Should I quit Americorps?
February 3, 2010 6:04 AM   Subscribe

I am currently an Americorps VISTA member and I do not like my assignment. This is a year-long commitment, and I have @7 months left to serve. VISTA members work full-time but are paid very little because the position is kind of a cross between a volunteer position and a job. The reason for taking a VISTA position, therefore, is not the pay, but rather the job experience and the opportunity to do meaningful work to help the poor. Unfortunately, I am not getting much of that experience or doing much of that work, and I am disrespected to boot.

The projects I have been assigned are poorly thought-out, and the people in my organization are not much help. Moreover, my supervisor is disrespectful towards me and gets angry at me if I do any little thing without specifically telling her. I am afraid to take the initiative on anything because I might get in trouble.

Perhaps most importantly, the job is also making me miserable, as I dread having to face my supervisor each day. It is worse because I am currently dealing with depression and anxiety problems. The stress and anxiety stays with me outside of work and on the weekends, and sometimes makes it difficult to sleep.

I have a few choices:

1. Stick it out until September.

2. Apply for jobs while I am working here. The problem is that I would have to cover up the fact that I am a VISTA member, not only when applying to a specific job, but also when networking.*

3. Quit now. I would still have to keep the fact that I was a VISTA secret in the future.* One advantage of this is that I could move in with relatives near Washington DC and look for jobs there (there are not many jobs in my state, especially the kind I am qualified for).

Should I stick with a low-paying job I do not like to improve my resume, or try to look for a job in a poor economy?

*I would have to keep the fact that I am a VISTA secret because leaving early means breaking a commitment to stay for a full year. If people I network with find out I am planning to do this, they might think less of me and thus not feel good about recommending/hiring me. My current resume is mostly short-term jobs. I could list my current job on my resume without mentioning that it is a VISTA position, but can I be sure people will not find out?

Please leave answers here or email me at

posted by anonymous to Work & Money (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Have you spoken with someone in the VISTA organization? I feel certain that they have experience dealing with situations where the member is unhappy with the placement.
posted by Pineapplicious at 6:07 AM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have been a VISTA person in a number of different circumstances and I think you're overstating the importance of the one-year commitment. Sure, it's important, but if the job sucks, it sucks. You're not leaving for something you could have predicted [i.e. "I can't live in these wages!"] you're leaving because your supervisor is making you miserable in whatis supposed to be essentially a volunteer position.

If I were in your situation, I would try to fairly assess whether you hate THIS job or whether you think working just sucks [you mention that you've only had short-term jobs, is this because you're sort of fresh out of college, or is it because it's really hard for you to keep jobs? Try to give yourself an honest answer and/or talk to someone else like a friend or a counselor who could help you]. If it's really that job you sort of have to decide... stay or go? I personally would be looking for other work while working at the VISTA position.

I think if you have a decent way of explaining it that is straightforward but does not get too dramatic "I took this job to help the poor but wound up being given a lot of admin work to do by a boss who had a temper problem. I wanted to go somewhere where I could use my skills to directly help people." people will be understanding. Especially early in your work career, it's okay to leave a job because of a "bad fit" as long as you do it in a deent fashion [give notice, etc]. That said, you might want to try to speak to the main organization that placed you and see if they have suggestions. They don't want VISTA people hating their jobe because it means they won't be able to continue to get grant funding to place people in those jobs, so they have a vested interest in you being satisfied enough to serve out your term. If your boss is really not giving you the sort of work you were expecting when you took the position, they'd want to know that.

In the meantime, stay the course and try to make the fewest waves while you sort out what your own feelings are on the matter. I think it's perfectly okay to leave the job as long as you're not burning bridges and you should keep that open as an option, people will understand.
posted by jessamyn at 6:38 AM on February 3, 2010 [2 favorites]

For more data points, I and several friends have done Americorps terms (in Vista, State/National, and NCCC, variously) - we all know a person or two who left for some reason before their term was over. So while it may not be ideal, you would definitely not be the first person to leave before the year term ends. Check your contract, but if I recall you may be entitled to a pro-rated amount of your education benefit, even.
posted by heyforfour at 6:46 AM on February 3, 2010

It would help to know if the short-term jobs are part of a pattern of being unable to stay in a job or if that's just the nature of where your life is now -- short college jobs, summer jobs, internships, jobs that have been cut because of the economy, etc. THAT'S okay.

I'll tell you I had an internship while in school that was supposed to be great experience, look great on the resume, etc., and I ended up with a boss who was constantly angry at me that I didn't read minds. When I filled out applications thereafter, I always felt I had to ask people NOT to contact him for a reference, which I was afraid would be a deal-breaker while job-hunting. Not at all! I had other references available, and when asked about it, I had an explanation that people seemed to understand and sympathize with. ("My boss was a very intelligent man who was a little scattered and had a hard time remembering we didn't all make his intuitive leaps. He would get frustrated when he would ask me to compile all of the laws related to alcohol and tobacco advertising in the 50 states, and I didn't know that that means I should also compile a list of adoption laws for all 50 states at the same time. It was frustrating for me, because I was doing my best to do everything he asked of me, but he found me unsatisfactory because I wasn't also anticipating the things he DIDN'T ask. I learned a lot that summer about coping with a difficult work situation -- I tried really hard to overresearch everything in the hopes I'd hit on whatever "extra" thing he was going to want, and I worked really hard to complete assignments fast when he did tack on those extras after I was done so even though I hadn't read his mind initially, he'd get the information as quickly as possible. But in the end, it was a fairly untenable situation and probably the most important thing I learned is that it's very important to communicate clearly in the workplace and not assume others know what you're thinking.")

I think the key point to that story was that I turned a crap situation with a difficult boss (that I wasn't able to hide because I was saying NOT to call him) into a learning experience to show prospective employers I had gained job skills from the experience. Is there a takeaway from your crap situation? Can you show that you learned something workplace-relevant from being in such a bad situation that you don't feel you can stick it out?
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:01 AM on February 3, 2010 [1 favorite]

Many VISTA programs are part of a larger organization with multiple VISTA volunteers. Is there someone higher up you could talk to about changing your placement within your current program/agency. You might be able to move into a position that meets your expectations for VISTA without having to leave.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:11 AM on February 3, 2010

I was never VISTA but I did do a lot of non-profit admin work shortly after graduation.

A few things to remember:

- Non-profits are understaffed. People that work there are working really hard for little money.
- Non-profits often lack management - both people to manage other people and the time/training to be a good manager.

- You haven't established the trust and/or credibility to do "serious" work yet.

- since the admin work needs to be done anyway, WHO do you think should be doing it if not you? You're a volunteer and a recent college grad, no one is more qualified to do admin work. That's just the way it goes with one's first job. Everyone hates this, but it is true. Your BA doesn't entitle you to anything more than this. (Not that I agree with this, but this is the way the world works.)

- Personally, I'd just finish it out. 1 year isn't that long of a time. Try to get a part-time job in the meantime to supplement your income?
posted by k8t at 8:42 AM on February 3, 2010

since the admin work needs to be done anyway, WHO do you think should be doing it if not you?

k8t, a VISTA job is supposed to be quite different from a normal first job.

I don't know about anonymous' particular situation, but when I was a VISTA volunteer at Seattle Public Library part of the explicit deal was that the library was not to use VISTA people as cheap admin folks. The purpose of the program is to help people in poverty not help the library get secretarial work done on the cheap. VISTA volunteers are supposed to get actual experience doing actual work, they accept low wages because they're supposed to be receiving real job skills, not just doing purely entry-level stuff. There was, obviously, a certain amount of admin work that was shared by everyone, but when they decided to "put me on the phones" to answer everyone's incoming calls, I complained to my VISTA coordinator who helpfully explained to SPL that this wasn't part of the agreement that the agency entered into with SPL.

So anon, you may need to have a friendly chat with the person running the program to see how much of the work your doing is what they consider part of your job there. Your employer has [or should have] a fairly specific contract with the agency who is the umbrealla organization that the funding goes through and you might wan tot make sure you know what that entails.
posted by jessamyn at 8:50 AM on February 3, 2010 [3 favorites]

Oh, sorry Jessamyn and OP. My understanding was that it was a short-term volunteer staffing service. I stand corrected! (But the non-profit management issues still stand.)
posted by k8t at 9:17 AM on February 3, 2010

If you are miserable, you are miserable. I was a miserable VISTA when I was 18, and I stuck it out for a year . . . and you know, I'm glad I did it in some sense, but I still wish I could have found something better or more interesting.

I think one helpful thing might be to reframe what VISTA is. Very few VISTA people, in my experience, do meaningful work (thought most like to inflate their own sense of what the did do), and the program itself leaves a lot to be desired in terms of its actual benefit to low-income people.

BUT, it could be an opportunity to meet awesome people and to push yourself. And if you're not at least getting those benefits, maybe jumping ship is not a bad idea.

Also, you could do really great activist work while making twice as much money waiting tables at a restaurant. Something to think about. (If you can find another job in the current economy.)
posted by kensington314 at 9:56 AM on February 3, 2010

I don't think anyone has explicitly addressed the concealment idea (Jessamyn talked about why it's not necessary).

Don't lie. Getting busted in a lie is worse than explaining a bad fit.
posted by Pax at 11:34 AM on February 3, 2010

Yes, don't lie. If someone asks when you need to start a new job, make sure that you allow for adequate notice for your AmeriCorps job. You will look bad if you obviously leave them high and dry. Otherwise, well, it happens.
posted by kathrineg at 12:16 PM on February 3, 2010

September isn't that far off.. I mean, learning how to navigate a workplace where you have a difficult boss and have to work on poorly thought-out projects is a useful skill in and of itself, because there are a LOT of difficult bosses out there, and you may well end up in a similar situation in the future. Most of us probably do. I have found that it is usually better to not burn your bridges, if it is just a case of people being difficult and annoying. Even at jobs I have really liked, I have had to deal with other departments handing us poorly-thought-out projects and being unable to say "no," and with managers in other departments being kind of awful to deal with. But of course if the anxiety/depressing is truly becoming debilitating it's not worth it IMHO.
posted by citron at 12:50 PM on February 3, 2010

I'm a former VISTA as well, nice to see so many others!

Unless VISTA has changed since it came under the AmeriCorps umbrella (happened the year after my term), I thought the purpose of VISTA was to go into a community, identify needs, create programs, and include community members so that they can continue the program after you've left. I worked at a community health center and wrote a curriculum to teach kids about asthma; others did work with the homeless, drug addicts, and people living with HIV. The point was to develop and build up these programs so that people could still benefit from them after you've left.

If you're not getting that kind of experience, you definitely need to speak up. You should not just be stuffing envelopes or doing other bullshit work. Do you have someone who's kind of checking in with you from V/AC?

My experience was very, very difficult for me because I also was dealing with some major depression while I was there. Living with, working with, and not knowing anyone in the whole city other than my fellow VISTAs was really tough for me. I finally saw a therapist in month 9 and got on some medications and the last 3 months were COMPLETELY different for me. I would encourage you to seek treatment for the depression and see if that improves your experience.

That said, I learned more in that year than I could have ever imagined. I'm glad I toughed it out. But there was one guy in my group who needed to quit, and I don't think anyone really hassled him about it.

Good luck!
posted by zach braff's mixtape at 5:16 PM on February 3, 2010

I was a Teach for America corps member (sort of an Americorps program) with a two year commitment. After one year in, I was miserable and started looking for something else.

When I interviewed, I was only asked about why I was leaving TFA early once -- by my current employer. I explained that I thought the opportunity in this new position was great enough that it merited requesting an early release from my commitment. All of this was true.

I requested and was denied an early "official" release, but I left anyway. Two months before my commitment was supposed to end. It just happened that I didn't find a new job until after six months or so of searching.

If you're miserable, you're miserable -- commitment means nothing in that case. Start looking now, leave when you find something and don't look back.
posted by nayrb5 at 6:13 AM on February 4, 2010

I was an AmeriCorps member too. If you’re having a hard time and are getting assigned inappropriate work tasks, you should talk to your supervisor and show them your VAD (Volunteer Assignment Description). If that doesn’t work, you should contact the supervisor of your larger project/grant/umbrella agency. If that doesn’t work, talk to your state office staff. Following the chain of command ensures you’re being proactive about your placement and gives each level of supervisor the chance to make it better. They can’t change things if they don’t know it’s an issue.

If things don’t change and it’s a genuinely bad fit for both you and the project, you can request a transfer to another VISTA project. The state office is the one to approve this request. You should look at to find what sites are hiring and can contact those project managers about moving to one of their open VISTA slots.

If you decide to quit VISTA entirely, be honest, open, and respectful. Lying will get you nowhere, now or in the future. Be honest with yourself, your current employer, and future employers about what you were hoping to get out of the position and your reasons for leaving. Breaking your contract isn’t ideal, but isn’t the end of the world. You’ll need to decide what level of stress you’re willing to live with. And above all, your health is most important. If you’re suffering from depression and anxiety, get help regardless of if you stay in your role or not. Most every community has low cost, sliding scale counseling, and in VISTA you get prescription benefits that would make meds affordable if you chose to go that route.

Good luck!
posted by jepsy at 3:25 PM on February 4, 2010

Wow...I was surprised to find your post and sorry to find it as well! I know a bit about what you are going through as I am going through something very similar. I am also a VISTA volunteer coming up on the completion of my 6th month and dealing with the same decision!

My situation is different in that I am getting some OK projects to work on. I knew the projects before coming onboard, although the one I was the most interested in got pulled from me as they are hiring an outside professional. I am disappointed but I understand. I am however working for a difficult supervisor. I have been holding off speaking to this person because I want to get through my 6 months before I consider asking for a transfer. I am hoping when I sit down and speak frankly with the supervisor things will improve...however I have my doubts.

My environment is a very small office in which backstabbing and gossip are plentiful. I can't stand it! I am older and therefore "not in the clique" and the supervisor treats me differently from the other younger girls. I have even had other people in the office mention to me that she she's "short" with me and somewhat "rude". I am older than my supervisor and am not someone who has never worked in the real world before. I have held management positions so I easily see the mis-management of the workplace. The supervisor partakes in the gossip and even belittles one of the other employess (a male) in front of the others all the time. He told her recently that he wished we could put a stop to all the office gossip and she just laughed at him. you can see...not the ideal working environment. It is easy to start weighing whether you should stay and put up with it and hope you get a good reference in the end or just go get a better paying job so you can at least quit struggling financially because as a VISTA you are allowed no other part time work.

When I first started things were great. The supervisor seemed very happy to have us (myself and 1 other vista) but things have changed. My motivation level has dropped because most of my ideas and plans have all been squished by the supervisor. The supervisor micromanages everything, but doesn't give much direction. So when you complete something it is not what the supervisor wanted. So you get more direction and do it all over again and sometimes it still isnt good enough. When I go to get clarification or ask for more direction it is as though I am a bother. I don't feel like I am doing much to contribute to the community because I don't think my supervisor really cares about my project. I have doubts that when I leave the program may not even continue. I really did this because I wanted to see the non-profit side of things for the first time in my working career. I had really hoped to see if I could make some kind of a difference and feel some satisfaction by contributing in a bigger way...well I can tell you...that sure is not happening here. It seems like the organization is just sliding by and not really that dedicated to helping the community. I was tasked with doing a survey to find out if we are meeting the needs or our community and 85% of those surveyed don't even know who we are! The organization has been there for 10 years. Granted, I don't know the funding limitation or all the details behind the scenes but I see opportunities to reach out more and be more "out there" but heaven forbid I make any suggestion or even hint that the supervisor is not doing all that can be done. I won't even go into my requests to attempt to get grants for the organization....depressing.

My fellow VISTA has not helped the situation at all. She is always paying attn to what everyone else is going and has become the office snitch. She is the dress code police and complains if she doesn't think someone is doing their job. Of course, she happens to have a wonderful relationship with the supervisor (the supervisor seems very partial to the young girls in the office) and the supervisor makes new rules and changes things based on often misinformation from the other VISTA. They spend lots of time talking and whispering together.

Well...anyway I could go on but I better stop now. Good luck in your situation I hope everything turns out well for you. REALLY...I feel your pain! Who knows what the future holds? I thank you so much for posting this question as it has been helpful for me to read everyone's comments in trying to make up my mind. Any other comments are appreciated. I wish you the best!
posted by traveler123 at 12:10 PM on February 21, 2010

I figure I might as well put my two cents in, since this is the top result for "quit Americorps" on Google.

I quit Americorps. I struggled over the year with malaise, anxiety, and depression. I can't blame everything on my host site and I did pick up some valuable skills, but I wasn't able to make it the full year. In retrospect I was quite lucky. I knew many other VISTAS and some of them had bosses that abused them emotionally and treated them like indentured servants. My host site pretty much ignored me. I struggled to adjust to a new and expensive city on the pitiable salary. I struggled with feelings of inadequacy and hopelessness. I felt trapped and alone. I injured my back carrying boxes and doing other menial labor that was not part of my service agreement.

I applied myself in my boredom and read a bunch of programming books. I started illegally taking jobs on the side that challenged me more (my VISTA supervisors actually suggested I do this when I told them I was having financial difficulties), but they added to the stress and feeling like a fraud.

I had a nervous breakdown right before my term was up. I did not pass go, I did not collect the education award. What could I have done to prevent this?
1. I wish I had asked more critical questions about my site before choosing it.
2. I wish I had examined my own motivations more and questioned whether I could deal with the loss of freedom inherent in being a VISTA.
3. I should have taken advantage of the health insurance and seen a therapist... and I should have informed my supervisors of my issues.

But I was a mess and I was afraid of the stigma associated with mental illness. I wanted to finish, get a reference, and move on without revealing my problems. Ironically that just made things worse.

I'm not sorry I quit- I ended up at a job I enjoy, but I'm sorry I did VISTA because I have so many negative memories. Things were OK for me because by the end of the year I was a fairly skilled and in demand programmer. I had references from the clients I had worked for on the side. I consistently worried over my VISTA term that there was something wrong with me, but I have had no problems at "real" work. Maybe it's because I actually have challenging projects to do and am treated like an actual person by the people I work with?

Most other VISTAS I knew who quit also found good jobs- maybe because they felt motivated to escape.

Ironically, it was many of the ones who finished who ended up having to move back home. VISTA basically assumes you will do that since they'll pay for a ticket back home.
posted by idle at 3:34 PM on May 25, 2010

In my case, my non profit decided to hire me for a new position that opened within the agency. I did not know the education money would get pro-rated. It's awesome news.

I'm still struggling with the logistics of actually quitting, though.
posted by Tarumba at 2:01 PM on October 8, 2010

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