Is Americorps a good experience?
July 9, 2013 1:36 PM   Subscribe

Since I got out of the Navy, I've been having trouble making ends meet, and I would like to be able to stay in school. Now there are two different Americorps positions opening up near me, both doing Veterans Outreach, that would pay a living stipend, and after a year award a tuition voucher. I would like to hear all of your Americorps experiences, both good and bad. How did they manage your hours? How much freedom did you have to choose your own work? Were you able to stay in school at a reduced load or take a second job? What else have I forgotten to ask?

Details: This is in the inland part of the Pacific Northwest (USA). Both programs offer similar but not identical payments-- stiped is about $1150 per month, and tuition voucher is about $5000. I am in my mid-40s, and the work I would be doing is something I am passionate about. I have read this previous question, but it is almost five years old. Have things changed? Please share!
posted by seasparrow to Education (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Thanks for information, stoneweaver. I had noticed that the "Terms" field for individual listings on the Americorps website sometimes include variations like "Permits attendance at school during off hours" and "Second job permitted during off hours", so I guess this varies by the individual listing.
posted by seasparrow at 1:51 PM on July 9, 2013

Most Americorps assignments allow you to take a second job--as far as I know only VISTAs are disallowed from doing so, and they are often eligible for public assistance. This comment is an excellent explanation.

Otherwise, my experience (as an Americorps alum) is that most of the things you ask about--hours, autonomy, ability to maintain a second job or take classes--very much depend on the host site's culture and policies. Many "get" Americorps, but some do not, and it's very possible that you will even be asked to do things which are outside the scope of your official Americorps job description. If possible, I would try to talk to current Americorps members working at the site you're considering.
posted by pullayup at 1:57 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've done americorps twice at two different organizations, last year and 5 years ago. My experiences were great, enjoyable and professionally rewarding.

However, the answer to all of your questions is really that it depends on the organization. Americorps has some authority in shaping your position and advocating for you if you want things changed, but your host organization is really what will be deciding things like what your work will be, freedom, hours etc. The best advice I can give you is to try to get as good of an idea during the site interview how they see americorps, and to ask the host site to put you into contact with soneone who had the position the year before and address these questions to them. There are amazing sites and there are dud sites and your experience with americorps has a lot to do with how the supervisor at the site deals with you.

You may or may not be able to take a second job. Check the posting- if its americorps vista you will not be allowed to take a second job. If its state and national then you are allowed to take a job.
posted by geegollygosh at 1:59 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Talk to your potential predecessor/current person in the VISTA role at the organizations you are considering, definitely! I was state/national (in an 11-member corp) and my experience was very much about the site I was at; from what I heard from vistas I knew this was even more true since they tended to be the only AC member at their organization.
posted by heyforfour at 2:27 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I had a terrible AmeriCorps experience. I worked at a non-profit that was poorly run and very unprofessional (I was basically sent to babysit another VISTA who couldn't manage a grown up job and then ignored the rest of the time -- I was also sexually harassed and when I reported it, I was told that if I wasn't a volunteer, I would be fired).

In addition, my tuition voucher was suspended due to budget cuts (this was in 2001-2002) and all of my insurance claims were denied because of the same budget cuts. I had to pay back all of my medical bills I accrued in AmeriCorp (which were considerable -- one of the reasons I took the job was because it did offer medical benefits). I hear that things are much more stable now, but I have a bad taste in my mouth after my experience.

Here is what I would suggest you think about:

1. The tuition voucher will not be available to you until after your stint and then it can take up to a semester to go through the paperwork. If you are invested in staying in school, you should look into the GI bill or other military related benefits.
2. AmeriCorps is an organization with no top-down leadership. You will be completely under the thumb of the organization you work for, so look into them thoroughly and be sure you are comfortable with the organization, not AmeriCorps.
3. The living stipend is not much at all -- in fact it is nothing. I did not even qualify for assistance, however, because they pay you just enough to be over the poverty line.
4. Your "time off" and "flexibility" are really up to your organization -- again, discuss this thoroughly because the expectation is often that you spend 40 hours a week at the job.

I would encourage you to look into the links posted here and see how your school is set up to help you.
posted by mrfuga0 at 2:50 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

AmeriCorps is a crazy crapshoot. I did it for two years, in extremely different programs. I was a VISTA for a year and it was honestly a terrible experience. I had little to nothing to do and really didn't learn much. The only thing good about it was that it wasn't actively bad in the sense that I was being harrassed or abused or something like that. If you go the VISTA or other type of non profit route, really really research the organization you decide to work with.

My other AmeriCorps experience was with an AmeriCorps funded conservation corps and was really pretty amazing. In fact, you should really check out my corps' Green Veterans program. They really are good people and I'd be happy to talk to you privately about the organization. If that's not quite the route you want to go, there are a number of other corps around the country. I often recommend Washington State's program after having worked with some of those guys, though I believe they have an age limit. St. Louis also has a fairly amazing Emergency Response Team program that is funded by AmeriCorps. I worked closely with those guys responding to Hurricane Sandy, and they really are amazing.

Caveat: None of the conservation corps programs will really allow you to work a second job or go to school- you simply won't have the time. But they'll set you up well to think about a future career in a specific field. Many people transition from conservation corps to working with the Forest Service or related organizations.
posted by Polyhymnia at 3:03 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I also want to add that conservation corps is becoming my own personal Coast Guard.
posted by Polyhymnia at 3:15 PM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

If school is a MAIN part of your plan, I'd say think again about AmeriCorps. It may, indeed, be possible to take night classes...maybe even two a semester...but I would treat PT schooling as a bonus that happens to work out and not as a definite or even a definite maybe. As everyone says above, it depends on the site. You may be in a classic WPA-type make-work I-only-wish-I-had-tasks-to-keep-me-past-five situation, or you may be doing a job that is actually worth $40,000 a year. BUT even if you talk to others at your site, there's no way to know this for sure beforehand.

Also, I wouldn't count on the tuition voucher at all (see other comments). Think of that, too, as a nice bonus if it comes through.
posted by skbw at 4:36 PM on July 9, 2013

I was a VISTA from 2007-2009 at a legal aid organization. It was way more than 40 hours a week of serious work and really incompatible with other major obligations. I loved it and never lacked for high quality work experience and the structure, supervision, and training that made it possible for me to succeed. It was definitely not a good career choice as far as making money.
posted by steinwald at 5:32 PM on July 9, 2013

I am one of the disaffected AmeriCorps people who had a terrible experience. (Memail me for more particulars.) Nthing that the particulars of your day to day experience depend heavily on your site, and that you will want to ask lots of questions of your site supervisor during your interview.

Other people are suggesting talking with past AmeriCorps members from your site of choice, and that's a good idea if your site has had AmeriCorps members prior to you. If you are, as I was, in a situation where you are the site's first potential AmeriCorps, I'd vet even harder. Here are some questions that are especially good to think about in that situation, but can probably be applied anywhere:

-Does your site supervisor have a solid workplan written out for you, with somewhat quantifiable assignments and goals?
-What are your organization's long-term goals independent of you? Do they have a well-articulated vision and mission for the long-term written up?
-Does the organization's long-term mission amount to 'grow this organization on the backs of unpaid interns and/or AmeriCorps volunteers?' If this appears to be the case RUN AWAY NOW.
-Does the organization string you along in the interview process? Do they put you through multiple poorly-planned interviews, or appear to communicate poorly with the program coordinator on the AmeriCorps end? This is another glaring red flag. Not that it happened to me or anything.

That said--if you have even the slightest interest in a non-profit career in the long run, I'd suggest at least interviewing for positions and seeing how functional the sites look. Almost all of my 20-something friends who have real grown-up non-profit positions with benefits started out as AmeriCorps volunteers. One of those friends told me outright that unpaid internships or AmeriCorps positions are one of the only ways into her field. (Fund-raising and development.) Don't even get me started on how it SUCKS, SO HARD that so many grants for organizations that aid poor and marginalized communities are written by interns and AmeriCorps volunteers with no experience in those communities. That's fucked up on so many levels, but I digress.

The point is, even after my horrible awful AmeriCorps experience I'm considering applying for another year of it this year, because I don't see another way to break into some of the areas I'm interested in. I hate that the economy is such that I feel the need to do this, but here I am. If veterans' outreach is something you're interested in doing later, AmeriCorps might be a good place to start. (Provided that the organization is functional.)

Go ahead and apply. Tread carefully. Read the chapter about AmeriCorps in Intern Nation first. Best of luck.
posted by ActionPopulated at 5:40 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

Also, I wouldn't count on the tuition voucher at all (see other comments).

AND--surprised this hasn't come up yet--it's taxable.

I really feel very positively about my AmeriCorps experience, but it was a particular program that's only open to college-age workers and included room & board. I frankly can't see A* being worthwhile for someone in his 40s, especially with the thin living stipend.
posted by psoas at 12:10 PM on July 10, 2013

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