Today I had the pleasure of speaking with Laura Espino, People & Operations Manager at Education Outside, an organization that sparks children’s interest in science and connects them to the natural world through hands-on learning in school gardens. Prior to scheduling our chat, Laura had been working for the organization for about two and half months as AmeriCorps Compliance Manager, and in that short period of time, she transitioned to her new role. Wow! How’s that for moving at lightning-speed?!
Thanks for speaking with me today, Laura. Tell me a little bit about your role and recent transition at Education Outside.
I had been recruited by Education Outside because of my experience with the Americorps program. I managed an Americorps program for a similar program, but for a much larger organization. I was there for about two and half years. I did every part of the program- recruiting, hiring, training, case management, etc.
I found the listing for Education Outside on Idealist, and came to the organization two weeks before our Americorps program started for the year. I was able to hit the ground running. I’m also enjoying that now I can focus on specific aspects of the Americorps program and working with the staff. Though I’ve been here for short time, there were other needs in the organization that had to be met and now my role has expanded.
So you found your job on Idealist! We love to hear stories like this. How did you hear about us?
I had been using it for ten years. I first heard about it in college and used it for volunteer positions. I remember before Idealist Careers was started, I saw a video on Idealist about people in the nonprofit sector, as well as the guides for first-time job seekers interested in getting into the nonprofit sector.
How did you get into this work?
My career started in the classroom, and got more involved with enrichment programs, around literacy, adult education, and service learning. Then, I transitioned into managing programs and working with teams. The deeper I got into providing quality programing, the more I wanted to learn. I’ve have been doing volunteer work since high school and did two AmeriCorps terms while in college, and have seen how effective service learning is. Today, I get to work with a great team of people, supporting the amazing work of our emerging garden educators.
How much hiring do you do at your organization?
I came in right before the program started, so much of the recruitment was already done, but I was able to onboard 30 new members. I came at the height of that wave and now am definitely in the heart of the whole hiring process.
What’s it like to work on AmeriCorps compliance at Education Outside?
It’s really an interesting and engaging change to be able to focus on compliance, contracts and the structure of the program, getting into all the details. All the different pieces must come together before the public schools can start on Day One without a hitch. A lot of things build up and we need to make sure it all falls into place before the school year.
I make sure everything is in check by developing relationships with schools that are already involved and the ones recently joining our program. I make sure everyone is on the same page, and having really open communication helps. I make sure Corps members feel prepared for their first day.
As P&O Manager, I’ve had the opportunity to expand the strategic thinking behind the AmeriCorps grant to the people and talent management of the organization at large, and to reinforce a structure for growth.
There is a general Americorps training and our own boot camp training, which is fabulous. Our Professional Development Manager did a great job in giving a combination of curriculum teaching in the gardens to students and the agricultural aspects of having a garden, as well as leadership. We make sure Corps members can speak on behalf of the program and be effective stewards for environmental education and the work we do.
What is the best way for a candidate to demonstrate to you that they believe in the mission of your organization?
They should be able to demonstrate via their college or work experiences- no matter how small or short- that they have had an interest in education, the environment, or working with kids. Then once they are in the interview, they can easily articulate why they want to work with us and that they’re enthusiastic about the work.
How does hiring for AmeriCorps members vary depending on the organization at which you work?
AmeriCorps is a huge, national program that is represented by thousands of different organizations. In addition to the qualities that would make a strong AmeriCorps candidacy, we (at Education Outside) also look for people who want to grow as environmental educators in San Francisco’s public schools. We look for people with passion, skill, and life experiences that can contribute to our program and in making a difference in garden education.
What things should candidates know about your organization and its mission when applying for a job?
They should know that we are a science/environmentally-focused organization with an emphasis on elementary students, and that we are a service organization, partnered with AmeriCorps.
I think that there are programs similar to ours that are food-oriented but we are way beyond that. Our curriculum is aligned with the standards of the students’ science classes. It’s a rigorous science curriculum that they go through. It’s more than a school garden- they are learning really hard science throughout the year getting to spend time outside in nature.
The organization is expanding and we are expecting our Corps and office staff to expand. Corps members are here for two years, but we hire a number of Corps members each year, plus program managers. We are generally looking to hire for full time positions also.
What do you wish interviewees asked you?
Whenever I hired for Americorps members, I always liked when candidates would ask, “what would you hope that an Americorps member would bring into the organization?” It shows they already are thinking ahead and wondering what they can bring to the position and the organization.
Please share a story of a time a candidate stood out to you. What did they do to set themselves apart?
I remember a few years ago a candidate who came in to interview and was really honest about his lack of experience, but he was so excited and eager to have an opportunity to do good work and help others, and he was really committed to learning. He clearly had potential. Even though his learning curve was really high, he ended up having a great year.
That’s something special about the Americorps program- it hires members, not staff or employees. We hire to serve the organization’s needs but also develop the Corps members. it’s a benefit for both.
At your organization, what is more important for a candidate to have, passion or skill?
Passion carries them through the tough parts of the job. Skills are super important as these help Corps members make the tough parts not so tough, but the passion needs to be there. A good mix is the best.
What’s a common mistake you see among job seekers?
I’ve found that for many people, the idea of ‘professionalism’ is very strict and dry. Coming into an interview trying to seem ‘professional’ comes off as forced and keeps me from seeing the candidate for who they are. Act appropriately, absolutely. But, find the balance between your idea of your professional self and your true self.
When we go over the Life After AmeriCorps series of workshops, I work with our members and coach them in soft skills like etiquette- how to look professional but also be relaxed and able to show your true self. Have a balance between your professional self and “true self”. If they are too nervous, I don’t get to know them. I’d rather have them make a silly, minor mistake than not be able to gauge their personality whatsoever.
What do you expect to see from a new hire 30 days after employment? 3 months? 1 year?
In 30 days, I expect to see that they still have the enthusiasm they showed in their interview, that they genuinely wanted the position and now they are psyched. At three months: that they are handling their work well and know when and how to ask for help if they are struggling or aren’t understanding something. By one year, they should feel and show a sense of ownership over the work and the mission.
What’s one trait that all candidates need if they want to work in this cause area, regardless of role?
Resourcefulness. I chatted about this with my colleague and for environmental issues and education in public urban schools, you’ll never have everything you need to do the best job you can. You won’t have enough notebooks, and budget, time and access are issues. We try to make sure they (Corps members) have what they need to do good work but they need to get creative with what they have around them.
It’s a given that you won’t always have everything that you need. Something I witnessed with the members of this program is communicating through forums and email lists to share resources. One member came back to her garden after a weekend and it had been destroyed. The other members shared what they had- extra compost, etc.
What are three things every AmeriCorps applicant should do and why?
I think it really helps when I see in the application a background in gardening but also that they have other experiences too (perhaps languages). Candidates should be thinking of themselves as a whole, not just the skills that we are asking for. They should be thinking in terms of what else they can contribute to the organization with their skills, even if it is not something that we are asking for. We value and look for the rich diversity in our applicant pool. We look for skill and passion, but also for a person’s valuable life experiences and background.
I want them to portray in their applications that they are a whole person. It helps us see how someone is going to fit with the rest of the group. Every time I look at a candidate’s application I consider the program they are specifically applying to, but I want to know what they want to do after. Are they interested in discovering who they want to be in the future, not just what they want to do next year? I want to see what they are planning for themselves, how they see themselves growing.
What misconceptions do people have about your cause area and organization?
That it is all about one thing (food), but it’s not. School gardens are about education in general and they intersect with environmental education, too.
Has your organization hired anyone who came through Idealist?
Me! I learned about my position through Idealist and we do post staff positions primarily on Idealist. For Corps members, we get our applications through our own website.
Any last inspiration to share?
When I have thought in the past about supporting transitions and my next move, I reminded myself and the people I work with that finding a job is a match both ways. We need to fit the organization and the organization needs to be a good fit for us too. When I think of myself as a young professional, I’ve discovered that shift, that I’ve become more confident in making sure that a two-way match exists.