Are you considering what to do after graduation, or what direction to take your career next?
National service can be an incredible way to gain experience, skills, and get your foot in the door to launch your social impact career. Victoria Alexis Wilson is an AmeriCorps VISTA alumna. She told Idealist Careers about her AmeriCorps experiences, and shared some advice for people considering national service themselves.
Victoria served in New Orleans, first at a foster youth service organization before transferring to New Orleans Outreach, a nonprofit providing volunteers and resources to six local public charter schools. While she had been clear before about her passion for social justice and reform, during her service year she learned that it was vital to know what she enjoyed doing on a day-to-day basis, and that her job duties should align with her energy and attention.
“I realized I work best when my schedule is varied rather than consistently in one location like the classroom,” she told Idealist Careers. “I was also able to see which tasks I should avoid at all costs–and probably shouldn’t accept a job that requires too much of those!”
One of the biggest assets of her time in AmeriCorps was the opportunity to experience a little bit of everything at her site placement, on top of all of the technical AmeriCorps trainings offered throughout the year, like grant writing. And, there were challenges, too.
Do expectations match reality?
Victoria told us she wishes she had known from the beginning is how difficult and inconsistent ongoing support from AmeriCorps itself can be. Victoria experienced unfair treatment from the first executive director she worked with in New Orleans, despite working enthusiastically and building great relationships with other staff.
She was frequently told to do tasks that VISTAs are expressly prohibited from performing, and as a result she could not focus on creating sustainable capacity within the organization she had been placed at. These demands were witnessed by other people as well. Eventually a different supervisor reached out to the AmeriCorps office on Victoria’s behalf to negotiate a transfer to a different placement. She was placed on a leave of absence immediately, and given time to interview for a new position in the AmeriCorps program.
“I hope now there is a better way to ensure service members are getting the full experience, and finding consistent, adequate support if not,” she told us.
Navigating structural obstacles
Victoria was lucky in that when she transferred her AmeriCorps placement to New Orleans Outreach, she was part of a cohort placed at Tulane University—which meant they received free housing.
“I struggled without savings while serving at my first placement and the extra support from Outreach and Tulane was the only reason I was able to complete my service,” she said
There are some challenges that are acknowledged openly within the AmeriCorps program, and yet brushed aside as part of the overall structure of the program.
“I recall sitting in an AmeriCorps conference and feeling upset when they asked what they could do to get more service members of color -- specifically Black. When the small stipend and lack of housing support was mentioned, it was mostly dismissed,” she said. “I personally felt there was no reason to continue the inauthentic discussion if they were not willing to address the impact of the country’s systemic racial and wealth disparities.”
It is commonly understood that the monthly “poverty stipend” is part and parcel of the AmeriCorps experience. But Victoria points out that it “keeps the underprivileged of any race from accessing the great resource that is AmeriCorps service, and allows the privileged a great way to continue to get further ahead.”
She also had to navigate barriers and discrimination that many young black women experience. “My tone was often over-policed and the words I said were not heard,” Victoria said. “I quickly discovered that as a Black woman, this will continue to happen to me, even if I am careful with my tone.” She was fortunate to have female supervisors who helped her with tools and practices they themselves learned as women in the workplace.
Finding what’s next
“My service experience helped me clarify what I wanted my next career steps to be. I was able to try out so many things and meet a variety of people,” Victoria said. “I realized I wanted to get a master’s in education, and it was a colleague who found the perfect program for me. I returned home to New York and worked as a nanny while I earned my masters in educational theater.”
Today, Victoria teaches pre-K-12 drama classes at an international American school in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. She credits her AmeriCorps experience with showing her how natural it felt for her to be in schools and work in different capacities and programs within them, for example: training and reflecting with university students about their experiences as tutors and navigating their racial assumptions in the classroom.
Her supervisors focused on teaching her how to have difficult work conversations, and how to highlight her talents. The connections she made and the mentoring she received during her AmeriCorps term were crucial to her next career steps.
“I met a consultant at one of the schools who asked about my interests over lunch and told me about the new CCNY educational theatre graduate program,” she said. “It was through that connection that I was mentored by her colleague -- who later became my professor.”
Without those connections, who knows? She may not have found her calling as a teacher.
So, if she had to do it all over again, would she?
“I would!” she told us. “And I would speak up louder about the issues I experienced.”
National service isn’t without its challenges, and yet it presents a unique opportunity and resource on the path to career development. Here are three tips to make the most out of your service year as a career stepping stone:
- Find people in the organization where you serve who want to mentor others, and allow yourself to be mentored.
- Network every opportunity you get! You never know where a connection might lead you.
- Use your supervisors as references, and get signed letters of recommendation that you can scan for future use.
Are you an AmeriCorps or other service alumni? Share your experience on Twitter.
Ashley Fontaine is a writer, mental health professional, and former nonprofit executive director. She’s on a mission to eliminate “we’ve always done it that way” from our collective vocabulary by helping leaders focus on possibilities rather than limitations. She believes organizational culture is the key to productivity and staff retention.