On Remembering by Robyn Michalec

August 4, 2023
Robyn is the 2022-2023 VISTA Leader

Sometimes I think I am too nostalgic for my own good. I have the tendency to lean heavily on the fact that moments are fleeting– that the moment they happen, they’ll never happen again in the exact same way. Slowly they’ll fade until they’re just vague outlines of a time and place you once were. I try really hard not to let this ruin moments, which has been a pretty constant exercise of will the past couple of weeks as I have wrapped up my second year of service with Montana Campus Compact. Saying goodbye to this position, this place, and this period of my life sometimes makes moments feel like little pieces of grief. After all, pretty soon serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA member in Montana will be a time and place I once was, and there’s nothing I can do to stop the outlines of this experience from inevitably becoming blurry from time. 

When I arrived in Great Falls for my first year of service in 2021, I was nervous but excited for the opportunity to be the person I would have loved to have had growing up in North Central Wisconsin. Serving at the Great Falls LGBTQ+ Center felt like something I could be really good at, as I knew what it was like to not always be accepted by my community. I quickly realized that the project was a herculean task for one VISTA, and in many ways, it felt like the rug was pulled out from under me. Figuring out what success meant in a context that forced me to reconsider how fully I could embrace my own identity felt impossible. I had to wrap my head around my best being enough even though it wasn’t even close to my aspirations at the start of the year. I made a lasting impact, but I was also worn incredibly thin. 

It didn’t make sense to sign up for a second year of service, but I did, and I moved to Missoula to be the VISTA Leader with equal parts hesitation and confidence. Perhaps the choice to do a second year was a part of a process of reconciliation, or maybe I wanted to see Montana through another lens. My year of service as VISTA Leader has suggested that it was probably both, and I am so grateful for the trajectory service has sent me. It would not have been possible without the juxtaposition of experiences; everything I do is informed by what I learned in Great Falls.

Cue the nostalgia. Despite facing some of the greatest challenges I’ve ever experienced, saying goodbye to these two years of VISTA service in Montana hits hard. Of course, there are questions of “what if I had done this differently?” and “could I have done this better?” but mostly I find myself asking, “how do I hold onto these moments?” 

There are so many moments I have scribbled down that I want to remember– that I want to keep from fading into a more general memory of service. I’ll spare any readers of this blog from the exhaustive list, but here are some important ones: 

I want to remember the first time the wind in Great Falls felt warm on my face after a long winter, and I want to remember how beautiful the endless quiet and sky was. 

Overlooking Great Falls, Montana at sunset

I want to remember the feeling of opening an envelope rewarding the LGBTQ+ Center with a grant that would support development of youth programming, an essential resource for young people in Great Falls. 

I want to remember how easy it was to get things done in the Center with its enormous windows filling the space with light and with the backtrack of teens arguing about the rules of the card game Uno. 

The view from my desk at the Great Falls LGBTQ+ Center

I want to remember the snowy site visits I made around the state as VISTA Leader and my supervisor’s (supposed) trust in me when I navigated us onto a dirt road in rural northeastern Montana. 

I want to remember the trust from MTCC staff to let me lean into my passion for qualitative research as we created a strategic plan for the organization; I want to remember the confidence the experience instilled in me. 

I want to remember driving north on 93 into St. Ignatius, Montana, coming over the hill, and not knowing if I’ll ever see something as beautiful as the snowy Mission Mountains. 

The Mission Mountains as seen from St. Ignatius, Montana

I want to remember the trust and patience each and every VISTA member gave me this year as I figured out this role as they figured out theirs. I want to remember their friendship, their humor, their passion, their creativity, their kindness. This year would have been hollow without the cohort of genuinely good people I had the opportunity to serve with. 

Most of the 2022-2023 AmeriCorps VISTA cohort at their Close of Service event

I think the bittersweetness of nostalgia can largely be understood as the gift of experience. There are so many moments and details from my two years of service that are worth holding on to because they’ve shaped me for the better. I am not the same person that I was when I drove into Great Falls in the summer of 2021– and I should be glad that I’m not (and that’s nothing against my past self). I’ve grown and I’ve learned, constantly developing as a person, friend, and service member. 

Service with Montana Campus Compact has multidimensionally shaped my life trajectory, sending me in a direction I could not have imagined one year ago, let alone two. Service helped me receive a fellowship that is sending me to a university I never imagined attending, getting a degree in something I had never imagined studying, with a job I didn’t even know existed but is at the intersection of my passions and professional goals. 

I have no doubt that many of my successes in life will be able to be traced back to these two years of service. I’m so lucky that leaving is difficult. The nostalgia is a sign that it’s worth remembering.