College Health Corps VISTAs?

Based on my experience, my only advice is to relish and reflect on what you are learning from the work you are doing and experience you are having. Good days, bad days, unremarkable days all have lessons and can be a part of your personal evolution. For me at least, trying to keep that in perspective made the bad days seem less horrible (in retrospect, anyways J), enhanced the good days, and gave me a better lens through which to examine the unremarkable days. Taking the time to reflect can also illuminate solutions to problems that may have seemed impossible to move past or highlight problems you may not have realized were there.

 

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