Is AmeriCorps worth looking into?
July 8, 2008 11:30 PM   Subscribe

I'm thinking about applying for an AmeriCorps job with serious reservations.

It's all vague right now... I wish I could be more specific, but I'm having a hard time navigating their system. Basically, I just don't know how the program operates.

In a nutshell I'm a recent undergrad. I took a long time to get through college. I was once an art student at a stupidly expensive school. I almost graduated but then faltered in my senior year. I'm in a bunch of debt and recently got a B.S in communications from a state school in Illinois. I'm still waiting tables and close-ish to 30.

My second-round college plan was to study journalism. I did incredibly well, all things considered, won impressive awards, learned things, and met incredible people in the field. Ideally, I'd love an internship at NPR, Vocalo, WTTW, et al. I'm thinking about applying to U of I Springfield's Public Affairs program. I've also been thinking of getting a Master's In Education with an emphasis on HS journalism (however that works) but...

I'm at a point in my life where I can't work for NOTHING. Internships available to recent college grads are impossible for me financially. I am currently paying the principal interest on my loans by waiting tables 30-50 hours a week. I want out. It is dehumanizing and I've been making money this way since I was 16.

So I've been thinking about doing AmeriCorps. Hypothetically, I could "volunteer" there and only work a food service job a couple of nights a week to make ends meet. Is this possible? Can you work on top of an AmeriCorps job? In Chicago? And can it lead to actual employment and/or grad school scholarships? Any first-person accounts would be greatly appreciated.

And, no, I don't know which specific program I'm talking about. Something to do with schools, community building, or some other thing that I will eventually love but have yet to hear about. I don't understand the breadth of various programs available. Have you or anyone you know done any of them?
posted by macrowave to Work & Money (14 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
A good friend of mine did City Year, which I believe involves many of the things that you are interested in. He spent his two years with them and enjoyed it enough that he stayed on, working several more years for them in a more senior position. The main drawback, it sounds like, is that you have to wear a uniform.
posted by ecab at 11:47 PM on July 8, 2008

I did incredibly well, all things considered, won impressive awards, learned things, and met incredible people in the field.

Contact those incredible people. Fresh-out-of-college jobs are either companies taking a flier on mostly unproven talent who really does well in an interview, or they're all about who you know. Hell, even after twenty years of experience, many job offers are based upon who you know at the company you're applying at.

Basically, you need to intensify your job search beyond the Craigslists and the Monsters of the world. Make some phone calls to people. Go out to lunch with some of your old contacts, and tell them you're looking for a job. Now is not the time to say "I want to work for these three companies"-- even people with seriously impressive resumes don't often get to do that. You have, essentially, a blank resume.

Americorps is a fine entity, and you would be doing positive work, no question. Will it lead to more connections? Sure, but you can always just go to your local chamber of commerce meeting and make just as many professional connections, and you aren't required to show up there. Similarly, as someone who makes hiring decisions, I don't know that seeing Americorps on the resume, with no other experience, would necessarily make your resume jump out at me.

So, the short answer is, good luck with your job search! As a communications major, there are plenty of places that are always looking for junior-level positions (especially in Chicago, or any other metropolitan area). You may have a mundane job for the first couple of years, but it has to beat waiting tables, no?

I am currently paying the principal interest on my loans by waiting tables 30-50 hours a week. I want out.

Once you find a new job, take the time to consult with a CPA. You may be able to file Chapter 13 bankruptcy and have your student loan principal reduced greatly. (I believe you can no longer completely get rid of student loan debt, save for hardships, but then I'm not a CPA, so take that with a grain of salt.)
posted by mark242 at 12:04 AM on July 9, 2008

speaking from experience, i was not able to serve in americorps and work elsewhere. i was, however, in the nccc and it sounds as if you'd most likely be applying for a state/local program. in which case, i think you'd have to look at the kind of programs you'd be going after to see if it would work. and you'd have to get the a-okay from your supervisor. if memory serves correct, you'll be able to defer your loans while serving. plus, at the end of your service you get a nice little bundle o' money packaged as the education voucher.

being in the nccc, i had my housing and food needs met by the program. as a corps member in one the state/local programs, you'd be responsible for that. i would imagine you'll be able to pool resources with fellow americorps members. keep in mind, you make a stipend and it is small! but i don't see with the right amount of research into the programs you'd be applying for you couldn't find some that would allow for a part time job. just keep in mind, that you need to make the program your number one priority.

as far as your time of service leading to employment and/or grad school---YES! i can't tell you the number of doors that can open up after being a part of that kind of program. it will be up to you to go after them and it helps if you've made the most of your experience in the program. completing your term of service qualifies as test of character--sticking to a program and giving it your all.

congrats on your "second-round" college success. and good luck with the search.
posted by ms.jones at 12:05 AM on July 9, 2008

I was in this AmeriCorps program for a year. I lived of off the stipend in a tiny apartment with two friends and ate a lot of ramen. But I gained valuable experience for work I'm now doing. My master's advisor told me that my AmeriCorps experience, more than my academic records, was what made her want to work with me. And yes, the shiny feeling of doing work that matters and serving your country feels pretty good, too.

A couple of my coworkers had part time jobs. One ended up quitting because she was frustrated with how much more money she could have been making by working her waitress job full time. Several of them lived at home (some of them were fresh out of high school rather than college) which obviously makes the stipend more affordable. I think for me it would have been very hard to have an additional job, but I also commuted a good way so that I could live with friends. But also we were doing hard physical labor a lot of the time, leaving me pretty worn out, which is not the case for every program.

One thing you might not know is that the federal AmeriCorps program pays the interest on your student loans while you serve, in addition to the education award you get when you're done that can be used to pay of loans. Or at least I assume that's still true (I served 1999-2000).
posted by hydropsyche at 4:43 AM on July 9, 2008

I am currently an AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer.

The pros: I get to defer my student loans for now, I get a "paid" (after taxes I'm only taking home about $375 every 2 weeks), I will get close to $5,000 towards my student loans at the end of my year of service, it's excellent experience to put on a resume, and I'm getting great references out of it.

The cons: cannot work or go to school (as VISTAs are "on call" 24/7), I'm a volunteer so I am really dependent on my husband to be bringing home enough money for us to live on, I'm not allowed to be involved in political campaigns (which sucks during an election year).
posted by at 5:01 AM on July 9, 2008

I was an Americorps Member. My girlfriend is currently an Americorps member. It has, in the past, been my job to supervise Americorps members.

There are 2 different kinds of Americorps. Well, ok, 3.
1. There are Vistas. Can't do direct service, get paid less. Most people are most familiar with these. Vistas have the option of taking a cash sum instead of the educational award.
2. There are program Americorps. There are hundreds if not thousands of programs. They ONLY do direct service. Make a little more money. Cannot take a cash option for their educational award.
3. There are summertime literacy Americorps. A LOT of people think these are the only kind of Americorps. These jobs usually start very early, involve a lot of hours, and are poorly supported. That said, they do good work.

All Americorps positions pay educational awards, all Americorps positions will guarantee you forebearance on non-defaulted loans, and all Americorps positions will pay the interest during the year you do the program.

However, the educational award does count as taxable income, you do have to pay taxes on it. Same with the interest paid on your loans during forebearance. Seems really, really, really unfair.

Program Americorps and Vistas are generally expected to do 1700 hours of service in 1 years time, Program americorps have to complete at least 15-20% of that in the form of "Training". What sucks is that 15-20% is calculated on your total service, not on 1700 hours. I had 2400 hours of service my year. A month before the end they were like "uh, you need a lot more training hours!" The trainings generally suck, take you away from your real passion and job, and are a huge waste of time. Each americorps costs the government right at $30,000, which means about $14,000 goes to interest/trainings/fluff.

You do make great contacts and it does look really good on a resume, and I'm a big proponent of learning to survive on very little money.

A couple misconceptions:
1. As an Americorps you can work anywhere else you like. They can't tell you you can't, because they tell you you're a "volunteer." They can tell you they'd like for you not to, but they can't tell you you can't. I worked 20 hours a week on top of mine, because I needed to eat. What you do in your free time is entirely up to you, just don't let it interfere with your normally expected service.

2. You can be as political as you choose to be, just on your own time, and not wearing your Americorps schwag, and not using Americorps material. The "No politiking" rule is pretty much to keep NPO's from using their Americorps for lobbying purposes. Also, when you write that flaming hot letter to the editor about X political issue, leave off the "Americorps Member" tagline.

If I didn't answer any of your questions, ask 'em again or MeFi mail me.
posted by TomMelee at 5:19 AM on July 9, 2008 [2 favorites]

To address what TomMelee said about the misconceptions...

At my PSO (pre-service orientation), we were told we could NOT work outside of AmeriCorps VISTA. We would be terminated as VISTAs if we were found to have another job (though if you're getting paid under the table, I don't see how they'd find out). This was made very clear to us.

The political thing was more fuzzy, but we were told we could obviously give money to campaigns if we wanted, and of course vote. But we were told not to be involved in campaigning. Whether the AmeriCorps staff leading our training we were correct on this or not, I don't know. But that's what we were told.
posted by at 6:15 AM on July 9, 2008

I'm currently an Americorps VISTA.

As others have said, one huge perk is loan deferment. You don't have to worry about them for a year, and when you complete the end of the year you get another $5,000 toward your loans. There's also health insurance, which, for me, was huge.

I cannot recommend this program more, to be honest. It is difficult to make ends meet, but not impossible. You may have to live somewhere that is a little dirtier than you might like and/or have a roommate, but it is perfectly within the realm of possibility. A lot of times, too, if you explain to your sponsor that you're under difficult financial circumstances, they may be able to offer you a living stipend on top of your VISTA salary.

Additionally, there is no reason an Americorps member should subsist off of Ramen. All Americorps members are eligible for food stamps (unless you have another job), and for one person without a family, they are plenty.

Re: the future. Having Americorps experience looks good because you are a) a volunteer, which speaks to your character; b) have job experience, hopefully in a related field; and c) have made connections and a good job reference in the city you hope to work in.

It has been my experience that people ADORE Americorps volunteers and like to take them under their wing. That means you WILL be introduced to a lot of people. Also, generally speaking, companies that have VISTAs are more than willing to support you in any training that you want to do, even if it's only tangentially related to your VISTA position. For example, I've been to grant-writing trainings, anti-racism trainings, business plan development trainings, etc. If your sponsoring non-profit can't afford to pay for you for these things, the Americorps VISTA office often will.

Finally, it's only a year of your life. That's it. If you don't like it, you can always do something else. Because loans are deferred, no harm no foul.

Poke around on the website a bit to find a program that fits for you. There are plenty of positions in Chicago.
posted by lunit at 7:12 AM on July 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

My experience was also in NCCC (which is clearly not the program you're looking for), but contrary to what others are saying here, it was drilled into us that Corps Members are not "volunteers." Why? You get paid. (Very poorly.) It's a crux of the argument of AmeriCorps's political opponents (and they are ferocious--some people hate AmeriCorps) that CMs are "paid volunteers," ergo the system sucks. It's not so elegant to say "I do community service" and mean it without sounding like you're on parole, but it's the truth.

Now that that's out of the way...
You will get a deferment on your student loans and the accumulated interest for the year will (allegedly) be paid off, but your standard of living will likely drop from what you're currently experiencing waiting tables. (And speaking as someone who's 30 and went back to be a Team Leader two years ago...the Corps lifestyle is much more geared to the energy and flexibility of being in your early 20s; even if you have dispensation to work an extra job after hours--which I doubt--you'll likely be too exhausted to do so.) It's a labor of love, though, and you really have to be ready to dedicate yourself to what you'll be doing. So I'm not sure why you want to take a position "with schools, community building, or some other thing" if you want to get into journalism or public affairs.
posted by kittyprecious at 7:43 AM on July 9, 2008

I can't say whether this is a good move for YOU yourself, but my year of VISTA*Americorps was one of the best decisions I've ever made. Best I can do is tell my story. I graduated undergrad with an English degree and a list of the things I did NOT want to do, but little else. Ended up working for a community information website project. After my VISTA year was up, I was hired on by the county govt. department where the project was housed. I worked there for three years. So yes, it can become permanent employment depending on the program you work for.

Being poor was tough, but not having a loan payment to worry about helped. The perks (loan forgiveness) were OK, but the experience was the best part. While I ultimately decided that I didn't want to work in human services forever, this job was a HUGE leg up in that it was my first real job in the 'professional' realm. I did stuff I valued, learned a ridiculous amount, met tons and tons of people I otherwise wouldn't have. Also, it allowed me the time to figure out what I really wanted to do in the working world.

I didn't work while I was a VISTA; they tell you you can't, but in my experience, it really is up to the program you're directly working for. Some will need you 24/7, and you won't be able to supplement your income. Others are more of a 9-5 deal, and your supervisor will not care if you have a side job. The girl who worked the project the year before me worked part-time. Basically, I think this rule is in place to ensure that you don't neglect your AmeriCorps duties.

My advice: don't just sign up for the program that looks good on paper. Do your research, and do a lot of it. It's no picnic, but it's well worth doing. Be prepared to be cash-poor; it's not so bad.
posted by Knicke at 10:43 AM on July 9, 2008

Dang All.Star you worked for some weenies. Vistas are a different program than program americorps. (NCCC are program americorps.)

I cannot think of any possibly way that they could tell you that you couldn't work elsewhere. I can see them dismissing you for being unable or unwilling to do your job, but...meh.

And of course you can campaign, again just not AS an americorps member. Can code inspectors campaign? Can Policepersons campaign? You're no different.
posted by TomMelee at 11:39 AM on July 9, 2008

You absolutley don't want to take an Americorps job if you aren't committed to these two things: (1) service and (2) living plainly. This isn't a last-resort-i-need-a-job kind of option.

I'm about to start my VISTA position next month, and I interviewed for several. At each interview, they made it very clear that you are living on a small stipend (its calculated at just above the poverty level, although some positions will providing housing and all provide health insurance, it isn't a great deal of money). In the end, you will make some money to pay off your loans (you can opt for an education award at the end of your service, which is a little less than 5 grand).

But more than that, each employeer made a point to stress that they aren't looking for someone who just ran out of options and needs a time holder job. The unoffical slogan for Americorps is that you are an Americorps memeber 24/7 - which means you need to work as much as you are needed, and, yes, sometimes that means irregular hours including weekends and holidays, and you get no more money for doing that. Why would anyone do that? Because they believe in the cause they're working for. The idea that you are an Americorps member 24/7 does have strings attached- you are absolutely prohibited from taking any other job during your term of service.

Also: re: being active in politics: I just had to do an online training course type of thing for my VISTA service, and it was made very clear that you aren't allowed to campagin, even on your own time. Their reasoning was that you are a contact for the community and they don't want you to alienate people that you might need to reach out to. VISTA, at least, is all about building community infrastructure and they don't want to risk that. I had to sign a paper saying that I agreed to those terms. The wording was something like "I agree not to do anything political or anything that could be perceived as political", so that seems pretty restricting to me.
posted by nuclear_soup at 12:30 PM on July 9, 2008

It sounds like the rules are pretty different between VISTA and other AmeriCorps programs. We were paid 1 penny less than minimum wage ($5.14/hr). We worked a maximum of 40 hours a week and had to keep a time card. Our schedule varied between 5 8-hour days and 4 10-hour days depending on what we were doing, but after we went home at night we were on our own time.

And there were never any rules about politics or anything else in our free time. The only rules I remember were that anyone without a high school diploma had to get their GED by the end of the year and if you're ever convicted of a drug-related crime you lose your education award.

So, if you're interested in being involved in politics, or you want that part time job, consider State/Local AmeriCorps programs over VISTA.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:39 PM on July 9, 2008

This is an interesting topic to stumble upon today because I just took my 3rd Americorps position, as a VISTA Leader! I served as a VISTA a year ago and did an Americorps State program (in Oklahoma City) that just ended this Summer. I'm really excited to be a leader, with 16 VISTAs under my wing.

I can not recommend being a VISTA highly enough. It is great experience, especially if you're in one of those "well, what now?" phases that I was in when I joined up the first time. I had worked for 2 years for nothing as a Teacher's Assistant with Autistic students after college and as fun as it was, I needed a change. Plus, I wanted to move to California and they pay moving expenses. It sounds nutty but that was a motivating factor and I am not sorry for playing the system in that way.

Without giving too many details about my specific position, I worked with uppity-ups in the California state government, and I learned so much. I gained so many skills that I wouldn't have if I'd just worked odd jobs for a year, and I met so many people that will be friends for life and GREAT contacts. In the year since it has been made clear that my service is the high point of my resume (not in a snarky way, in an impressed way).

The difference between VISTA and other programs, and it's been touched on a little in this thread, is that you're doing "indirect service" as opposed to... well, direct service I guess. Basically you pull strings, supervise, coordinate, make it easier for other people to do direct service, and in the words of Americorps (I've been thoroughly brainwashed, mind you) "create sustainability" so your sponsoring organization can live without you after their grant is over. Some of my VISTA pals had cush jobs with lots of extra grant money to help them out with bills, some didn't... some flew them all over the country for trainings that were basically glorified vacations, some didnt... it's different from org to org.

I personally lived just fine on the $800 or so a month, because my boyfriend of 5 years moved out with me. If you have a roommate it's totally doable, but a partner is better, I won't lie. My stipend basically covered rent and bills, my relative poverty got us some nice food-stamp and other county benefits, and he covered everything else working at a coffee shop, and we were very comfortable. My boss made it clear that he didn't mind if we had part time jobs if he didn't know about them, if you catch my drift... I picked up a shift here and there at a sandwich shop but it was just some extra spending cash, I found I valued my free time a little bit more.

As for campaigning they do mention it when you sign up, but if you ask alumni like I did and dissect your handbook, it really is that you can't be out campaigning IN your VISTA shirt. You can't say "In the name of Americorps, I condemn thee McCain!". You can't put a political message in the tagline of your service-related emails... that kind of thing.

Lastly, education awards: awesome. By the time I'm finished with my upcoming service year, I'll have almost $10,000 in the "bank" to go towards my Masters next year. If you don't want the ed award they cut you a $1,200 check at the end of the year (but who wants that in this day and age, I say). I'm still planning on doing VISTA again after this if they let me (so I can move for free yet again!) but I might be at my service limit depending on if my State service counts (whole other story) and I'll definitely be at my limit for education money so they'll be handing me $2,400 for my Leader status.

To sum up: do it. You won't regret it.
Don't COUNT on it for money or an immediate way out of something, because it's annoying to deal with at first (I did about 8 interviews over 4 weeks or so and then got offered 2 positions in one day). And like they say, you don't do it to get rich. It's not a job, it's service. Your stipend is not a paycheck, it's so you can survive. Heck at my PSO they literally said, your health benefits aren't insurance, they are so you don't die on us. Minimal care at best, but they paid for my prescription drugs all year and that is nothing to laugh at.

I would not trade that year for anything. Which I guess is obvious since keep going back.
In addition to all the great experience that I gained and just STUFF that I learned in my field and of course the reward of helping your community and all that, it does look really, really good on a resume :)

Find yourself an alum IRL... feel free to message me, or start bugging your state office for information. Or just jump in like I did, it sorts itself out; and remember they need YOU... it's not like interviewing for a highly competitive job (well some of the positions are more coveted than others, but you know what I mean). It's not supposed to be confusing, but there's a lot to wade through. People are out there like me, once again obviously, who love to talk about it and will be willing to help you out with anything.
posted by criticalsass at 6:42 PM on September 5, 2008

« Older How can I make myself into a better manager?   |   Help me with a horror novel title. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.