Am I cut out for Americorps?
July 23, 2010 11:04 AM   Subscribe

I'm thinking of joining AmeriCorps NCCC, or possibly VISTA. What does the program entail? Has anyone here gone in one of the programs?

I've been suffering with depression, but I think I'm mostly out of the pit. I was able to read through an A+ Certification book, and I think I'm ready for the test in a week or so. My concentration and motivation still aren't at the point that I think I'm ready for regular college yet, but some volunteer work or internships sound feasible to me.

I've been looking at Americorps' website, and I think the NCCC or VISTA programs look like a good fit for me. However, I feel like I'm only seeing it from one perspective on their website. What's the program like? Is it strict or more relaxed? What can I bring? What can't I bring? Will it be hard to stay in contact with family and friends? Are there major consequences if it turns out I'm just not ready for something like this and need to leave? Do most schools/employers recognize and appreciate Americorps service? Will they let me see a psychiatrist and/or therapist, either on my own healthcare plan or their plan (whichever is cheaper)? How selective are they? Would they consider my issues with depression a reason not to take me, or triumph over adversity? Anything else I should consider?

As a 21 year old who has only lived in a college dorm and with his family, 10 months far away sounds like a big step. However, my life is in idle. I can't get a legitimate job in my area in the current economy (no retail experience), and the work I do get is fixing computers under the table.

I'm considering Americorps in addition to Dynamy (gap-year internship program) and getting an internship on my own, but right now I'm filling out apps for all three. Americorps sounds gratifying in a way that a traditional internship would not be, which sounds good for the world, and good for my depression. However, all three would help me get my work ethic back.
posted by mccarty.tim to Work & Money (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I worked at a former nonprofit where there were VISTAs and I got the sense that it probably depends on the organization you work for. They used to leave for trainings and things like that, and our org submitted some kind of work plans (I wasn't involved in that part and only know vaguely how they came about getting VISTA volunteers). They seemed to really hate it, but the org got a good deal on labor. They had to work very hard for very little, but I think the culture you end up getting depends on where you get placed. The VISTAs who worked for my org-- well, they hadn't been looking for an AmeriCorps experience, they just had some kind of tie to the org through the ED and VISTA funded them.
posted by anniecat at 11:19 AM on July 23, 2010

It really, really depends on the gig. Americorps encompasses a myriad of projects, and everyone I know has had a different experience. My girlfriend ran a teen center in Utah for 7 months as a VISTA. It was hard and thankless work that didn't pay...but I think she enjoyed it and had a good overall experience. If you stick it through they give you some money towards your student loans, so that's a plus.

So, I would look for a project that seems interesting to you. And then, yeah, go for it.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:25 AM on July 23, 2010

I'm just finishing up my VISTA year this next week, so I'll write up my own little review later tonight (all the good and the bad).

I will say that if you do think about Americorps stuff, the Twin Cities has one of the strongest relationships with the organization, so if you're looking for good opportunities, we have plenty (also we can hang out if you do make it out here).
posted by Think_Long at 11:26 AM on July 23, 2010

Response by poster: I'm located in Central Jersey, but my family is thinking of moving in a year.
posted by mccarty.tim at 11:30 AM on July 23, 2010

I think VISTA requires a college degree.

I'm starting an AmeriCorps State & National position this fall. Not quite the same as NCCC, but I can offer some advice in general. From what I've heard it is pretty competitive to get in (25% acceptance rate?). The interview process was long but not overly intense. Never once during interviews was I asked about any physical or mental conditions. They seemed more concerned with prospective candidates' ability to survive on the living stipend. People do quit AmeriCorps before their term ends, but from what I've heard it tends to be for financial reasons. So, you might want to take you financial situation into account.

Another option you might consider is just offering to volunteer at a local non-profit on your own. Non-profits always need reliable volunteers and you could get a job reference out of it (after successfully volunteering there for a solid chunk of time, of course). I did this and it was a major plus for my AmeriCorps application, as the programs were directly related.

If you just want a job to get you out of the house, what about places that will hire anyone? McDonald's, dishwashing, etc? I know these aren't desirable jobs, but they would get you out of the house doing something and earning some money. You can then use that experience to trade up to a better job.

Good luck!
posted by squawk at 11:39 AM on July 23, 2010

Best answer: I have been a VISTA volunteer [maybe 15 years ago] and a local AmeriCorps volunteer more recently. The answers to your questions are very program dependent, but I think there are a few things that seemed the same among many programs so I'll try to give some broad strokes answers.

What's the program like? Is it strict or more relaxed?

The programs I have been involved with were pretty relaxed and I get the feeling that this is the exception, not the rule. Many programs that I have known people in have, in addition to a fairly serious schedule, a lot of other things to do [trainings, in-service days, that sort of thing] so you're kept pretty busy. And as far as strict, depends. There's a real effort to get people to fit into their communities and some places take this as more serious than others, having dress codes and conduct codes. That said, when I was in VISTA there was also an attempt to get people who were... "new to the workplace" into volunteer positions so there were a lot of people who had a really hard time with the whole work thing and I found that the programs worked hard to help those people learn about the world of work. That said, it's a government program so they take some things seriously. You'll have to learn about the Hatch act and the things you can and can't do as far as political stuff. If you have strong political opinions [or opinions that seem political like marriage equality or whatever] people may ask you to keep them to yourselves. This may annoy you or it may be workable.

What can I bring? What can't I bring? Will it be hard to stay in contact with family and friends?

There should be no problem keeping in touch with people assuming you have a cell phone and whatever. The income is really low, some jobs offer or suggest housing and others leave you on your own. Assume you'd be in some sort of dorm room environment. I had one friend who was working for the Civ Conservation Corps [I think? this may have been a City Year program] and he moved all over the place, so it was sort of important that he had a portable amount of stuff. You may or may not have a lot of free time for socializing. There is a big orientation if you get accepted to the program that will answer a lot of these questions.

Are there major consequences if it turns out I'm just not ready for something like this and need to leave?

No. I left one of my programs. You may not get the educatonal stipend, depending on how you opted to receive it, but there is no problem with leaving. I mean people may be disappointed in you, but they will be fine.

Do most schools/employers recognize and appreciate Americorps service? Will they let me see a psychiatrist and/or therapist, either on my own healthcare plan or their plan (whichever is cheaper)?

My feeling is that most schools accept the educational awards you get and also that they get what AmeriCorps is and it's generally thought of as a good thing. More importantly, for a lot of younger people it's a chance to work hard in a real job where you do real work sort of straight off the bat which, if that's your thing, is great. My first position was at Seattle Public Library when I was right out of library school and I never would have been able to get a job there as a new graduate otherwise. As far as medical care, their care isn't great if I recall but no one should have an issue with you having therapy appointments. They may want to know that if you are dealing with depression, that you are managing it. My understanding [and I could be wrong] is that it's a qualifying disability at some level so they can't keep you out for having depression.

Anything else I should consider?

If you move, you may be away from support networks and in a weird place. You could opt to go into a program near you. You should poke around on tehir websites and think about the sorts of jobs you would nejoy. You should think about how you feel working for the government and working with other young do-gooders who have also chosen that path. I found it enjoyable and it was a leg-up to the local job I currently have, five years later. Please email me if I can help further.
posted by jessamyn at 11:45 AM on July 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Well, I just registered for the sole purpose of answering this question!

I have done both VISTA (which is hands off) and an Americorps State Program (which is hands on). Your experience with VISTA really depends on the non-profit, and your supervisor. I would make sure you're working with an organization that has had VISTA volunteers in the past, or a supervisor who has experience working with VISTAs. If you get to the interview stage, you'll be interviewing them as much as they are you. At my VISTA position, my awesome boss who had worked with dozens of VISTAs in the past ended up leaving about halfway into my year, and was replaced by a woman who had no clue was Americorps was, what a VISTA was, what my role was, how little I was getting paid, etc, and working with her was really frustrating and upsetting. I found the actual work satisying enough that I stayed on, but I could imagine a situation where I left the year early because of my relationship with this boss.

Selectivity depends on the organization as well. There's a few basic qualifications you must have, and then after that, it depends on the org. They'll be interviewing just as for a regular job (again, this is VISTA and State--I'm not sure how NCCC works). My VISTA position was with a smaller, less well known non-profit. I applied for, and was rejected from, some similar roles at larger, cooler, hipper organizations that probably had more interviewees.

I felt like, in both positions, at the end of the day, I was simply an employee of the organization. I had limits on what I could do with my time, but I wasn't treated any differently, for better or for worse. I liked feeling like a member of the organization, but often needed more support and guidance than your regular new hire.

The trainings for both programs were excellent--both the orientation and the in-service programs throughout the year. Both have helped me in other jobs.

The health insurance isn't so great. There's no coverage for pre-exisiting conditions. I found this guide online that says you are limited to three outpatient mental health visits.

I did both these programs in the Twin Cities, and Americorps is a "thing" there, so when I was applying for jobs afterwards, most people had some experience with it, or at least knew what it was. I have since moved to the West Coast, where Americorps is just not a big deal at all, and I've had to explain my positions sometimes to people during job interviews. It's surprising to me how few people here have heard of it, or understand what it is. So I don't know if having this experience on your resume is a slam dunk for future jobs.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 11:59 AM on July 23, 2010

Best answer: Hey there! I did AmeriCorps*NCCC 2004-2005 at their (now defunct) southeast (Charleston, SC) campus. It was the most challenging and the most rewarding year of my life so far. I did it right out of high school and was the youngest on my team, so my experience was pretty similar to yours in terms of leaving home for the first time.

You will have a short psych evaluation over the phone and they'll request your medical records if you disclose your history of depression in your application (they ask for it, I believe). I had a very serious history of depression and anxiety and I was incredibly nervous about this aspect of the process, but it was fine. They basically want to know if you're self-aware enough to recognize when you need help and that you can handle the day-to-day. Be honest, it's likely it won't affect their decision to accept you into the program and it can only help if things take a bad turn while you're there.

In terms of what you can and can't bring, they'll supply you with a very detailed list. It's probably changed some. Definitely DO bring a camera, laptop/ipod/e-reader if you have them.

The biggest challenge with *NCCC is living, working, sleeping, eating, breathing with the same 9-11 people for 10 whole months, but don't worry - most people survive (and make great friends).

Leaving early - it's OK! Lots of people leave. My team was one of I think four or five that didn't lose at least one team member by the end of the year. I almost left mid-year after a bad bout of depression, but after the holiday break, some much needed R&R, and a medication adjustment, I decided to go back and I don't regret it for a second. You may be able to get a portion of the education award, you might not. In terms of concrete consequences, that's the only one I can think of.

Please memail me if you have more questions. I could talk about *NCCC all day. I highly recommend *NCCC, especially if you're not sure of the type of work you want to do. The traveling and different project areas provide a good variety, so you're bound to have at least one project that suits your fancy!
posted by SugarAndSass at 12:26 PM on July 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Darnit, too excited and misread and forgot a couple things (I see you lived in a dorm, so, yeah, you've got more experience living away from home than I did!).

Your experience with how strict the program is will vary a lot depending on your team leader. My team was pretty relaxed. Rules you really shouldn't break: 1) No drugs (they do random testing). 2) No drinking in *NCCC residences (including SPIKE (project) housing). 3) No physical fighting. Otherwise, the things that grated on me occasionally: 1) P.T. - 5:30 a.m. exercise was NOT fun for me, especially when it was coooold (teams usually get to decide P.T. regimens after training and most teams don't stick with the early morning torture). 2) Uniforms & dress code are sort of silly, though we rarely were told to tuck in our shirts when doing manual labor outside (unless, of course, they were taking photos).

Keeping in touch with family and friends is pretty easy. You're rarely in a situation without access to the internet, and almost never in a situation without electricity for charging phones and whatnot (though I think there are a few projects each year where that's the case). Even then, your team will most likely be able to regularly take the van to the nearest town and hit up a cafe or library where you can charge your phone or use a computer even if you don't have a laptop. Even if you don't have a cell phone, your teammates will let you borrow theirs.
posted by SugarAndSass at 12:37 PM on July 23, 2010

To answer some of your specific questions, if you plan on continuing therapy, keeping your own health plan would be smart. NCCC and VISTA share a health plan. It is not insurance and it ends the day your service ends -- no COBRA. (There's a COBRA-esque continuation partnership, but it's not cheap) The health plan is designed for otherwise healthy people who are living off a subsistence stipend. It is actually very, very good at meeting this goal. For instance, the co-pays are very low and meds have no co-pay at all. It's basically a really great catastrophic plan -- but it is there for emergencies and unexpected illnesses and not much else. It won't cover a physical. It won't cover a pre-existing condition (except when it's life/limb, go to the ER urgent) and,although I believe it might handle two or three mental health visits, it's not designed for ongoing depression. The only preventative care that it covers is one yearly pap smear for women. You definately would want to keep your existing insurance. You can have the Corps plan on top of that and your regular insurance just gets billed first.

AmeriCorps State and National members recieve whatever health insurance that employees recieve at their service site. That's because their sponsors recieve cash grants to fund the entire program. VISTA sponsors recieve a volunteer who is funded and recieves benefits directly from VISTA.

VISTA does require a college degree or "equivalent experience."

One thing that VISTA talks alot about at orientation is the lifecycle of service. Because of the complicated nature of the anti-poverty mission challenge and setback are expected. It usually sets in right after the honeymoon high wears off around month 3. Non-profits are struggling to stay afloat. Their clients moreso. Generational poverty has no easy one-year solution. Sometimes not everyone at a non-profit shares the same vision or are imperfect supervisors. Sometimes this disenfranchised feeling is called the 'storming' period and it's not all that different than any other depression. Teams with NCCC also experience storming as they face the realities of such close living with so many varied personalities. Not everybody snaps out of storming. It takes a bit of resilience, adaptability and willingness to communicate and compromise. After storming comes norming (trying new strategies, communicating and adjusting norms) and then performing. This is all to say, even the best (especially the best) service years are a rollercoaster ride. You will have your expectations challenged in a drastic way. As you make your decision, it would be a good idea to talk to your mental health helpers about what might happen during the dips and what safeties you plan to set up to get out of them.

Another dealbreaker/maker for VISTA is making sure that you apply for organizations that are the right fit for you. You should be actively "interviewing" the sponsoring organization also and not just letting them choose you.
posted by Skwirl at 12:56 PM on July 23, 2010

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