Self-Reflection as a Professional Practice: Looking Forward to Looking Back

Currently VM is in a state of transition. We are moving into the end of the 2015-2016 service year, and starting to put together the 2016-2017 team. VM has also been moving out of our Baltimore office and into the Crownsville office we called our first home. All of this change has really made me think about the past year: what we have accomplished, what challenges we have been able to resolve, the new friends we’ve made, the skills we’ve strengthened.Reflection like this is good. It’s good at any time in the year when we want to take stock and look at where we’ve been and what we want to do next. Although reflection is not often associated with professional development, nor is it a task we are assigned to do, it’s something that can help us grow in the professional world, because it allows us to examine our experiences. We can find out what it is that makes work fun, we can find out what to avoid in the future, we can find out what we need to work on to make our next project even better. Reflection is all about being future focused on the past.

So for this blog post, I’m going to list some ways you can go about reflecting on your professional experiences. Some are more formal than others, some require more planning than others, but I hope there’s an idea in this list that you can utilize to start your own self-reflection at work.

Volunteer Maryland Coordinators have this one covered! Since the beginning of our service year, we have been completing monthly journals that detail our accomplishments, challenges, and the ever-changing data most of us manage. A professional journal could look similar to monthly reporting, or it could just look like a daily list of
Google Tasks that have been completed or delegated (that’s me).

A new fad right now is the bullet journal which involves a simple system of customizable bullets, completed tasks, and short notes. Check out Buzzfeed’s fun guide to starting your own bullet journal (I’m starting mine now!). Another article I recently read suggested separating journal entries into positive work situations, negative work situations, and work-related tasks. Here’s the article for more information and resources.

Reviewing Completed Projects

Look back at your calendar and look at all of the things you’ve gotten through! Re-discover the narrative of your professional life! Think about what led to the completion of each project–be it brainstorming, budget creation, writing a report, reserving rooms, etc.–and what you learned or experienced through that process. Focus on the new skills (including soft skills like teamwork, adaptability, critical observation) that you have gained or ones that you have always had, but strengthened.

Strategic Questions

Craft a list of questions that are important to you! For example, if you find satisfaction by being challenged in your work, think of some questions that allow you to reflect on the challenge that has gone into your work so far. Here is an example of some questions from a professional dietetics association; most of the questions in that list are general enough that you could actually work straight off of the worksheet.

Group Talk

Gather your peers or your co-workers together for a sit-down, and just talk about your experiences. This conversation could range in formality from being a staff meeting with an agenda or it could just be a talk over lunch. For some of the extroverts or external processors out there, talking with a group can be a great way to better understand your experience as well as everyone else’s.

The Avengers group talk all the time! Especially after nearly apocalyptic situations are averted.
The Avengers group talk all the time! Especially after nearly apocalyptic situations are averted.

Building Strength

The other evening, I had the privilege of attending the kickoff event for the newly launched Baltimore chapter of Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN).  I wasn’t surprised to see familiar faces from other AmeriCorps programs there, looking to continue a career in nonprofits.  I did, however, also enjoy hearing a number of new voices contributing to the discussion, in careers ranging from the police department to a for-profit bank.

YNPN serves as a resource for a new generation entering the nonprofit realm, giving people the opportunity to share ideas, find mentors, and become leaders.  Interestingly, in the panel discussion that took place, the two themes that emerged for me was the dynamic change that will come as a new generation moves into this field, and how to find guidance and mentorship from older, more established people in the nonprofit field.  The idea is that one does not conflict with the other, and that the best growth comes from these working together.  Those were two themes that I have heard before, but never thought of in conjunction before.

It is always valuable to get a new perspective, to hear new voices, on the issues we face.  The evening’s discussions inspired me to examine my actions- to make sure I was doing the best I could to, and not just sticking to comfortable habits during my year of service. We should never be afraid to critically reexamine things, when it comes to how we serve and how we give ourselves room to grow as leaders.  I am already looking forward to what more events the Baltimore chapter of YNPN will host, and what new ideas will come!

What inspires someone to choose service as a career?

Each week at VM, we have a Support Team Meeting, 90 minutes where staff and Peer Leaders come together to share news, update each other on projects, plan for future trainings and events, and – equally important as all of this business – get to know each other and strengthen our team.  Each meeting is facilitated by a different team member and each brings her own flare to the meeting.

At last week’s meeting, Patrice asked each of us to share a service story: a crazy thing that happened to us during an AmeriCorps service year, a memory of our first experience volunteering, the reason we became involved in service, or any variation on that theme.

Now, I’ve been involved in the service field for quite some time and started volunteering with my family when I was in elementary school, so you’d think this would be an easy assignment for me.  I have lots of stories, but what did I want to share?  I thought about when I was a VISTA and had to cancel my big event because of a hurricane.  I thought about all of the adventures I experienced as an NCCC member.  I thought about volunteering with my Dad at the nursing home where he worked when I was a kid.  I though and I thought, then I asked myself a question: When did I realize I wanted to stay in service professionally?  So, after some reflection, that’s the story I told.

I’ve shared before that I was a member of AmeriCorps*NCCC right after college.  In some ways, my real love of service began then.  But I hadn’t decided on service as a career quite yet.  After my NCCC term, I went to work for a nonprofit, a nonprofit that I loved then and love to this day.  It wasn’t a great fit, though and I left after just a year, despite my intentions to stay there a lifetime.  After that, I spent about two years wandering around.  In New York, I worked in television and tried out teaching; I moved to New Orleans and sold kitchenware at a shop in the French Quarter; I moved to Philadelphia and learned to drive a forklift while working at PetSmart.  I was in my twenties and the economy was good, so I enjoyed knowing that I could pack my car and get a job wherever I landed.  (I wish today’s twenty-somethings had the same sense of security, but that’s another story altogether.)

After two years of this, I realized I wanted to get back in the nonprofit sector.  I wanted to get back to where I had started, youth development.  So I applied around and – shock! No one was interested in the girl who couldn’t stay in one place for more than a few months!

Remembering back to my NCCC experience, I decided to look into AmeriCorps*VISTA positions.  I though this could be a good way to re-enter the nonprofit field and get some newer, more relevant experience.  So I did my research and applied to about four different positions around the country.  I interviewed with three, was offered two, and accepted one in Florida.

My VISTA position was with the Florida Community Higher Education School Partnership, a statewide service-learning program that was part of the Florida Alliance for Student Service.  To be honest, I didn’t fully understand the position when I accepted it, but I really connected with my supervisor, and thought I’d be working to support an after-school program, which was right up my youth development alley.  Moving to Florida in January didn’t hurt, either.

What I found is that I was supporting an after-school program, as well as over a dozen more service-learning programs and initiatives throughout the state.  I can’t say I was in love with every aspect of being a VISTA member, but there was a lot I did love about it.  The piece I loved the most was witnessing the real power of service learning – for students in elementary schools all the way up through college.  Service learning made the classroom come alive!  It connected students to their communities!  It helped develop leaders!  I was sold.

I was sold on the idea of service learning and on the idea of a career in service. What I learned is that enabling others to serve was my thing.  Years later, I’m lucky to say that it’s still my thing.  I’ve worked with a small handful of service programs since being a VISTA, but they’ve all had that in common; they all allowed me to help others serve.

It’s Halloween and later today people will dress up as scary things.  I love this holiday, but with my service story on my brain, I find myself thinking about a different kind of scary.  First, selfishly, it’s scary to think that maybe I wouldn’t have found my way into this career.  Without NCCC, without wandering around, without my VISTA experience, maybe I wouldn’t have realized that enabling others to serve is the one thing that really fires me up.  Scarier, still, is thinking about a world without service.  A world without service learning in our schools and community-based organizations.  A world without opportunities for individuals of all ages to serve.  That’s a scary thought –and one I hope I’ll never have to see.

Not all stories have a happy ending.  Not all characters find their way.  As long as there’s service, though, we have hope for plenty of good stories.