It seems like everyone, from Jimmy Kimmel to 2,630 civic leaders, is discussing the major impact AmeriCorps can have on our country and young people. Understandably, more people are interested in pursuing a year (or two!) of service as a way to help others, learn about causes and communities, and grow as a leader.
Perhaps you are a young professional, a recent college grad, or simply someone looking for a professional opportunity to give back while learning about a new career field. In any case, AmeriCorps represents a great way to get hands-on learning in a cause you care about. As a current AmeriCorps member, I'm excited to offer a few tips and insights that I think will help you before you apply:
AmeriCorps has three avenues for getting involved
There are three branches of AmeriCorps. I am part of a Community Engagement team at Reading Partners as a State and National AmeriCorps member. These roles involve direct service for existing organizations that help fight poverty and social inequality. Many of the same organizations also host VISTA AmeriCorps members, who serve slightly longer terms and take on professional roles to enhance an organization’s systems and capacity.
Lastly, there are NCCC-FEMA AmeriCorps Members who do residential terms of service building out the nation’s infrastructure and being trained in disaster preparedness. For the purpose of this article, I am focusing on State and National opportunities, though many of these points apply to all three subsections of AmeriCorps.
Not all AmeriCorps roles are the same
Even within those three subsets, there are a ton of AmeriCorps opportunities. If you have taken a glance at the AmeriCorps job portal, you know that there are a lot of variables in each position: program type, skills, location, etc. If you think you’ll be happy serving with any organization anywhere in your state, then the job portal can be helpful. However, if you want a more specific search---for example, you want to do more research on organizations and opportunities and engage with them directly---it’s important to know that most organizations also do their own recruitment for AmeriCorps members outside of the AmeriCorps portal. In fact, there are lots of AmeriCorps positions on Idealist.
When I was looking for my position, I Googled “AmeriCorps Bay Area,” which led me to the three or four organizations I ended up considering. After talking with people in my network about those options, I discovered that Reading Partners offered the environment and work I wanted. Not only did I then have a much stronger, better-researched application, but I also did not end up laboring through the longer application process in the AmeriCorps portal. I simply submitted a resume and cover letter as you would with most jobs.
Understand you'll be living on about $11,000-$17,000 a year
As a prospective AmeriCorps member, you should be prepared to tighten your belt like never before. If you want more tips or advice on that, there are a few resources on Idealist Careers discussing AmeriCorps stipend survival tactics. That being said, not all AmeriCorps jobs pay exactly the same amount, so ask your hiring manager about your stipend. If you’re a State and National AmeriCorps living in a higher-cost area, odds are you’ll be paid on the higher end of the scale. If you’re a VISTA you’ll be making approximately 110% of the poverty level income in the county you’re serving, sometimes with a housing stipend added on.
While you will learn a lot about your field, you may not get as many chances to be a player in it
Remember that as an AmeriCorps member, you will be filling the shoes of someone who did the job before you for a year, and part of your job will be making sure someone can fill yours once you move on from your term of service. Organizationally, this means that the responsibilities and duties you do might be set in stone for your term of service. I was excited by the chance to engage in corporate partnership work, but because the most important relationships continue from year to year, I could observe, but not step into the driver’s seat. This isn’t to say you can’t go above and beyond your job description. You will enjoy it more if you do, but keep in mind that your role can only last 1-2 years, so it will have boundaries.
Like most jobs, it’s what you make of it
I specifically chose my position because it meant I would be based in the national office of my nonprofit. This meant that I was able to meet all staff members and get extra advice and insight through informational interviews with them. I think this is great for me, since I’m not sure exactly what direction I want to take my skill set after this job. So I’ve been able to connect with HR professionals, accounting team members, and a variety of community partners to learn about their work. This sort of side-benefit has been invaluable to me, and I don’t know if AmeriCorps would have been a good fit for me had I not taken the initiative and time to mold my experience into something unique and professionally motivating.
Having come to the end of my year of service, here are the questions I’m glad I asked myself, and a few I wished I’d asked earlier.
What sort of abilities do I want to gain from the year? Sit down and reflect before accepting a position. The more specific you can be about exactly what you want to get from your year, and the position you will be holding, the better your experience will be.
How will this kickstart my career in a direction I want? Again, self-knowledge is key, and well worth your time and thought. I have benefitted so much from knowing that I wanted to gain community engagement experience while also serving my community of Oakland. This was the only AmeriCorps position I applied to because I took the time to figure out that my position was the one that would both provide for my community and my career. Now, going forward into my next job, I have a larger range of skills, quantitative ways to talk about my achievements, and confidence in client-facing roles. Because I knew I wanted all of those skills for my career before going into this job, I was able to intentionally steer my work towards reaching those goals.
What sector do I want to get an in-depth perspective on? Be sure that you are finding an AmeriCorps program that matches your passion. You will be doing entry-level tasks, and on the days when those are not so exciting, you will want to be able to tap into all the information you are learning about the sector (health, education, housing, etc.)
How much will the benefits apply to my financial situation? If you need to defer loan payments, AmeriCorps offers a loan forbearance program, which can be worth a lot depending on your debt scenario. Also, there are childcare and health benefits and an education award at your end of service, which, when combined with your possible food stamps eligibility, can add up to a lot of value.
Do I want to be part of an AmeriCorps cohort, or the only AmeriCorps member in the office? It’s worth doing some research to find out what the AmeriCorps program looks like at the organization you’re interested in. Visit their webpage, or look up the position title on LinkedIn to see how many current AmeriCorps members there are. For me, having a cohort of a dozen other regional AmeriCorps members was essential because I want to build peer-to-peer relationships as well as higher-level relationships. Also, it’s been great to have a peer group that are going through the AmeriCorps lifestyle (#AClife). We go to donation-based yoga, dollar movie nights, host potlucks, and compete to find the cheapest happy hours, which makes low-income living a lot more fun. I would highly recommend programs that have a large number of AmeriCorps members, but for some folks that group dynamic is not as key.
Is a one year commitment right for me? This was probably one of the largest factors in my deciding to do an AmeriCorps year. I had a 9-to-5, computer-centric, internship for three months right after finishing undergrad, and I knew that it felt like too much too soon. All of the entry-level jobs in nonprofit development or programming out there were looking for two-year commitments without offering chances to take on high levels of responsibility. I wasn’t ready for that personally or professionally, and I listened to that instinct and found that AmeriCorps was a great way to ease into the working world. Now, after my year of service, I’m excited to have a longer-term role somewhere so that I can really dig into a position and make lasting and meaningful changes on another level.
I am so glad I listened to that voice because to most people in the professional world, a year is very short, but when you’re straight out of college, it can feel like a marathon. Be honest with yourself about what is the right match for you.
There are numerous other factors to consider, and everyone’s year of service will be its own unique experience. Looking back, these are the questions I’m glad I asked myself and things I wish I’d known. Taking on a year of service is a great feat and if it’s a good match for you, can be one of your best years yet. Happy AmeriCorps hunting!
About the Author: Amy Wipfler is a Volunteer Coordinator for Reading Partners in Oakland, CA busily building bridges between schools, volunteers, and local organizations. She is excited to be starting a career that strategically engages multiple stakeholders in their communities and change for good. When she’s not talking with someone over coffee, Amy can be found biking through the flats, checking out new art shows, or enjoying the internet rabbit-holes of Idealist or Feministing.