Alumni Spotlight: Benji Fitten ’19

Benji Fitten ‘19, a Political Science alumnus, spoke with the Office of Sustainability to talk about his efforts as an Americorps Vista for the City of Austin’s transportation department and what it takes to keep Austin riding.

When did you first become interested in cycling and sustainability and how have you connected that work into both your professional and personal life? 

“A term that had always been thrown around at St. Ed’s was environmental justice. I think that it works in this situation too. Many people see bikes as a recreation or exercising tool, but the reality is that many also use it as their primary form of transportation and making sure that the distribution of bike facilities (racks and lanes) are equitable and safe throughout Austin is an important issue to tackle. Especially as the city grows, I find that the time spent traveling between car and bike is almost the same depending on the time of day.

I’ve connected cycling and sustainability into my work life through this specific Americorps position. I found it about three months before graduation and basically bombarded the old VISTA leader about this position. At Austin Transportation, I make sure that bike facilities around all of Austin are promoting biking for everyone— like making sure bike lanes aren’t obstructed by natural or man made (cars) objects as well as looking for new places where bike parking can go. Other members on my team design and re-design the streets to either expand bike lanes or even put in new ones. Through a contact with the city, I also work with Austin Yellow Bike Project in their “Create a Commuter” program where we partner with local non profits around Austin (Caritas, RSTX, Casa Marianella to name a few) and provide fully-serviced bicycles to vulnerable populations as personal transportation for employment. ”

What are some pieces of advice you would give to current students in regards to making the most out of their time here at St. Edwards?  

“My first bit of advice is to go to the career office. Apply to any internship that sounds cool and may fit one of your interests. In retrospect I think the point of internships is to gather a lot of different experiences rather than already have a well-defined resume (although that can sometimes help). The other bit of advice I’d give would be to really explore your interests through academics. I learned a lot through just by writing on subjects that I thought were interesting—rather than going through the motions of a boilerplate paper.

Things really started to kick in with SFS (Student’s for Sustainability) when I was an active member my freshman and sophomore year and took what I learned from my friends and from the org into my personal actions. Cycling started in much the same way. Through my friendships, cycling was a common activity for recreation and fun. As college went on, I “Favor” biked around town and really got a sense for it to the point where when I moved I sold my car. Currently, I try to be as “car-less” as I can manage (Kind of like a meat-eater going vegetarian for the first time). It is tough sometimes, and I don’t always succeed, but it’s worth trying.”

What are some of the benefits of participating in Americorps Vista program after graduation?  

“Well there are a few things:

  •  Either a 1k payment or a 6k education grant which can be applied to student loans or future educational endeavors.
  • Loans can be put into forbearance while doing your service year.
  • Non Competitive Eligibility which basically helps out with other federal hiring processes
  • A good gap year option for those considering continuing in higher education.

There are tons of positions around the country with different focuses (National Conservation Corps, Nonprofits, Cities, City Year, FEMA corps). With Americorps, you’re on a year long contract (on a stipend*) which really helps with resume building especially if some jobs just seem to have that experience threshold. There is also a catholic version which the Jesuits do known as Jesuit Corps, which is slightly different than the Americorp program.”

What recommendations do you have for current St. Edward’s students who want to get involved with campus and the greater community? 

“A professor of mine rooted the thought that the best way to keep civic life alive is to participate. As an Americorps Vista we’re also required to do community service once a month, and I realize how beneficial it is for people to do so. It really takes you out of the world that you’ve designed for yourself and allows you to see your immediate environment. For organizations, I’d say join ones that sound interesting or that you know you have a passion for. I was heavily involved with SFS and Topper Radio my first couple of years at St. Ed’s, and it really broadened my community there. In addition, another way to get involved is to join organizations or projects outside of St. Edward’s or propose that your club partner with them. There are so many groups out there that try to advocate for and work towards a common good on a local level (just as examples: Sunrise movement, Go Austin!, Bike Advisory Committee, Pedestrian Advisory Committee). And finally, Participate! and Communicate! with your government! Voting and 311 are tools designed for people to use on the government.”

How did your time at St. Edward’s shape your career and goals?  

“It’s subtle, but the St. Edward’s mission, in the way that it teaches about social justice, really influenced the places where I could see myself working. In addition, the opportunities which the university affords its students in internships, study abroad, and senior seminar allowed me to take stock and decide where I’d like to make an impact. When I first started St. Edward’s I was keen on eventually working with the refugee crisis that was and is currently in full swing near Turkey and Greece. However in my senior year, I decided that municipal politics are also an important subject, and we shouldn’t only be looking to change the world when there are things in our community that ought to be changed first. I still have both interests, but I think I’ll work small and then go bigger. “