Public Spirit, January 2018



By Gyan Prayaga (Habitat for Humanity)

Nordic skiing. When I arrived in Minnesota, I was acquainted with neither the concept nor any practitioners of the sport. I’d only skied down hills before, a real treat which I found exhilarating the occasional times I managed to do it.

Perhaps it is apt that Minnesota, a state still largely influenced and shaped by its Scandinavian roots to a degree that many other states are not (California, my home state, has been a melting pot for so long that there is no dominant cultural identity) is keeping a Scandinavian variant of skiing alive and well

In this article, I’ll talk a little about the history of the sport, some benefits, and an exclusive inside look into the mysterious and storied lives of the most famous Minnesotan Nordic skiers (just kidding, only the first two!).

Nordic skiing has a special place in my heart, because my father spent many formative years in Norway and Denmark. To me, Nordic skiing has connoted images of terrifying ski jumps (check out the scary Holmenkollen) and hardy arctic explorers skiing alongside sled dogs. But real Nordic skiing is perhaps a more mundane activity - a means of travel, which can be perfected into a highly effective workout.

The work “ski” comes from the Norse word for a stick of wood. After all, the earliest skis were simply carved pieces of wood. They were used by the Sami people for travel, and later by Scandinavian armies for snow warfare in the 13th century. Interestingly, the rather exciting and fun variant of Nordic skiing called state skiing came about early in the 20th century but wasn’t widely adopted until the 1980s.

Nordic skiing is one of the the best full-body workouts around, burning hundreds of calories per hour while exercising the arms, legs, chest, back, and brain (since navigating a course is more mentally stimulating than swimming laps).

The benefits also extend to the wallet. A day of downhill skiing often consumes a full day, and you lose time on the ski lifts and hilly commute. It usually costs upwards of $30, and sometimes as much as $60 or more. Cross country skiing, however, can be done with on a relatively modest budget: just find the local park or golf club. Alternatively, check out places like Wirth Park or Hyland Hills, which offer miles of groomed ski trails for a reasonable price and even a package with equipment rentals.


I encourage you to join me on the slopes, as your local Californian amateur discovers the simple pleasures of Nordic Skiing.


By Zayn Saifullah (College Possible)

One of the hardest parts of living on a strict budget, for me anyway, is keeping variety and spontaneity in your diet. While it’s certainly frugal to survive strictly on a rotation of granola bars, frozen pizza, and ramen, do you really want to do that? In this recurring column, I feature a new recipe every month that is nutritious, worldly, and competitive with processed convenience food for price.

When many Americans think of Chinese food, they think of Cantonese and “Cantonese-inspired” flavors and dishes (looking at you “General Tso”). However, China is home to dozens of distinctive regional flavors that have yet to gain favor with American palates. Mapo Tofu comes from China’s southwestern Sichuan province and makes use of some unique regional ingredients, including Sichuan peppercorns. These peppercorns aren’t peppercorns at all, but are instead the dried fruit from the Chinese prickly ash tree, lending a citrusy-piney flavor to Sichuan cooking along with a slight numbing sensation. Unfortunately, they’re difficult to find outside of an Asian grocery store, so I’ve included them as optional. One other unique ingredient used in this dish is Sichuan broad bean paste, or doubanjiang. Once again, this is hard to find in an American grocery store, but it does serve as the basis for the sauce, so I’d encourage venturing out to an Asian grocery store or ordering it from Amazon. Once your ingredients are assembled, however, this dish comes together very easily.



Time: ~35 minutes


¼ lb (4 oz.) ground meat of choice OR portabella/shiitake mushrooms for a vegan version

    ~$3.60 per lb., ~$0.90 per batch

½ tbsp. sesame oil

      ~$4.00 for an 8.5 oz. bottle, ~$0.12 per batch

1 tbsp. soy sauce

      ~$1.70 for a 15 oz. bottle, ~$0.03 per batch

14 oz. medium-firm tofu cut into square-inch cubes


1 tbsp. vegetable or peanut oil

      ~$5.00 per gallon, ~$0.01 per batch

2 tbsp. Doubanjiang (Sichuan broad bean paste)

      ~$0.92 per oz., ~$0.92 per batch

2 scallions, finely chopped


2 garlic cloves, minced

      Price varies per lb

1 tsp. ginger, minced

      Price varies per lb

1 cup boiling water


½ tbsp. ground Sichuan peppercorns (optional)

      ~$2.00 per oz., ~$0.50 per batch


2 and ½ tablespoon water


1 tablespoon cornstarch

      ~$1.56 for 16 oz., ~$0.05 per batch



1. Add sesame oil and soy sauce to the ground meat. Combine and set aside.

2. Bring a large amount of water to a boil and then add a pinch of salt. Gently place the tofu in the water and boil for 1 minute. Move out and drain.

3. Heat vegetable or peanut oil in a wok or large frying pan over medium heat and fry the doubanjiang for 1 minute. Add the meat along with the garlic, ½ of the scallions, and ginger, stirring occasionally until the meat is cooked through.

4. Add water and bring to a boil. Then gently add the tofu cubes and simmer until the tofu is warmed through.

5. Mix cornstarch and water in a small bowl to make a thickener, then pour half of the mixture to the simmering pot. Wait for around 30 seconds and then add the other half.

6. If using, garnish with Szechuan peppercorn powder and remaining scallions and serve with hot white rice.

Total cost per batch: ~$4.58

Total cost per serving: ~$1.15

If you have a simple and inexpensive recipe you’d like to share with other AmeriCorps members, please submit to me at!



By Zayn Saifullah (College Possible)

It’s about that time when organizations are renewing their AmeriCorps positions for next year and talking about returner applications. I am in my first year of service, so I sat down with two of my co-workers, Zuzu Allaback and Rachel Quay, to discuss why they returned to College Possible for a second year of service. Zuzu is the VISTA leader for College Possible and was a member of our Community Partnerships Team last year, and Rachel is our Catalyze Development VISTA who previously served as a tech-connected high school coach.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity

Zayn Saifullah: Thanks for talking with me today! First, I’d like to ask what motivated you to come back to College Possible for a second year?

Zuzu Allaback: When I initially applied to College Possible, I was drawn in by the mission and that’s why I wanted to serve here. Over the course of my first term I got even more attached to the mission, so I was really glad when there was the opportunity to return ― it really fit into my career goals and I wanted to spend more time at this organization I’ve gotten so attached to. And so when returning I wanted to find an opportunity that was right for me, which led me to move to a different position at College Possible.

Rachel Quay: I returned because I am motivated by service, but I do really like servinghere and I knew that if I wanted to continue here, then a 2nd year of service was the route to follow. I think College Possible is really unique in the values that we hold around having fun and community building, and, having had a previous job that didn’t have any of those things that make such a difference in morale and coming to work every day, I didn’t want to give that up.

ZA: I really agree with that. I’ve had a variety of different jobs in the past that shared those values and I really didn’t want to let go of a work environment that was so wonderful to come into everyday.

RQ: I also feel like College Possible really invests in both our personal and professional development, which is also pretty unique and highly valuable for people just coming out of college still working on developing professional skills.

ZA: And that leads into the second reason why I wanted to return. I grew so much last year, I did so many things I thought I never could do, and I gained so many skills from being pushed out of my comfort zone. I had been reflecting on that when I was thinking about returning, and realized I could gain skills intentionally with another year. I wanted to spend another year growing before I entered a permanent, full-time position and I knew that College Possible would be a great place to do that growing.

RQ: When I was thinking about returning as a VISTA versus as a coach, I realized that moving positions would allow me to broaden my skill set. I can’t think of many other opportunities where I could move from a direct-service to a development role — I didn’t have any experience with Raiser’s Edge (a fundraising software) or prior fundraising experience but I’ve gotten to learn all of this through my VISTA role.

ZS: What’s something that initially made you doubt returning?

ZA: The money, 100% the money. I was a low-income college student and my parents don’t contribute to my financial situation now or in college at all. So graduating from college and having to live at the poverty level for a year was already a big commitment, especially since I went to college to get out from my family’s poverty situation. Thinking about doing that for another year was really challenging. I actually made a pros and cons list before deciding to return and most of the cons were related to finances. I wouldn’t be able to get a bigger apartment or invest in a better car, both things that I envisioned having after college.  Returning would mean delaying those things for another year. But in the end I think that the skills I’m learning now are going to set me up for a better paying job and I’ll have the confidence to apply for better positions now after returning. Lastly, my priorities in the end weren’t financial, but things like the returner housing allowance offered by College Possible have really helped.

RQ: It was pretty similar for me. I also had to really think about what financial sacrifices I was making — I haven’t been able to save for retirement since serving and I don’t really like my apartment, but ultimately I decided that serving here was more important than those things. I also had some pushback from my family about serving a second year, especially from my parents, and it took some effort to gain their approval, but I would have done it with or without their approval. I also don’t know if I would have come back to the same position as a coach for a second year. I was really burnt out, so much so that I had a moment of reckoning with myself and my supervisor where we considered whether I should really return to College Possible as a coach and that’s what led me to my current position as a VISTA.

ZS: More broadly beyond College Possible, what do you think AmeriCorps members should consider when contemplating returning for a second year?

ZA: I would say that people who don’t have a commitment to service shouldn’t return for this reason, but the professional development opportunities are really incredible and for people serving in a field that they are interested in for a career post-service, a 2nd year provides a lot of valuable experience. AmeriCorps really highlights professional development in the VISTA program and they make sure that people get something of their service for their own growth.

RQ: This is going to sound kind of flippant, but if you want to, you should! But you should take a serious look at your financial situation because this should be the best decision for you – if you base this decision on outside forces or expectations and get halfway through your second year and realize you can’t do this, that’s a pretty bad situation to be in. I’d also consider the opportunities that continuity at the same organization offers – it’s allowed me to take on more leadership opportunities. Since you’ve already done the groundwork of getting to know the organization the first year you can grow even more.

ZA: Being a VISTA leader, I don’t think I would have been able to take on my responsibilities if I hadn’t served here. In your first year you’re still getting used to what it means to be in service and serve at College Possible. People might not understand AmeriCorps or they might not understand what you did in service, but every interviewer can appreciate that you took time to do service to your community — how you committed to a cause and the experiences you gain during your time in AmeriCorps can be appreciated by all types of organizations you may want to seek post-service employment with

Communications Committee