Interested in volunteering? What about giving back to the community, gaining a leg up in the workforce, and meeting like-minded people? AmeriCorps is a program that teaches you unique skills, lets you earn money towards your education, and instills a new appreciation for your country.
While lesser known than the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps is a better fit for many people. Whether you want to serve for a couple months or a year, somewhere in your hometown or in a city on the opposite side of the country, full-time or part-time, you’re likely to find something that piques your interest.
My 10-month term with AmeriCorps was completed in 2015 at a health center in Boston working with the Latino community. Armed with my Bachelor’s in Spanish, AmeriCorps gave me the opportunity to live in a new city while furthering my language skills. It also taught me how to work in a professional setting, learn more about social systems in the United States, and discover what it’s like to do social work.
Rarely do you find jobs straight out of college that can give you all of this.
Origins of AmeriCorps
While AmeriCorps was officially created in 1993, branches of the program existed before then.
Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA) was the first, created by President Lyndon B. Johnson as part of his War on Poverty in 1964. At the time, it was largely known as the “domestic Peace Corps.” The popularity for the War on Poverty eventually declined, but according to The Washington Post, VISTA was considered a success as it created newfound jobs for unemployed Americans.
In 1990, President Bush followed his predecessors who sought to increase volunteering domestically by signing the National and Community Service Act. This act helped get additional programs underway, including the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), which was created in 1992.
Soon after, in 1993, President Clinton created the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which tied everything together. The CNCS was created in order to facilitate easier matches between Americans and various service sites. It coincided with the official founding of AmeriCorps.
According to NationalService.gov, the program has achieved some impressive numbers since its founding:
- More than 1 million members have completed service
- Over 4 billion hours of service were completed by these members
- Service sites across the U.S. now total 21,600
AmeriCorps is broken into three main programs: AmeriCorps VISTA, NCCC, and State and National.
The focus of this program is to help individuals and communities rise out of poverty. By inserting volunteers into organizations with compatible goals, the aim is to accelerate local charitable initiatives. It is a full-time commitment and usually involves a one-year term.
Program examples include:
- Working at a food pantry and organic garden, helping increase access to healthy food. A similar program currently exists serving college students and their families in Tennessee.
- Serving at an organization working with low-income students to provide information and equipment related to video work, including sound, editing, picture composition, and lighting. An ongoing program like this is underway in rural Montana.
Broken up into Traditional Corps and FEMA Corps, NCCC volunteers work for 10 months to address community needs that are caused by disasters.
Traditional Corps volunteers use hands-on, direct intervention to respond to disasters. Examples include:
- Installing sandbags in communities to lessen the impact of flood disasters.
- Constructing low-income housing to ease shelter concerns.
- Removing vegetation that is harmful to the environment and local economy, planting new trees in their place.
FEMA Corps is aimed at those who want to develop professional skills in emergency situations. Experience is gained in a wide range of activities, including:
- Helping those who survive disasters fill out applications for emergency assistance.
- Constructing and running shelters to help reunite families and their pets after a disaster.
AmeriCorps State and National
The most flexible of all the programs, members can work part-time or full-time, serving at a local or national organization in a variety of areas, such as education, disaster relief, veterans affairs, and health services. Program examples include:
- Helping pair college students with low-income youth for mentoring relationships. A program like this currently exists in Vermont.
- Recruiting dental students to assist with outreach activities that make access to dental services easier for low-income communities.
Benefits of Service
AmeriCorps can set you up for a bright future in your career by providing hands-on work experience, valuable networking opportunities, and professional skills training. In fact, some incredibly successful people got their start with AmeriCorps.
Macon Phillips, after serving with AmeriCorps VISTA in 2001, went on to develop and manage the Obama Administration’s online program. Blair Brettschenider took her experience with AmeriCorps VISTA in 2010 to start her own nonprofit called GirlForward, which gives young girls that come from war-torn countries mentorship and educational opportunities. Check out AmeriStories for more examples.
Here are the professional and personal benefits to expect.
1. Explore a New City With New Friends
Moving to a new city can be intimidating. Luckily, in most placements, you end up serving with a group of members that are your age and in similar situations. There are no guarantees, but there’s always the chance that this group will act as a support system and even as friends.
It takes a certain type of person to do something like AmeriCorps. Not everyone is willing to spend a chunk of time working for little money. You’ll likely have this in common with your AmeriCorps peers, as well as other similar interests related to your service area.
Living on a limited stipend means that you’ll be interested in doing the same free or low-cost activities together. This gives you a new appreciation for how much a city or town has to offer. You will find there is more going on than you would have expected.
Boston (my service city) is far from an inexpensive place to live. While I did make friends outside my AmeriCorps group, it was difficult to find shared interests and activities. My AmeriCorps group, on the other hand, was interested in going to art studio openings, concerts at nearby parks, Shakespeare on the Esplanade, and sunrise yoga during the summers – all of which were free.
2. Gain Professional Experience
One major reason for people to do a service term with AmeriCorps is to see what it’s like to work in a particular profession. If you’re looking at AmeriCorps, you likely have a degree or are planning to earn one. This doesn’t mean that you know for sure which type of career you’d like to pursue, but student debt will likely be part of your future.
Pro Tip: To reduce this burden, check out 16 Ways to Reduce & Avoid Overwhelming College Student Loan Debt.
AmeriCorps is an excellent way to see what it’s like to work in your field of interest and assess if it’s a good fit. If you learn that it’s not quite right, you can avoid furthering your education in that field and wasting money. Figuring out your career path is not an easy feat, but AmeriCorps will give you more clarity than you would expect.
I had every intention of becoming a social worker and going back to school for my Master’s. My AmeriCorps position was very similar to social work and quickly taught me that it was not something I wanted to do for a living. This gave me new insight and also saved me a lot of time and money.
3. Qualify for Education Awards
Depending on your program and how long you serve, AmeriCorps will pay off some of your loans or give you money to pay off future loans. According to NationalService.gov, AmeriCorps members have been given a total of $3.3 billion dollars through the Segal AmeriCorps Education Awards.
For my 10-month service term, I was given $5,600 to pay off loans from my undergraduate degree. I also had the option of accepting an end-of-service bonus of $1,200, so if you don’t have loans or don’t plan on accumulating any, you will still get a little extra at the end. The exact award amount varies depending on your service commitment:
SEGAL EDUCATION AWARD AMOUNTS
|Participation Type||Minimum # of Hours||Amount|
|Reduced Half-Time||675||$ 2,215.24|
|Minimal-Time & Summer Associate||300||$ 1,230.69|
4. Improve Your Professional Network
Data from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that in 2015, 2.8 million graduates entered the workforce, with unemployment rates at the lowest rate in seven years. Many recent graduates expect a degree to be enough to get a job, but there simply aren’t enough jobs out there. People need a competitive edge, and AmeriCorps can give you that.
A service term can serve as one long trial period for gaining full-time employment. Depending on your service site, there will likely be job opportunities at your actual site, or perhaps with another organization that you work closely with. If you make a good impression during your term, you’ll have a major leg up compared to other graduates.
I can personally attest that having AmeriCorps on your resume sets you apart. Committing to a term of service speaks highly of your character. It is something many employers will recognize, appreciate, and seek out.
5. Opportunities for Professional Development
During a term with AmeriCorps, most sites offer and encourage as many professional development opportunities as possible. There will be multiple trainings related to your service area, during which you can receive various certifications. For example, every other Friday of my program, we completed volunteer projects and had discussions related to the health care field, homelessness, mental health, and more.
Some sites will let you take classes that count towards your hours if you can prove that it is related to your service area. Several people in my program were able to take Spanish and Portuguese classes at a local college, getting them paid for through our program since we served mainly Spanish-speaking people. You can also volunteer at other organizations, using those hours to reach your required amount of service time.
In total, you can earn your hours in a variety of ways, taking your service year to explore and learn more about your potential field and yourself. All of these achievements look great on your resume.
Tips for Success
Even if AmeriCorps is perfect for you, there are still ways to improve your service year. Here are some tips to keep in mind.
1. Understand the Pitfalls of Long-Term Volunteering
AmeriCorps is what you choose to make it. How many people have you heard saying that, in a perfect world, they’d quit their jobs and spend their lives volunteering? But they don’t. That’s because volunteering doesn’t always pay the bills. AmeriCorps just barely paid my bills. It can be easy to focus on what you are missing out on by not having a normal paying job. Volunteers often dream of expensive dinners, lavish vacations, and frivolous spending. You may start to feel like you deserve “more,” especially if you have a degree.
The reality is that it’s all about your perspective. Focusing on what you’re missing out on by not being paid more does nothing for you or your happiness. AmeriCorps affords you many opportunities that other jobs would not; it’s important to keep that in mind.
The money aspect is not the only part that can make long-term volunteering taxing. Your job will ask you to give constantly and help everyone around you. Volunteering on the weekends is one thing, but full-time service can be exhausting. You’ll quickly learn whether or not going into a service profession is appropriate for you.
Making time for yourself is crucial in order to stay happy. When your full-time job is giving so much of yourself to others, it can be easy to forget to make yourself a priority. In the end, keeping yourself happy allows you to better serve your community. This can be done in a variety of ways. For me, I discovered yoga. While yoga is often expensive and therefore not realistic, I found a studio that allowed me to take classes for free in exchange for signing students into class and staying late to sweep the floors.
2. Leverage Your Financial Situation to Better Understand Poverty
Through AmeriCorps, you will receive a stipend and usually food stamps. The exact stipend varies, as benefits are adjusted slightly for the local cost of living. However, it is never a lot of money.
The stipend is fully manageable if you are honest and realistic with yourself. If you like to eat out every day, then this may not be the right choice. Or, it may be smart to pick a service site in your hometown where you can continue living with your family.
If you already have debt from college, then most loans should not collect interest during your service term. Everyone’s financial situation is different, but if you have other bills to pay and not much in your savings account, then AmeriCorps may be a struggle (but not impossible).
Pro Tip: For more help, check out 25 Easy Ways to Save Money on a Tight Budget.
The plus side is that you will know exactly how much money to expect each month. Therefore, you can fully plan ahead to live within your means. Most people have no idea that it’s truly possible to live on a small amount of money. Since my service year ended, I have felt more grateful for average paying jobs that my friends would consider financially insufficient. I’ve also worried less about money because my AmeriCorps term taught me strong financial responsibility. After living off of $14,000 a year in Boston, I know that I can make any size budget work.
Serving will also give you a new appreciation for those living below the poverty line, which is partially the point of a small stipend. Depending on the terms of your service, you will be eligible to receive food stamps. Everyone in my program used them because it was necessary to make ends meet. I learned that having an EBT card, which acts just like a credit card, can get you free or low-cost access to many museums in Boston. Using an EBT card at the public market allows you to double your spending power. (This applies to many cities!)
But the important lesson that I learned was humility. The first couple times I swiped my EBT card, I felt so much shame. The benefit of it acting as a credit card is that no one knows what payment form you are using besides the cashier. However, I still worried about the assumptions that were being made about me for using this card. Having an understanding of poverty gives you a perspective that could not be gained in any other way. It changes the way you view these issues, boosting your empathy for those who are struggling to make ends meet.
3. Research the Program and Site Carefully
AmeriCorps programs vary greatly depending on the nature of service. For example, some FEMA programs require members to wear a uniform, participate in daily physical activity, and live on a tight schedule. Some require members to live in dorm-style housing, whereas others allow you to live wherever you please.
These differences are important and will affect the quality of your time in AmeriCorps. The more time you spend researching the particulars of your program, as well as thinking critically about what truly suits you best, the more likely you are to have a positive experience.
4. Consider the Limitations of Your Role
With many jobs in AmeriCorps, your role will be clearly defined. These jobs are designed in a way that they can be passed on from member to member as they complete their service term. Therefore, there may not be much flexibility or room for creativity.
In addition, it is a government-funded position. This means that there are certain restrictions on what you can do and how much responsibility you will be given. For example, while serving my term at a health center, it was strictly forbidden to speak to patients about abortion. If a patient brought it up, I was to immediately pass it along to another staff member. It was forbidden to even give emotional support.
Understanding exactly what your responsibilities are will lead to less frustration.
A year with AmeriCorps is truly unique. The “domestic version of Peace Corps,” as it is often referred to, is a great step for those looking to get experience before joining the workforce and give back to a community in their own country. It’s also ideal for anyone seeking to become a part of a program with a strong alumni network that will support you long after your service term is done.
Living on a small budget is challenging. It gives you a new appreciation for the little things and shows you what you are truly capable of. Putting yourself in uncomfortable situations is when you learn exactly what you can and cannot do. More often than not, you will see that you are capable of much more than you ever would have expected.
You will also see a different side of the community than you would have by working in any other job. Direct service is something you will appreciate for years to come.
Have you ever volunteered? If so, what did you learn from your experience?