Quit my job and join Americorps?
January 19, 2012 4:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm thinking of quitting my job to join Americorps, a program where you volunteer for a non-profit for a year and get paid a small living stipend. Am I completely out of my mind? Here's my background. I graduated from a small liberal arts college with a degree in a social science about 6 years ago and took an office job just to be able to pay my student loans and get health insurance.

I do not make very much money (less than $30k) and most days, I cannot wait for the work to be over. I haven't found a new job because I truthfully have no idea what I want to do, and I am mostly qualified to do things I do not like to do.

I came across information for Americorps and it seemed perfect. I could get a position in a field in which I am interested, move to a new city, and hopefully learn some new skills that I could use to move into another field. Hopefully, I would feel like I am doing something important. I have enough money saved that I would be okay in an emergency.

I guess that my biggest fears are that 1. I will have a terrible job site and I will be miserable and 2. that I will be unable to find a position once the year is over.

I have searched Metafilter for other posts on Americorps, and it seems like it is something that you either love or hate. I would welcome any more opinions on my situation.
posted by aka_anon to Work & Money (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Which AmeriCorps program are you looking at, State and National or VISTA?
posted by Ideal Impulse at 4:22 PM on January 19, 2012

I'm in the Love AmeriCorps camp. It sounds like you're looking into AmeriCorps VISTA programs. You'll be able to choose which non-profit you work for and then pick from the positions they list. VISTA programs are typically orchestration positions. You probably won't be doing boots-on-the-ground work.

Completing a year of VISTA service qualifies you for a 1-year veteran's exemption on USAJobs, which would give you a leg up applying for federal jobs. You'll also get experience working for an organization that you wouldn't be able to work for if you needed a paying job. That's priceless experience.

If you're up to move around during your AmeriCorps stint, you might look into team leading for NCCC.
posted by thewestinggame at 4:25 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @ Ideal Impulse - I'm actually open to both. VISTA would probably be the most useful for me, but some of the positions I really like are actually State/National.
posted by aka_anon at 4:31 PM on January 19, 2012

I did AmeriCorps VISTA in the 2005-2006 year; later I parlayed this into a full-time job. It really depends on your placement, so I would get to know the organizations you apply to VERY well. Talk to AmeriCorps alums if you can find any from those organizations. One friend in my cohort had to transfer halfway through because CNS suspended his org from the program. Another quit early because her co- workers were so awful. I loved my job so much I stayed for two more years. You may find it easier to do a placement in your current city so you can do better due diligence.

You're also going to make roughly 1/3rd of your current salary. In some cities, this is very difficult to live on comfortably. That's part of the point but you really need to be okay scaling your life down so much.

You will probably find a job after your year. Two of us stayed on at our orgs, and two had a hard time finding jobs. (This was in Portland, though, so mitigating factors? Portland is a great to do VISTA because there are so many resources and like minded people without a ton of cash.)
posted by emkelley at 4:36 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I did a year of both. My experience with VISTA wasn't the best due to some staff turnover and funding changes that happened the year I was there. I would be wary about quiting an office type job to do a VISTA position, since a lot of the positions (not all, but most) are very office/administrative-based. It really depends on the position, but you would have to make sure you'd actually be learning new skills, etc, at VISTA. A lot of friends had similar experiences, for various reasons, and felt very removed from the work that the non-profit did, and spent a lot of time answering phones, filing, filling out paperwork, that kind of stuff.

I think learning about the position/interviewing for it from a different city would make this element even more challenging, since you really need to know the organization well to figure out what kind of role you will play--the work environment, the tone, the co-workers all really matter.

I also did a State and National position doing hands on work; it was more challenging than my VISTA year, and I enjoyed it more, and I felt like there was more of an emphasis on my own personal development. I learned more doing hands on work than I did doing administrative. I still think it depends a lot of your organization, and how well you fit with it.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 4:44 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I did AmeriCorps VISTA in the 2005-2006 year; later I parlayed this into a full-time job.

This was pretty much me, although this

My experience with VISTA wasn't the best due to some staff turnover and funding changes that happened the year I was there.

Is also me. I did VISTA right out of grad school (and quit early because I was being asked to do secretarial work) and then did AmeriCorps a few years ago which would have turned into a full-time job if I'd wanted it to (and was also terribly managed at the higher levels but my local contacts were awesome). I got some money for school which I didn't need and the pay was decent enough, and my workplace flexible enough, that I really recommend it. Here is what I would think about if I were you

- Can you make it on what they will pay you?
- Is the health insurance they offer enough for you? [in case you have chronic health conditions]
- Are you okay with being with a lot of younger people and some people re-entering the workforce? [some of the people in VISTA seemed to be young college grads and some seemed to be in job-retraining situations, very very different groups]
- How well can you tolerate paperwork and bullshit? I had to do a lot of paperwork for AmeriCorps, attend some mandatory retreat things, and get fingerprinted at my own expense. I had to agree to protect the US "against all enemies foreign and domestic" and give the government an awful lot of information about me

So I agree with what people are saying, check out the organizations that are doing the sponsorship in addition to the actual job placement situations [they may be the same, they may not be the same] and make sure everyone seems with the program. Do not expect a lot of flexibility unless it's indicated that this might be the case. Make sure you understand the rules and can work within them [depending on your project and how hardass people are, you may be asked to be pretty quiet on your "personal politics" which was a tough one for me] and talk to the people currently working with the organization and see if they seem not just happy but if you think that you'd be happy in their place. There may be jobs that are a lot more fun as an 18 year old high school grad than they would be to someone who has to make rent or whatever. Feel free to MeMail me if you want to talk more.
posted by jessamyn at 4:54 PM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]

I did a program called Public Allies 2002-2003 in DC (alas that branch of it went defunct). I knew my placement organization from an internship I had done. I was fresh out of college so a lot of the following may not apply but here's what I got out of it:

1) a supportive structure for my transition from Midwestern small town to large urban area.

2) clarity on what I wanted to do as a career (my bosses were great about giving me freedom to explore things even beyond my placement and Public Allies also brought in a lot of people doing cool things).

3) something that helped me get into law school.

4) If I had not gone the law school/grad school route (no one should go to law school nowadays, btw), I would have had a ton of connections in DC or even the national network- there was some career placement assistance.

5) forbearance on my loans (watch out for capitalized interest)

6) about 18k, and health insurance, plus hookups if I had wanted to pursue governemtn benefits (I got some extremely cheap housing so I was lucky).

7) Experiences that shape my perceptions to this day.

It's not for everyone, and a lot of folks dropped out of my program. I got horribly frustrated and almost quit myself, and I got SO SICK of the kumbaya activities they kept making us do (my nickname was "Oscar" as in "the Grounch"), but it was worth it.
posted by t_rex_raaar at 5:22 PM on January 19, 2012

I am in the "Hate AmeriCorps" camp. Here is why:

1. I was a VISTA with a non-profit I believed in. I came with a business degree and lots of experience (as in, working for nationally televised events) in event-planning and marketing (to groups of over 20,000). I was treated as a volunteer, and told multiple times in meetings to be quiet, not butt in, just do what I was told and not offer suggestions, etc.
2. I was put in charge of monitoring another VISTA's work (as in, making sure she came to work on time and making sure she didn't play on the internet), which was highly inappropriate and highly uncomfortable.
3. My medical insurance covered everything during the year, but at the end of the year, I was billed FOR THE ENTIRE AMOUNT. The insurance and AmeriCorps claimed there was a misunderstanding, but I was still liable for all my medical bills in full.
4. I finished in 2002, the year that AmeriCorps ran out of money. When I finished, I was told I would not get my stipend. It took a year, plus lots of string pulling with our senator to get my money.
5. I was paid $600 a month. I lived pretty poorly, which was fine, as it was my choice. However, I don't know that moving from $30K a year to $7200 a year is the jump you desire.
6. I found my work boring, uninteresting, and lots of times, unethical.
7. My organization is known for treating AmeriCorps people poorly (my brother worked for the same one).

I would thoroughly investigate the situation at the place you intend to choose. Check ALL departments, not just the one you work in (if you are placed in Marketing, check with those AmeriCorps, not just the accounting ones). Double check and be sure you have complete, air-tight recourse if you have issues with insurance or the education stipend. Be prepared to live without ANY money, not just at a slightly lower standard than you already have (oh, and you can't apply for food stamps or welfare). Be prepared to do work that is less interesting than what you already do (remember that AmeriCorps is not in the business of promoting you or helping your career, so you might do incredibly menial work and that's just how it is). Be prepared to leave with no actual new skills that might help you get a job.

I hated it. Still hate it. Would hate it harder if it was possible.
posted by mrfuga0 at 6:47 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

We did a case study of the AmeriCorps finances leading up to the 2002-2003 budget disaster this past semester in my non-profit financial management class. There were students in course (a grad course, mind you) who STILL are waiting for their stipends from that 2001-2004 cohort. So do be aware that they have a reputation for shaky financials (not due to shady activity, but by the crazycrazy funding streams at the state and federal levels and politics). Take this with a grain of salt because I have absolutely NO idea what their budget and resource development strategy is now--they may have learned their lesson. ...But were I you, I'd do some research first given how tight budgets are everywhere because I'm paranoid about that stuff.
posted by smirkette at 6:54 PM on January 19, 2012

I work at a state college. We have had a couple wonderful Americorps volunteers working on our campus who have helped to start student organizations and gotten students involved in community service. One of them went on to grad school in higher education student services when his year ended, the other went on to supervise Americorps volunteers in another city. They, and we, benefited from their volunteer service.
posted by mareli at 7:02 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I can´t stress hard enough that you need to vet your would-be work site hardcore. Ask them if they´ve had AmeriCorps volunteers before, and if so what those volunteers have done. Do they have a workplan written up for you? Ask about the organization´s longer term goals. Do they even have them written up? Does that longterm plan amount to ´run the entire organization on the backs of AmeriCorps volunteers?´ (If so, run far far away.)

I was warned about unscrupulous organizations misusing, or at least having no clue what to do with, AmeriCorps volunteers. I asked some of the right questions at my site interview (e.g. has this site had AmeriCorps volunteers before). And yet I STILL wound up quitting my placement early because I wound up at...well, an unscrupulous organization that didn´t know how to deal with AmeriCorps volunteers, with bonus crazy boss. That was my first job out of college, and almost three years later it´s still messing with my self-esteem.

That said, I only hate(d) my placement, not AmeriCorps as an organization. Plenty of other folks in my cohort were placed at reputable organizations, got better support, and were able to turn their volunteering into actual work. It can be done. Just ask a million and a half questions about your work, and don´t accept vague answers.
posted by ActionPopulated at 7:49 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]

I did a year as a non-VISTA Americorps member while I was in college, and I went on to work for my host site for three summers after I finished. I loved my host site but wouldn't say I'm either in the "love it" or "hate it" camp as far as Americorps in general is concerned.

As you may have figured out from the comments here, part of the reason people tend to either love or hate Americorps is that your day-to-day experience is 99% determined by the particulars of your host site. Sometimes, it can come down to the actions and attitudes of a single person, and whether they get it. Some of them really, really get it, and some really don't.

It really depends on your placement, so I would get to know the organizations you apply to VERY well. Talk to AmeriCorps alums if you can find any from those organizations.

I can´t stress hard enough that you need to vet your would-be work site hardcore.

This is the best advice this thread can give you. Even in cases that don't exactly constitute fraud or misconduct you could wind up doing work that is menial and unlikely to provide any kind of career development beyond the good citizen vibes provided by the "Americorps VISTA" on your resume; you should carefully consider (and know in advance) what kind of work experience you'll be getting and how it can serve you after you finish, because beyond that it's essentially a sub-minimum wage job. I'm proud of the work I did for my host site, but it was never more than seasonal 1099 employment after I graduated, and the experience wasn't useful for finding a career outside of a very narrow slice of the job market (though this may have been exacerbated by the timing, as my last year there was 2009).
posted by pullayup at 8:03 PM on January 19, 2012

Like mrfuga0 I did Public Allies and loved it. I ended up staying at my placement as a staff member after my americorps term. I'd encourage you to look into Public Allies and also City Year. One warning: Americorps health insurance is a joke, it covered exactly $0 of my medical bills and it didn't offer discounts like most insurance plans do even when they don't cover costs.
posted by entropyiswinning at 1:55 PM on January 20, 2012

Response by poster: Hello all - I did end up applying for the position, but I was not chosen. I am glad that I applied, but looking back, kind of relieved that I was not picked. I'm still at the job I do not like, but I've made a number of other changes to my life that have made me happier overall. Thanks again for your replies.
posted by aka_anon at 1:38 PM on December 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

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