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Home  > Article

Rising Stars: From Peace Corps to Habitat for Humanity

By Ken Siegal

Lisa's passion to make a difference led her on a Peace Corps journey to Jamaica where she spent three years as a Youth At Risk advisor and volunteer coordinator. Now she is making a difference working for Habitat for Humanity.

 
Name: Lisa Nickerson
School: University of Pittsburgh
Major: Social Work
Years Out of College: 2-5
Title: Youth Programs
Company: Habitat for Humanity
 
First Steps

Upon graduating with a BA in Social Work from the University of Pittsburgh, I joined the US Peace Corps.I was inspired in college to apply to join the Peace Corps after two summers of backpacking in Europe. It occurred to me one day while I was traveling in Greece that I could really enjoy living and working internationally and hoped that by using my degree in Social Work, I could make a difference.

Less than two months from graduation, I was living in Jamaica. I initially hoped to be assigned to somewhere far away like Russia or a country in Africa. However, once I got settled into life in Jamaica and began to understand the culture and speak the language,patois, I began to greatly appreciate my assignment. I served in the island for three years. For the first two years, I worked as a Youth At Risk advisor at an elementary school. As a Youth At Risk advisor, I helped to develop literacy and summer camp programs based out of the elementary school.

My big break came in my third year, when I began to work at the Peace Corps Jamaica headquarters in Kingston as a Volunteer Coordinator. This position was open to Peace Corps Volunteers who had completed their term of service and who applied to stay for an additional third year. I felt very lucky to join two other third year Peace Corps Volunteers. I served as a Volunteer Coordinator to the Youth At Risk sector while the two others coordinated volunteers in the Environmental and Water Sanitation sectors.
A defining moment for me during my year as a Volunteer Coordinator was the exposure to the work of the non-profit organization Habitat for Humanity. I volunteered on a Habitat work site in northern Jamaica and became hooked. What appealed to me most about Habitat for Humanity is that it's international operations are much like the Peace Corps. Both organizations will work in nations only where invited and both seek to develop communities and leaders so that programs can become sustainable. After a year of work as a Volunteer Coordinator, my term came to a close and I applied for and received a position as a Youth Programs Manager for Habitat for Humanity International in the United States.

My work in the Peace Corps prepared me in so many ways for my work with Habitat for Humanity. Through the Peace Corps, I began to understand the importance community and leadership development. During my time and work in Jamaica I not only matured but built a great resume. I highly recommend students who are interested international service and development to look into the Peace Corps at www.peacecorps.gov. For those students who are more interested in staying in the United States, there is the domestic program called the AmeriCorps which is also an excellent program for using your skills and developing new ones: http://www.americorps.org/.


From Then to Now

I am am inspired by the students who enthusiastically volunteer with Habitat for Humanity. I meet many students who are motivated to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity simply because they care enough to build houses with families who are living in need of affordable housing. When I see the great things that are accomplished when students are united in the cause for affordable housing, I'm so excited to be a part of the Youth Programs department at Habitat for Humanity.

What is most inspiring about my work is that daily I am a part of developing students and future leaders.
Students that volunteer with Habitat are not only future leaders but also volunteer as current leaders at the campus level at chapter leaders. These chapter leaders will organize other students on their campus into volunteer days with Habitat, lead their fellow students on short term building opportunities, organize advocacy campaigns for affordable housing and raise funds to sponsor Habitat homes in their community. Many students literally graduate and then go on to work with Habitat for Humanity or are inspired to serve in other non-profit sectors. In addition to providing practical leadership opportunities, Youth Programs also provides resources for leaders. Students interested in finding how they can see if their is a chapter on their campus or would like to start one can visit www.habitatyouthprograms.org.


Challenges Faced

The nature and scope of my work has expanded over the last few years. I've realized that in order to keep up with the changes I needed to develop an open mind and willingness to be a life-long learner. I've needed to learn specific skills such as strategic planning and action planning. Other important learning areas have been financial management for non-profits as well as leadership development for volunteer board members. In addition to enrolling in a Graduate program for a degree in Organizational Leadership, I've also been open to learning through seeking out leaders whom I respect. After finding a mentor who has skills in area for which I like to grow, I often seek out opportunities on shadowing these mentors as they work or by asking them specific questions about how it is they do what they do and what they needed to learn in order to get where they are.

Did I Ever Think I'd End Up Here?

I'm very lucky to work for an organization with a vision for the future and works in approximately 100 countries around the world. My goal is fuse my interests in international development with the development of leaders. My degree program is essential to help me reach my goals as the courses point me in the direction of resources and study that help me to better understand specific skills needed in leadership such as knowledge of change management and organizational behavior. My goal for the next few years is to complete my Graduate studies and along the way, incorporate my learning in projects that will serve in the development of Habitat for Humanity.






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