let’s talk about public service fellowships (AmeriCorps, etc.)

On last month’s post about the value of public service fellowships (AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps VISTA, Peace Corps, etc.), there was a lot of interest in having service corps alums share their experiences, for anyone considering the programs themselves.

So, if you’re a service corps alum, please share your experiences in the comments: What did you like, not like, find surprising about your program? What advice would you give to others who are considering doing your program or a similar one?

{ 292 comments… read them below }

  1. El Diz*

    I absolutely loved my AmeriCorps fellowship. I did a sustainability-focused fellowship and was placed in my county government’s Facilities Maintenance department. As it turned out, the project I thought I would be least interested in/good at became the focus of my entire career.

    Fellowships are great as a bridge between college and a real career. It’s a low-stakes way to expose yourself to a bunch of projects and see what you can do, and get coaching/mentoring along the way. The downside of course is the abysmal pay. I live in a low-rent city and was able to scrape by. Most of the other fellows lived with family or rented rooms in borderline neighborhoods. We all saved the $100/month transportation stipends and rode our bikes everywhere.

  2. Alix A*

    I did a year with Americorps from 2009-2010. I worked for a literacy council teaching GED, Adult Education, and ESOL classes to adults. I was trying to move away from the boring work I’d been doing post college and more into non-profit/public service. I was testing the waters before grad school.

    The good: I really enjoyed the work I did, and I am still friends with some of the folks I met in the program. I was at a very small non-profit and thus saw the inner workings.

    The bad: the “stipend” is terrible. It’s really pitiful that the program is allowed to exist with stipends that low. Most of my fellow service members were using food stamps to get by. Most of us had some type of outside support to make it through. My rent was just $400 at the time but I could barely afford that and my other bills each month. I worked a second job to get by. The education award is nice but doesn’t make up for what you’d make if you even made minimum wage in most states. I’d advise people to look for entry level positions in the types of organizations they’re interested in instead of “volunteering” for Americorps. No one has ever been impressed (that I know of) seeing Americorps on my resume, and I simply list the position (program assistant) I held at the non-profit instead.

    1. knitter*

      The stipend is terrible and, at least in the program I was affiliated with, lead to issues with representation within the populations served. I supervised several AmeriCorps members who served at my non-profit. We had one program where I was able to hire part time staff over the summer. In this program, we had a very good numbers of staff that lived in or were from the community we were working in. However, when I encouraged them to apply for AmeriCorps for our school year program, they weren’t able to make ends meet given many had additional financial responsibilities beyond themselves. Not working at the non-profit any more, but if I were to return, I would push to make the AmeriCorps positions staff positions.

    2. BlackCatOwner*

      I had a similar experience as an AmeriCorps VISTA service member in 2005 – 2006.

      The good: I worked with an outstanding, globally respected non-profit and gained important, valuable experience doing a year of fundraising and development work.

      The bad: I missed my graduate school graduation in order to attend “mandatory” VISTA training. It was positioned to me as an ultimatum: attend or don’t serve. I later learned this was not true. Also, the idea that you’re supposed to experience living in poverty to make you a more effective service member is laughable. I [had immense white middle class privilege] just ended up living with my sister and being supported by her and her spouse. There’s no way I would have been able to serve if I hadn’t had my family who was both willing AND able to provide shelter, food, and a fully insured car, so my only real expenses were gas and student loan payments (which, in fairness, ate up about 2/3 of my stipend!!!)

      I agree that everything I learned and gained would have been equally valuable by just taking entry-level employment (and living with my sister). That said, I had no clue what I wanted to do after graduate school (with a useless degree, different story entirely) and since I had no work experience because I’d never held a job, I don’t know that I would have been hired anywhere else. After my VISTA year I was able to gain entry-level employment at a non-profit based largely on my VISTA experience. So in the end, it worked for me – but what was valuable was the WORK experience, not the VISTA experience.

      1. Paris*

        I also did an Americorps VISTA and they were WEIRD about the training. I was wrapping up an Student Conservation Association/Americorps position and wanted to enlist in an Americorps VISTA to start a few weeks after my current position ended. They told me that I couldn’t participate in the second position unless I quit the first position early, because of their computer system (what?) and overall treated me like an entitled child and not an adult trying to re-enroll in their volunteer organization!

    3. Buster*

      I had a similar experience with AmeriCorps in 2012-2013. I worked in an elementary school with students preK-3rd grade. We specifically did daily literacy tutoring with kids one-on-one. We basically had scripted curriculum that did not allow for adjustments for the students’ specific needs. We were also given zero training or support on how to address behavioral issues.

      The stipend was terrible, and I relied on support from family and my partner at the time. I worked a second job (nights and weekends in retail) and went many months without a single day off. The idea that anyone should live in poverty or come from a place of privilege (family support) in order to serve their community reflects a lot of toxic ideas many in this country have about social service and nonprofit work.

      1. Lahey*

        As it’s nearly his feast day, I can’t help but think of St. Francis and others who take a vow of poverty while in service to others. It’s something I deeply respect, but even in those situations, the emphasis is on sacrificing personal wealth. Necessities are provided and used communally.

        No one can help their community if they can’t afford their own basic needs.

        1. mrs__peel*

          Yes, and there’s usually an implied long-term commitment when you join a religious order that you serve as long as you can manage, and then they’ll take care of you once you become too old or sick to work…

        2. Pommette!*

          Yes, and very well-said!

          I have known nuns who had taken vows of perpetual poverty. The vow meant that any income they earned was shared with their order, and used to support the order’s work. It meant that they lived modest material lives. It did not mean that they had to worry about going hungry, unhoused, or without healthcare. Those things were provided and could be depended on, for life.

      2. Chamomile*

        YES to Buster and others!
        I worked for AmeriCorps from 2010-2012, in two different positions. I thought I wanted to teach and also grow food, and somehow fuse/partner those interests, and was able to find positions that allowed me to do that — teaching and rehabilitating an elementary school’s garden, and working on an educational farm doing everything from hands-on science lessons for the public school kids to growing and selling produce.
        If somebody were to really insist they wanted to “give back” by volunteering with AmeriCorps, I’d strongly encourage them to consider how far off the job is from what they already know how to do because the training and support are so limited. I had wonderful people as supervisors and coworkers at both organizations, but they were just stretched way too thin to provide the training that one needs for a “reach” job. The educational farm was perfect because I had enough experience to work pretty autonomously and really feel like I was “giving back” to the community while also learning from my coworkers, plus it came with heavily subsidized housing nearby, but the teaching was horrendous. I wasn’t an education, social work, or any similar major and had NO classroom management skills…and then was trying to lead a class of kids who experienced ALL of the challenges. On top of food insecurity, housing insecurity, and exhaustion (we were pressured to never take sick days even when actually sick), I did not have a good year. I wouldn’t recommend any of the teaching positions to anyone who hasn’t (at the very least) completed a practicum/student teaching term. I would only recommend any AmeriCorps program to those who are actively wanting to give up a salary and try living on food stamps (which I realize turns the program into just another unpaid internship for privileged young workers), not to someone who really needs a job with all the regular job benefits.

    4. ReproLawyer*

      I also did AmeriCorps and thank goodness I was working another job too because I couldn’t have lived on the stipend. I did AmeriCorps because it allowed me to continue working at a tutoring center I’d been at for three years, but the pay was horrifically low, the training was close to useless and the “grant” they gave wasn’t tax free, so I used the 1,000 to pay off loans and then had a tax liability of at least $150. I had a bad time in the program and wouldn’t recommend AmeriCorps to anyone.

      At the same time, I also did the Student Conservation Association and loved it, and would’ve done the Peace Corps if I got selected but I didn’t, so I went to work in politics instead!

      1. Mayati*

        YES! The education award is taxable and it expires after, what, five years or something? Insult to injury.

    5. Mayati*

      I did similar work — teaching job searching and computer skills to people in the TANF system, mostly refugees — in 2009-2010. I loved it, but the stipend was terrible. Some people in my program (an organization that placed lots of AmeriCorps volunteers in different nonprofits in the area) made it work with food stamps and other assistance, but most of us had at least some support from our families of origin, at least in case of emergency, or outside jobs. As knitter says, it meant that the people serving in AmeriCorps generally weren’t from the populations the nonprofits served. The VISTA program didn’t allow outside employment then because VISTAs were supposed to be on call all the time, but that might have changed; my program wasn’t VISTA, so the stipend was about $100 less.

      Conversely, though, a lot of people were impressed by seeing my service on my resume, and it helped me get into law school and get a scholarship. Not that I would recommend law school to, well, pretty much anyone. But it did open doors. Part of that was because my position was focused on job coaching (i.e., reading AAM religiously and distilling the advice for people who couldn’t do their own resumes), and the skill was very much in-demand once my year of service was over and the recession was still a thing, but I also live in a state with a strong volunteering culture.

      Overall, it was a great year in my life, I learned a lot, and it did help my career, but YMMV widely depending on your location, placement, and financial/family situation.

  3. paradise J*

    I did City Year. It was about 10 years ago in NYC. Happy to answer questions although it probably skews younger than most people on this forum. My one-sentence summary is: it was definitely more for me than it was for any students, but I think in the end I did more good than harm, and at least it wasn’t TFA.

    1. knitter*

      Your one sentence summary is so on point from my perspective as a former staff person in a school that had City Year. Also, I am so thankful I was rejected from TFA.

    2. coldbrewraktajino*

      I did City Year as well, in 2000 and in another city. I was just out of high school and didn’t have the perspective of the time to realize that yes, that was probably true! I worked as an aide in a 5th grade classroom and a high school tech class. Sure I probably helped with classroom management and keeping up with grading, but I still was young and inexperienced, so who knows what kind of academic help or socioemotional support I really gave. Hopefully my experience student teaching for my MAT was more helpful.

    3. TurtleUp*

      Other City Year alum and yes so much this.
      My students were great and I think generally it was helpful to my teacher that I was there. But ultimately they would’ve been fine without me and I got a lot out of it.

      And yes, thank god I didn’t do TFA.

    4. SINE*

      Ok, now I’m super curious – what makes TFA not so great? (I don’t know much about the program.)

    5. Jk*

      Also a City Year alum! I did it for two years. The first year in the corps and second as a VISTA.

      I felt like we really impacted some students but it was definitely tough. I once sat in a board meeting where the principal and union leader yelled at each other. I walked into the school once and a trash can was on fire. Lots of teachers were checked out and many kids weren’t showing up for school.

      Personally, I feel like I grew a lot and learned a lot about issues related to equity and diversity. It was awesome to work with such a diverse group of people.

      After I finished my last year of service, I received job offers from local nonprofits that I had worked with and the federal government (VISTA qualifies you for non competitive eligibility) so it definitely opened doors for me.
      It also gave me some great examples for interviews!

      I would agree with others that the stipend is low. The education award is also taxed. Someday I’d love for it not to be.

  4. Crivens!*

    I served as an AmeriCorps VISTA for a year with Campus Compact.

    I will say the experience has been very valuable for my resume, and I liked the actual work very much.

    But the stipend is deeply unfair and needs to be fixed, and the reasoning behind it is insulting. We were told we were kept at poverty level for whatever city we served in so we would have a deeper understanding of the people we served: poor and working class people.

    But most of us WERE poor and working class people. The people of my cohort who could genuinely afford to live on that pay were few and far between: most of us already utilized the very services we focused on providing. My year in AmeriCorps only served to keep me poor for another year.

    1. Lilyp*

      :O is that really a thing they say officially? That’s ridiculous. It seems obvious to me that people who actually come from a wealthy background would just….get support from their family/savings to get by more comfortably anyway, so you end up forcing only the people who were already poor deeper into poverty.

      1. MissBliss*

        Yes, at least at the organization where I formerly worked that was primarily staffed by AmeriCorps members and their alumni, that was something we heard. I was never an AC myself but I always found it patronizing.

      2. Llama Wrangler*

        We were told we were kept at poverty level for whatever city we served in so we would have a deeper understanding of the people we served: poor and working class people.

        The program I participated in said something very similar — it was really gross.

      3. Paris Geller*

        Yes, that’s the official reason. It’s. . . not great. Most of the people I met during my VISTA year were either a) recent graduates who were already broke, though maybe not poor, or b) people looking to reinter the workforce and were using the service year to transition and had partners that could support them.

        1. Canary*

          This was my impression when I was looking into the program. The biggest indicator was the lack of health insurance. With how little the program pays, you’re not getting health insurance through the ACA marketplace; you have to be either on your parents’ plan or your spouse’s.

          1. VolcanoV*

            I served as an AmeriCorps volunteer attached to a United Way project for a year (2017-18) and they provided health insurance. There are so many programs under the AmeriCorps umbrella, so I don’t know if that’s a program difference or if they got better on that issue.

            1. Canary*

              I’m going to guess that was program or project-specific. I was just looking back in January, and the lack of health insurance was the deal breaker for me.

            2. MCL*

              I was a VISTA in 2006/07 and I think we had some form of very rudimentary health insurance. Definitely something to ask about if this is not universal, which it sounds like it isn’t.

          2. AVP*

            That’s really interesting that it’s not a part of their deal – you’d think with so many young people that would be a key part of the program. Unless the intention is you people to use Medicaid, I guess?

        2. MCL*

          My VISTA cohort were all recent college grads who already had roommates/were used to being broke college students, and the few who were not recent grads had partners that had incomes. I don’t think anyone could afford to live on a solo income.

      4. Graphhopper*

        Yep! I was told that too during my time as a VISTA.
        A lot of the other VISTAs were also coming from a lower middle class or less advantaged family. While the program may offer an entry point to a career, a lot of those careers were low paying (nonprofits and farming), some of the nonprofits couldn’t support their VISTAs in learning the skills they needed, and it puts the workers behind financially. My overall impression was that it may open doors but really didn’t set VISTAs up for success.

      5. Paige*

        I believe this is the official stance of the program and I remember hearing something like that either from my site or during the AmeriCorps VISTA pre-service orientation. This was my biggest complaint about AmeriCorps as well.

        I ended up getting a lot of help from my family during my 2 service years, as well as my host site paying my landlord directly for rent (per program rules they are not allowed to provide additional compensation to service members directly).

        The stipend both keeps people who are looking to use AmeriCorps as a stepping stone to a better job in poverty and it promotes a sentiment of poverty tourism among service members who come from more wealthy backgrounds.

      6. Crivens!*

        Yup. I was the troublemaker of our little cohort because when they said that at our training I raised my hand and said “I’ve been poor my whole life, can I waive out of this part of the process and get a living wage, then?”.

    2. Nethwen*

      I agree that the reasoning doesn’t make sense and Lilyp understands how life really works.

      At the same time, when I served in a state conservation corps, which is connected to AmeriCorps, I remember having a discussion on poverty where I pointed out that the fact that we were able to take a year away from profitable work meant that we had privilege because there are plenty of people who couldn’t do that. I reminded my team of people our age who had siblings that depended on them for food and basic care. That… did not go over well.

      Everyone else insisted that they were poor when they joined the program and weren’t making any money during the program, so they understood what poverty is. Most of us had masters degrees or were going into a masters program at the end of the our service term. I didn’t have enough life experience to explain why, but it seemed to me that there were degrees and nuance that were being dismissed in our dominant perceptions of poverty.

    3. tink*

      As someone who grew up broke but did want to help people and communities in similar situations, the insulting stipend that programs like that offered turned me off. Had I also heard the reasoning behind them at the time, I probably would’ve written some extremely insulting letters, because most people don’t need to be paid so little that they’re housing and food insecure in order to empathize enough to help others in the same position! And the people that WOULD need to experience that are not the sort of people doing that sort of work in the first place!

  5. New Jack Karyn*

    I did it AmeriCorps for a year. It was really helpful for me in a lot of ways, to relaunch my career in a new city. I really enjoyed what I was doing, and it gave me a path to a better job, and then to a new career.
    But I was so broke, it’s not even funny. Years later, I’m still recovering from the mindset I was in, where I could afford to eat out maybe once a month. I was on food stamps. The health insurance was a joke, and I was sick a lot that year.
    Maybe I would feel differently about it if I’d done it in my 20s–I did my year of service in my 40s. I would say it’s worth it IF you can use the college money they give you. If you’ve graduated with no debt, you should have a really compelling reason to commit to it.

    1. But the bagpipes didn't say no*

      Wow. The poor pay is really concerning but lack of health care sounds downright dangerous. There is just no justification for that (and as mentioned above, the justifications for the low pay sound kind of BS to boot)

      1. coldbrewraktajino*

        When I did it in 2000, I was lucky enough to have health insurance through my parents. But I had coworkers whose kids had to go on the state health insurance because the health plan didn’t cover them (or didn’t do so sufficiently?)

      2. New Jack Karyn*

        I want to clarify that one of my cohort told me that she’d tried to access it, and was unable to find a medical office that would take the insurance. So I never bothered to try, and walked around essentially uninsured.
        If I’d been hit by a car, I would have tried to figure it out somehow. But for what was likely an ear infection? I just rode it out.

    2. beanie gee*

      AmeriCorps comments are going to have a theme here. AmeriCorps offers good internships, but you’re making less than minimum wage, which means the program is mostly only going to attract people with other forms of financial support.

      I did AmericCorps for two summers and would equate it to an internship. A good internship from the work experience perspective, but a poor internship in that I now strongly believe all interns anywhere should, at a minimum, receive minimum wage. Otherwise, you’re treating your interns poorly and only hiring people who can afford to work for free (and thereby reinforcing an already messed up job market by preventing poor people from getting entry-level work experience).

      1. Washi*

        I would say it’s basically an old-fashioned apprenticeship. You get paid enough to scrape by, barely, and learn some skills. And just like you wouldn’t do a dressmaker apprenticeship if you didn’t want to be a dressmaker, it’s not that helpful IMO to do an Americorps term if you don’t want to enter the nonprofit world!

        That said, as someone not from a wealthy background, Americorps was a way to make up for not having been able to do any completely unpaid internships when I was in college. Even though it didn’t pay well, at least it paid something! When I graduated, I was really only qualified to do low-level temping work, and Americorps gave me the skills I needed to move up and out.

        1. New Jack Karyn*

          I just looked it up–in the western European model, most apprentices lived and ate where they worked, or in the master craftsman’s house. And they were very young, with no other responsibilities.

  6. Ann Perkins*

    This is a great topic! I did an AmeriCorps affiliated program my first year out of college. I’d graduated college in 2009 with a liberal arts degree and knew I’d have a hard time finding a job right out of college, but also wasn’t sold that grad school was the path for me. I actually ended up borrowing exactly the amount I knew would be paid back during my senior year of college so if you’re a college senior, the loan repayment is something to be mindful of. I’m not sure what the current $ amount is but back then they would reimburse about $4700 in student loans per year of service.

    I really liked the work of the organization I worked with, which was to work with homeless pregnant women. It was long hours and they were upfront about that. The org covered all living expenses, health insurance, car insurance, basically everything but your personal phone bill and expenses. Look carefully at what’s going to be provided for you vs what bills you’re going to need to cover on the stipend they provide. Some of these orgs will have such long hours that a part-time job to supplement income won’t be feasible but I believe some are more standard 40 hour weeks and it would be possible to work 15 hours part time somewhere for extra spending money. The hardest part for me was that it was halfway across the country, so a plane ticket home for a holiday was an entire month’s stipend.

    There was a huge culture shock for me, as I grew up solid middle class in the Bible belt, so there was a learning curve in learning how to interact with people who grew up in poverty. I was pretty sheltered growing up in some ways and it was a very different experience literally living with people who were fresh out of prison at times. I think that was an enormously valuable experience for me to have though.

    If you’re thinking of doing a volunteer program, look carefully into the organization and try to speak with alumni from there. I did a week visit before committing full time and they’re very open about speaking with current and former volunteers. On the flip side, I had friends in college who did a summer full time volunteer program without much knowledge going into it, and they had a disastrous experience. Your experience really can vary widely depending on the professionalism of the org.

    I ended up in a career that has nothing to do with my work from that year but I still consider that time to be very valuable. You’re likely to learn a lot of skills that will translate to other jobs, particularly if you haven’t spend much time in the work force yet. Overall I definitely recommend college graduates to at least consider doing a year of service.

  7. Maggie*

    I did peace corps and feel like it did build my professional skills, particularly my ability to work in fluid and challenging environments. I grew a lot in the time and have friendships that sustain my life. I don’t think it directly translated to hard job skills, although a peace corps fellowship did pay for $10,000 of my masters degree. One side benefit, my current government job counts those years towards seniority for vacation accrual!

    1. Once Upon a PCV*

      I also did the Peace Corps from 2013-2015 in Senegal and I really liked it! It was a fairly difficult adjustment, but once that happened, it really was life-changing. I still speak to my host family today, and visit them whenever I am back in-country (I am lucky enough to have a job that takes me back there often).

      One of the nice things about the Peace Corps is that they arrange for all health insurance and medications (and I definitely ended up needing it!) and living expenses, plus we get a stipend that is commensurate which the average income of someone in your region. So you are not getting rich, but I never had any issues paying for things like transportation, etc. They also make sure that if you have any official business with them, they pay for that. So there was not the struggle that AmeriCorps volunteers seemed to have gone through.

      I also think that my work experience, since I was interested in non-profits and international development, had a direct influence on my ability to get a job after I completed my service, as well helping me to get into grad school (with the Coverdell Scholarship!).

      I know that some people had a much harder experience than I did, but I really think that the Peace Corps experience for me was more than worth it and taught me so many skills that I was able to take into my eventual career.

      1. Related to a PCV*

        Peace Corps does help in landing a federal job, one of my sister’s cohort got a job in August precisely because of that Peace Corps experience. However, it’s not always worth it. My sister served 2 years in Morocco and it completely wrecked her. 10 months later she is just beginning to recover physically and emotionally. She and her cohort make jokes to get through it, but what she went through was not okay by any stretch of the imagination.

      2. nymitz*

        Hey there! Fellow RPCV Senegal, ’01-’04, and like many I ended up in federal service. My Peace Corps experience was directly responsible for me choosing the grad degree and career path that I have ended up in, but the biggest benefit over the long term has been the language skills. I hit the training facility with zero French beyond “bonjour” (but seven years of formal training in Spanish) and left my service fully fluent. The ability to speak French has opened several career doors for me, and should I leave federal service, I expect it will open even more.

        As far as in-service benefits, Once Upon a PCV has it right: the stipend and the medical coverage were enough. On the stipend side, I started pre-service training with a net worth of $5 and by the end of my service had saved enough to do a little bit of travel around West Africa before coming home (and your post-service allowance, while small, doesn’t have strings attached like AmeriCorps). On the medical side, I saw our nurses and administration stop at nothing to treat and if necessary evacuate volunteers who were having a health crisis – from the one with terrible stomach issues for months who ultimately got diagnosed with IBS, to the one who got brucellosis from unpasteurized milk, to the one that had to be evacuated by charter plane from a remote part of the country for surgery in the US after a severe auto accident.

        The experience itself was like no other, and I’m so glad I did it, even the bad parts. In a random quirk that applies to 2020, several of my Peace Corps friends and I had conversations back in April/May about COVID quarantine and how it was like being back in our villages all over again. Not the quarantine part of course, but the stay-at-home, shortages-in-the-stores, no-place-to-go parts. One of us phrased it well: “Been there, done that, and at least this time I have running water.”

    2. A Poster Has No Name*

      RPCV here, as well (Niger, 2000-2002). It was a huge learning experience for me, and I definitely believe Americans should be strongly incentivized to spend a significant amount of time outside the US, as it really does wonders for broadening your horizons and having a better perspective on how the world works and being able to handle all kinds of (literal and figurative) crap that you haven’t experienced before.

      The biggest tangible benefit I got was forgiveness of a small student loan. Otherwise, it makes for an interesting “fact about you” at ice breakers, but it didn’t contribute much to my current career.

    3. Greta*

      I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nicaragua 2010-2012. Professionally, it was a bit of a left turn and hasn’t had much of a direct impact on my career, but I did learn some valuable universal skills: admitting when I don’t know something and self direction. The former in particular was something I had really struggled with in grad school and probably a big part of why I dropped out.

      I had a rough service though including a wildly isolating week and a half where I was med-evac’ed to Panama after months of suffering from a mystery illness. My site was extremely small and isolated, even for Nicaragua. And yet, I’d do it again.

      Finally a joke: A man falls down a hole and can’t get out. A government worker shows up and says “Ah, we are seeing an increase in people trapped in holes. Never fear, we’ll pass the Save Guys in Holes Act in the next 5-10 years and that’ll definitely help you.”

      A Non-Profit worker shows up and says “Don’t worry, we have an new emerging technology for getting people out of holes. After phase II trials complete, we’ll be ready for widespread implementation.”

      A Peace Corps volunteer shows up next, jumps in the hole and says “Hi my name is Brian. I’m going to live with you for 2 years.”

    4. Jamila6452*

      Another RPCV here (Morocco 99-01) and it was definitely a defining life experience for me. I’m in a related career field, but even if I weren’t, the cultural exchange and experience of living outside the US gave me a much broader worldview. I recommend it to everyone. Money-wise, we were always comfortable, and most everything was included (transportation, health care, reimbursement for any necessary travel, etc).

  8. Americorps VISTA*

    I was excited to work with a civil rights commission during law school as an americorps VISTA (summer position). Due to miscommunication/misunderstanding, my site thought I couldn’t directly work on investigations, which I was excited to do and the primary reason I had pursued the role. But I still had a very valuable experience helping plan a huge conference, preparing standard presentations, and helping educate the public.

    The stipend is really tough to work with- fortunately I had saved some of my loans from the school year so I was able to continue paying for my apartment. There are also a lot of documentation requirements, so a significant amount of time is spent quantifying the work you’re doing. If you’re passionate about the area you’re working in, I think it can be a great experience overall. If you’re looking to build a network, I think the longer americorps position would be more valuable (but the poverty-level pay is something to plan around). There are some networking opportunities after the fact, but I did not avail myself of them. You will get emails about filling these types of positions again for several years. For me personally, the experience did seem to impress a few of my bosses who had served in the military or worked for the government in some capacity, but otherwise has not been specifically highlighted in any interviews or anything like that.

    1. Americorps VISTA*

      Also, I knew someone who pursued a year-long position for the express purpose of networking and getting state residency in order to apply to graduate school with in-state tuition rates. But they had planned ahead and had saved up in order to afford doing so.

  9. vfovalueadded*

    I was in AmeriCorps VISTA as a capacity builder in a nonprofit advocacy group in the DC area — I had wanted to do a gap service year between college and law school. I was paid a stipend, and went in with the promise of the education award after. Overall I found the experience very positive — the work was interesting, in a community base I would’ve otherwise never have interacted with, and I learned a lot about federal policy work. The education award was also very helpful for law school (between that and a fellowship, I was able to graduate without any student loans, but my law school was also cheaper than most). A downside was that as opposed to a lot of other AmeriCorp programs, I was the only such member at the advocacy group I was working at for the majority of my service year, which made me feel a little isolated from the AmeriCorps community — there were efforts made by local organizers to get folks assigned to different advocacy groups together occasionally, but this wasn’t as successful as we all may have hoped it could’ve been.

    Of course, I had the privilege of being able to live with my parents throughout that year, and already had a car, so I didn’t have to worry about the stipend being enough for rent/survival/transportation beyond gas. Like most unpaid internship opportunities, it benefits already-privileged people who can afford to do it. But if you are in that position, and you are public service minded, I think it’s worth it.

  10. Khsd615*

    I did two years of AmeriCorps Vista after college and loved it. It shaped who I am today, but more so personally than professionally. I Met like-minded people, learned about how non-profits function, and transitioned more smoothly from college to an office environment than I would have in the for-profit world, I think.

    90% of people I served with went into either the social work or education fields after. I would not recommend doing it for the “resume boost” unless you have a genuine interest in those fields. While it says something positive about who you are, it does not offer significant resume benefits in for-profit fields. If you plan to stay in the non-profit world, definitely work in the development sector during AmeriCorps.

    I’ve also had to grapple with the racial and socioecnomic complications of AmeriCorps since- the cohort I served with was full of upper middle class white college grads with familial safety nets going into communities of color and choosing to live in poverty for a year or two before moving on to “real” life. There’s some white savior aspects to the model that need to be unpacked.

    1. Paloma Pigeon*

      This is an excellent point. The low level of the stipend contributes to this phenomenon IMO. And it’s baked into the rationale of the program- ‘live at the poverty line’ for one year – that’s not a message that resonates with communities who have lived at the poverty line their whole lives.

  11. Washi*

    I did two 11-month terms of Americorps that was funded by a “national direct” grant from 2010-2012. I had an overall great experience, and it really launched me on the career I’m in now, and gave me a lot of great skills that I still use today.

    Some things I lucked into, but think people should know:
    – Do some research on the different types of Americorps. There are differences between VISTA, NCCC, National Direct, etc, and different ones will fit in with your path differently
    – Some organizations, particularly the direct service ones, pay more than the minimum! Not a lot, but it was much easier to live on $17k in DC than it would have on $13k, which I think was the going rate at the time.
    – Your AC experience will mainly depend on the quality of your host organization, so try to speak to program alums if you can. Lots of orgs will connect you if you ask.
    – Americorps is sort of geared towards recent grads, and a lot of programs really try to do professional development for their members. This was awesome as an actual recent grad, but I think if I did Americorps today, I might find the training a bit redundant
    – I did a program that had a whole cohort of AC members each year, and made lifelong friends there

    A big concern for a lot of people is living on the stipend. Personally, I actually found the experience to be ok, coming from a rural area where I was used to not having anything to spend money on, plus my standard of living was based on college dorm life. I also moved to the city with a friend from high school, and for a while we rented a basement with a kitchenette together, then later, both of us moved with my boyfriend into a 2br. I would be very surprised if you could do Americorps without roommates, but with roommates it wasn’t bad. I made about $1400/month after taxes, and half went to rent, and another half to my bus pass. Food was paid for by SNAP, and I was otherwise frugal, so I did manage to save a little each month. There’s a stereotype that Americorps is all rich white kids being subsidized by their parents, but that was not my experience at all. My cohort was minority-majority, and a few people lived with their parents, but none of us had a parent straight up paying for our apartment or anything.

    A few words of caution: make sure you are actually excited about the job! The pay is low and the hours can be long, so make sure it’s something that will give you the skills you need for the next step. A lot of Americorps jobs are like 99% tutoring kids, which is awesome if you want to become a teacher, but some people I knew did it and then were trying to move into policy jobs, which was a harder transition. I was a volunteer coordinator and went on to do more volunteer coordinating, and then later switched to the programmatic side of things. I’m glad I went for a job that had a more office-work component, since I wanted to work in an office.

    I’m happy to answer any questions about the experience! I have mixed feelings about the model and assumptions of Americorps, but as an individual, I lucked into a really valuable experience that has shaped who I am as a professional today.

    1. Washi*

      That should say another $100/month went to my bus pass! Did not spend half my income on the bus, though it did sometimes feel like I was spending half my time on the bus :)

      1. coldbrewraktajino*

        At my program we weren’t ALLOWED to drive! We got written up if we took our personal cars anywhere during work hours, except if your job site was not transit-accessible. Our bus passes were covered but that wasn’t true the whole year–I remember doing complicated dances to share a bus pass with coworkers.

        1. AmeriYes*

          That is terrible. Luckily, I didn’t have that problem in my program. Luckier still, I was actually able to figure out how to leverage some after hours disaster work to get parking in downtown DC at no cost.

  12. Toss a coin to your Witcher*

    Echoing what everyone else has said here about the meager pay.
    The Pros
    I taught high school students in DC for AmeriCorps – my parents were both public servants and I knew I wanted to spend some time doing public service. I loved being in the classroom! I did feel like I made a difference! I still have deep connections to my cohort and to the students I taught a decade later.
    I did receive a small grant which I used to get a Master’s Degree (it didn’t cover the entire degree, but helped me move to Boston and pay for some classes).

    The Cons
    The pay was so low, I was on foodstamps. I tended bar on Thursday and Friday nights and did the early (4:30am) morning bread baking shift for bakery/sandwich shop to make ends meet. I still cried when I did my budget every month. The insurance was catastrophe-only (this was in the W. Bush years, so no Affordable Care Act), and an emergency appendectomy put me in nearly $28,000 of medical debt. It was financially devastating. I was in my 20s, and figured since I was healthy and fit (college athlete), I would be fine. Emergencies happen. Get good insurance.

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      An emergency appendectomy wasn’t covered by catastrophe insurance… let that sink in for a minute.
      TossACoin, you’re not the only person I know who’s had that same experience, by the way…the other was running a small business.

  13. Talia*

    Hiya! I did AmeriCorps for an organization called Reading Partners in Baltimore, MD. The organization subsidized the AmeriCorps pay, so I was making more than the average person involved in the Corps program. Still, I took full advantage of the food stamps that were a “benefit”, as well as the healthcare and Education award I received, because I was not earning more than 20k a year, which is high for a Corps member. I worked in the program for a year and a half, leaving early to take a full-time position half-way through the school year at a museum.

    I can’t speak to specific workflow of AmeriCorps because every program is very different. I was lucky enough to find a position that followed a school schedule, with weeknds off and a standard 8 hours of work a day. Other programs may follow different schedules and have different amounts of work, be it physical or administrative.

    One thing to keep in mind with AmeriCorps is the commitment to the program. You MUST complete a certain amount of hours (depending on whether you’re full-year or half-year) in order to get your Education award. Our managers at our program were diligent about this and helped us to track and find opportunities during the winter and summer breaks to help us make up hours. However, that means that anytime you take a day off, or sick day, you need to be sure to make up for it. I did that by putting more hours into the start of the year (which is a busier time anyways with getting things set up). Others in my program were not as prepared and ended up doing long days in the summer, and having to take volunteer opportunities on the weekends to ensure they had the right amount of hours by the time the program finished.

    The education award is very useful but only covers specific loans or education payments, so keep that in mind if you’re wanting to use it for private loans. It also doesn’t go very far, given student loans today (I’m still thousands in debt, after using my award). Additionally, the loans are taxed when you spend them, so keep that in mind if you’re still on a low-income budget, as it will come back to bite you in April.

    I definitely learned a lot about Baltimore by working for AmeriCorps in the city. I don’t think I got a lot of networking or connection out of the program, just because of the nature of us being spread out across schools, but I’m very thankful I had the experience. I’m not sure if it really makes a difference on a resume or not, but it at least shows my dedication to making the world a better place.

    1. MissBliss*

      I feel like AmeriCorps does carry weight in Baltimore, since we have so many programs that utilize AmeriCorps funding. Reading Partners is (to my understanding; never worked or volunteered there myself) one of the better organized ones, too, so that probably helps as well.

    2. SparkleConsultant*

      Ditto on the number of hours being crucial!

      I was an AmeriCorps Member for the first year of a new program mentoring High School students. We weren’t paid, and since this was the first year of the program, the organization didn’t plan for enough hours for the members to qualify for the education award (our only compensation). Luckily, I was able to live with my parents and worked two other part time jobs that year to make ends meet.

      I landed my first full-time job for right after the service year was meant to end. The program tacked on another month of service for a summer camp and made it a requirement to get the education award. I had to choose between paid employment and continuing to work for free to maybe get the education award. I choose the job.

      I learned a lot from the experience and loved working with the kids, but this ended up being an unpaid internship. I have friends who did other AC programs and were able to use the education award and got a stipend. I think you have to be really careful about the organization you work for and the terms of service.

      1. AmeriYes*

        Yes, hours were majorly important. I lucked out (in a sense) as there was a hurricane that hit DC and we were running 24/7 for close to 15 days. I actually slept at the office. That put me ahead about 2 months on my hours which helped for those days when I needed a day off for whatever reason.

  14. 80HD*

    One thing I would note is that if you are considering any of these, there are restrictions on your ability to join the intelligence community afterward. In some cases if you are a member of the intelligence community beforehand, you will be automatically rejected (for example, previous CIA employees are automatically and permanently ineligible for the Peace Corps, and you have to wait 5 years to apply afterward. I say this not to discourage anyone from either career track, but to highlight that you need to research your options before you lock yourself into one or the other.

      1. 80HD*

        Because if there was even a whiff of intelligence community involvement it would be highly damaging to the work that these organizations do and make them unable to build relationships and serve the communities they go into. It would be excellent cover for the intelligence community, but the damage wouldn’t be worth it.

        For example, the CIA ran a fake vaccine campaign in Pakistan to try and gather DNA and find Bin Laden. After that got out, many people started turning away legitimate volunteer workers and stopping them from bringing in things like the polio vaccine, stopped them from working on irrigation projects, housing projects, etc. You just can’t risk even the appearance of impropriety when you’re going into these places. A lot of the times people in the Peace Corps are going to places that don’t have great relations with the U.S. to begin with, and adding spies into the mix wouldn’t help.

        1. Thursday Next*

          I think that joining the Peace Corp also means that you can’t serve in the armed forces, for similar reasons.

          1. 80HD*

            No, you can serve in the armed forces before and after. The intelligence community is specifically what they want to wall themselves off from. Military intelligence service is evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

      2. Ribiko*

        To protect the integrity of the Peace Corps program and how it is perceived by other countries which have given it permission to operate there (and Peace Corps can only operate where it has permission to do so). Mingling volunteers with undercover spies – or the perception of doing so – would have a LOT of fallout for the program.

    1. Texan In Exile*

      I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chile, 1993-95. I was regularly accused of being either a communist or CIA.

    2. Person of Interest*

      There was a great article in the New Yorker a few months ago about the Peace Corps in China and the political issues for the participants both in China and career-wise going forward.

  15. anna green*

    I did Americorps*NCCC for a year after college and I had a really good experience. It was kind of like being in college for another year (dorm living, cafeteria food, etc.). The pay is abysmal, but all your expenses are paid, which is a big help. I got to travel around to places I’d never been and be exposed to a bunch of different community service organizations. It’s definitely a full commitment, there’s no way to do anything else, and you have to live and work with the same people for a year, which has its pros and cons. I don’t think it really affected my eventual career choice, and if anything, it set me back a bit because I lost out on a year of work. However, it did make me more inclined to volunteer throughout my life and made me a more compassionate and well rounded person. And I did feel like we helped in the community for the most part.

    1. Threeve*

      I can also speak to AmeriCorps NCCC–18-24, mostly physical work in a variety of places, and a vaguely military-lite kind of structure. (Uniforms every day, a sort-of emphasis on physical fitness, room inspections, that sort of thing).

      You need to be prepared to rough it a bit, physically and mentally. IME not every job site or living situation was pleasant or entirely safe. But you see parts of the country you never would otherwise, and you build some very cool skills. (I can use a chainsaw!)

      I think it’s really good for young people who are prepared to take on some real challenges and who want to get away from wherever they are and whatever they’re dealing with but aren’t ready to strike out on their own yet.

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        Re: chainsaw
        You’re on my zombie apocalypse squad. I’ve said I need another chainsaw operator, so one will always be running even if the other runs out of gas and needs to be refueled.

  16. Lark*

    I was both a VISTA volunteer and a Peace Corps volunteer. Both organizations make a big deal about how the value of the experience you gain makes up for the low pay, but I found that the value of the experience varies widely from one position to the next and it’s really hard to get a sense of how it’s going to work out for you until you’re in the position. 

    Personally, I had a pretty bad experience as a VISTA. I ended up in a position that just wasn’t worth the low pay and I would have been better off in a regular job. On the other hand, I had a great experience with Peace Corps and it had a huge impact on my career development. But I know tons of people who had a great experience with VISTA and other people who had a terrible experience with Peace Corps.

    For anyone considering either of these programs, I recommend talking to as many alum as possible to get a sense of the range of experiences and if you do decide to join either program, go in with an open mind and be ready to be flexible about the work you end up doing. 

    1. Lark*

      Another thing– if you do end up having a bad experience, it’s ok to quit. Both organizations highly discourage quitting and you do lose out on some financial incentives, but if you’re not happy, go ahead and quit if you can. In hindsight, I wish I had quit VISTA and taken a minimum wage job. I served with Peace Corps volunteers who were miserable, but stayed until the end because they didn’t want to seem weak or were afraid it would look bad on their resume, but those consequences are not worth being unhappy.

      1. Graphhopper*

        Yes! A fellow VISTA had over an hour commute to our work site. She tried to make it work, asking to move to another site or to work remotely but her supervisor refused. (Meanwhile I was working remotely 3 days a week. It was totally workable but her supervisor was insistent on working together in person.) Then they gave her a huge guilt trip when she quit. It was 100% the right call – she was spending half her paycheck on gas!

      2. Chamomile*

        Lark, YES! Same intimidation for the other non-VISTA positions, in my experience. Especially in the year-long school positions, they have such a hard time replacing someone to take over the classroom, I think they dread having anyone quit, but in hindsight I realize it would have been worth it. Enough crazy things happened that if it had come up in a future interview, I could have given any one of a half-dozen reasonable (and true) explanations for why I quit.

  17. Llama Wrangler*

    I did an americorps-affiliated program (though apparently they are no longer affliliated) after the previous recession. I had been job searching essentially for two years (with some short term and part-time gigs) and applied to this and other similar programs — I ended up taking this because it was in a city I wanted to move to, and a job that seemed doable/well thought out, and I am ultimately glad I did.

    The pros:
    -They provided subsidized housing in an expensive city (really the only way that this program was financially feasible for me)
    -I liked my job, and was able to leverage it into a full-time, permanent position at the end of my term; I’ve stayed in the field I was placed in since I did the program
    -It was part of a structured training program, so I got additional supports and resources to help navigate challenges in the work, with a cohort of people who were placed in organizations in my same city
    -All of the placements in my cohort dealt broadly with anti-poverty work, but in different sectors, so there was some really interesting cross-sector learning and collaborating that was able to take place (e.g. if my students were facing immigration issues, being able to talk to someone in my cohort who was working in immigration)
    -I became (and still am) part of a vibrant alumni community that has provided ongoing networking and support

    The cons:
    -I was a few years out of college at the time, with previous full-time work experience, and almost all of the other people in the program were right out of college, so some of the structured training was not applicable to me (but it was mandatory)
    -It was sort of hit-or-miss whether people got offered full time positions at the end of the year — it depended a mix on your placement and luck of the draw. I got lucky, but some of my cohort did not, due to no fault of their own.
    -There was a little bit of a “poverty tourism” attitude from the program leadership — an assumption that everyone doing the program came from privilege, and that we would do this program to better understand poverty. I believe that’s changed a bit (there is now both a fund to provide supports to low-income participants and an emergency grant option) but I think the program hasn’t clearly figured out their vision in a way that doesn’t have some implicit class bias.

    1. FermentationFanatic*

      I’m guessing I did the same program and I appreciate your analysis! I agree that some highlights were the alumni community, the subsidized housing (and for me, the community that came along with the housing) and the cross-sector learning. I was hired by my placement after the year was up but it was definitely a challenge for people who weren’t–having to move out of the bayit and look for both a new job and new housing at the same time was very difficult for some of my friends/fellow corps members.

      1. Llama Wrangler*

        Yes we did the same program (bayit gives it away :P)

        Reading the comments in this thread makes me think this program is definitely a better deal than the standard Americorps package — not just that we had the subsidized housing, but also that we were provided no-cost health care by our placements and transportation funds. So it was financially doable for people who didn’t have major external costs (health care, emergency needs, needing to support family) — but that’s a big caveat. From what I hear, the new funding has helped diversify the corps a bit, but — at least in the city I did the program — I think the assumptions that this was a program for people with privilege (and like the comment above — that we were “getting to better understand poverty” by living on a limited stipend) were really thoroughly baked in.

    2. PenicilliumIHardlyKnowEm*

      Fellow former bayit resident here too! Unfortunately, my year was a bit cliquey and I was friendly with people but not an insider.

      I definitely agree with you on the poverty tourism bit with the assumptions about everyone coming from an upper middle class background. I was homeless for part of my childhood and did not appreciate the scoldings I got on using specific (academic) terminology or frameworks when talking about these issues.

      I’ve learned that since I left, they now “ask” people to do fundraising for the organization before starting. This would have stopped me from applying entirely. This seems to assume you have family members or family friends to hit up at an age when people are paying for their kids to go to college. The website says you would be required to hit your goal, but it feels very counter to their claim they want to reach a broader group of applicants. I stopped donating when I expressed this concern and was brushed off.

      I’ve looked back at my work with mixed feelings. The organization wouldn’t have been able to afford to hire someone to do my work at full rate, but I also was underqualified to do it. I did help people for sure, but I definitely wasn’t as good as someone properly qualified for it.

  18. GuitarLady*

    I was in Teach for America, which is different from a lot of these other programs in that I was employed like any other regular teacher by the school district and got a teacher’s salary, not a tiny stipend, but at the time I did it the program was part of AmeriCorps (2005). It was awful, the worst two years of my life. I was fresh out of college, this was the only real job I’d ever had. I had 6 weeks of “training” and then they dropped me into a classroom teaching math to high school students in a severely impoverished city neighborhood. I had no idea what I was doing, but TFA basically tells you if you work hard enough, you, by yourself, can overcome all the obstacles these kids face – poverty, racism, violence, instability, lack of resources etc and teach them. Yeah, it’s totally feasible that a completely inexperienced teacher will successfully teach Algebra to students who barely know how to add. Not to mention the whole White Savior thing. I was miserable. All day every day I felt like I was failing because I couldn’t control my classroom enough to teach, I had things thrown at me, I was cursed at and threatened, things were stolen from me, the administration was totally dysfunctional and TFA’s advice was to work harder. (I was also attending required college classes to get my teaching certification as well as extra TFA meetings on top of my work as a teacher) I finished the two years because I didn’t want to be a quitter, but I was so burned out after that experience that I totally changed career direction. (I had planned to go into Public Policy, but switched to being in financial services while I pursued an artistic career) TFA should not exist, it’s harmful to both the people who do it as well as students who get stuck with this random teacher. Don’t do it.

    1. RD*

      Yikes. I was about 2 second from joining TFA in 2008. The fear of having the experience you described was what made me decide not to. I ended up serving with AmeriCorps VISTA instead which was an excellent experience.

      Thanks for sharing this. I think TFA (and a few other nationwide programs) really need to be evaluated more to ensure what you’re talking about doesn’t happen. And if they can’t fix it, the model needs to change/end.

    2. Thursday Next*

      A friend of mine from undergrad did TFA and had a similar experience. She actually left/got kicked out of the program her second year because she left the school she was assigned to her second year. She left that school because after she was required to give out her phone number to her students (public charter) she started getting threatening phone calls, and someone put sugar in her gas tank. The principal wouldn’t help and I guess TFA didn’t consider threats a good reason to leave a job.

    3. Zephy*

      I don’t know what the messaging was when you applied to Teach For America, but when I did my AmeriCorps service (City Year, 2013-2014), TFA was pitching itself to college students as a way to ~help people~ and ~make a positive impact~ on ~the children~…and they were focusing their pitch efforts on people who specifically were not education majors, i.e., people who weren’t planning to be teachers, like teaching is just a fun hobby you can do for two years before getting a real job.

      About half of the teachers at the school where I served with CY were TFA, which turned out to just be another source of instability in the already-unstable lives of the at-risk youth we were serving. If a student formed any kind of relationship with any of their teachers, there was a better-than-even chance that teacher wouldn’t be there next year or the year after, because this school specifically relied on TFA for cheap labor and outright told them there was no chance of being hired to keep teaching after their 2 years.

      1. GuitarLady*

        Yup! I was not an education major and was told repeatedly that in 2 years I would make a positive impact, but then I didn’t have to be a teacher, I could move on in my career with this amazing experience. I had planned to go to grad school for Public Policy and I assumed TFA would make me a shoe-in which was why I did it. The school I worked for actually would have been happy to have me stay (they had a number of open positions they couldn’t fill, especially as a math teacher) but no TFA person ever stayed more than 3 years.
        There were also CY people in my school, they seemed nice :)

    4. irene adler*

      Years ago I looked into a program in Los Angeles that was similar to this. I would get to earn my teaching credential -at night- and teach in inner-city LA.
      I guess I didn’t qualify or something. So I moved on to something else.
      Now I know what I was in for. So I’m glad that whatever powers that be, didn’t let me become part of that program.


      Thanks for posting.

    5. Science Leige*

      I also did Teach for America and have the exact same criticism. I quit after my first semester because it was causing huge health issues for me. I was barely 21, had no teaching experience (the 6 week training is a joke and a half), and was dropped into a classroom with the instructions “Have high expectations and you can overcome anything! The reason these kids fail is because everyone expects them to!” As if poverty, racism, homelessness, and lack of resources contribute nothing to the issues in our education system.
      We were encouraged to be available to our students/their families at all times which made it impossible to set work/life boundaries. I was threatened by parents, I was threatened by kids, I cried almost every day. My TFA advisor even told me that it was okay if I was feeling like I’d rather crash my car into a freeway overpass than go to work every day, because that’s how she felt when she was teaching too (!). Because that’s totally normal and not dysfunctional at all.
      I have zero good things to say about the experience. It’s bad for the people who get roped into it and even worse, it’s terrible for the kids. Kids don’t need inexperienced teachers who aren’t going to stay teachers. The program was advertised to a lot of us as “It’s a great stepping stone to get into politics or public policy!” Those weren’t something I was interested in (I really was in it to help people), but so many in my cohort were 100% only there to put in their two years and move on to something else.

      1. GuitarLady*

        Yup, I definitely cried every night my first year because I couldn’t face the next day. I went on anti-depressants which didn’t make me feel better but at least ended the constant tears. The only reason I don’t feel horrible about doing TFA is that my school didn’t have enough teachers to fill their positions anyway, if it hadn’t been me then the kids would have had a long-term sub (probably several) so its not like I prevented them from getting a better teacher. And I definitely went into the program thinking it was my ticket to getting into Harvard’s PP program afterwards. But then I got so burned out and depressed I didn’t wind up going!

    6. moql*

      From the other side of it, I was a student in a school with a bunch of TFA teachers.

      The students definitely know who you are, and we knew about the “white savior” thing. Either that or they were doing it for loan forgiveness. We knew they weren’t going to stay, so it wasn’t worth getting to know, or even respect, them. We ran right over any new teacher, but the TFA ones didn’t have any shadowing experience or anything like that so we were even worse to them. They definitely did not get anyone up to the state testing standards who was not already there at the beginning of the year. The classes were a waste of time.

      TFA teachers get put in the “worst” schools. The other teachers there are either very dedicated to their craft and care deeply about the students or are burnt out rejects from better schools. The good veteran teachers normally put effort into mentoring new teachers, sharing lesson plans, etc., but they didn’t bother wasting their time with the TFA ones because they would all be gone too quickly for it to be worth it.

      Do not do it. Do not support the program. If you want to give back coach the baseball or robotics team or whatever – we always needed more reliable adults for that sort of thing and regular teachers don’t have time. We did get volunteers who were beloved by the students and really made a difference. (I think the coaches were paid <$1,000 a season, which I categorize as volunteering when they were there after school 4x a week.)

      1. sequined histories*

        I got into teaching via TFA and have been in my placement school for 15 years. I never viewed it as a stepping stone and I was EXCEPTIONALLY LUCKY with regard to the specific school I was placed in, so it worked out well for me.

        That said, I agree with every negative thing that has been said about TFA. I’d call it a dumpster fire, but a dumpster fire sounds more like a random disaster and less like a toxic fountainhead of evil.

        It certainly does a disservice to many of the children involved, definitely undermines public education as an institution, and is so grotesquely abusive to many of the people who join, specifically with regard to the “work harder” thing, that it’s just surreal. During the summer training program (called Institute), I was amazed that I had never heard of anyone committing suicide during Institute.

        I have a colleague who says he can only respect TFA people who have “repented.”

        I couldn’t agree more.

    7. TFA Alum*

      I did the program in ’09 and I could not have put it better myself. I had to drop out halfway through because the TFA advice of if you’re struggling it’s your fault was crushing my mental and physical health. The kids were tough, but lovable. But some of their parents and the administration were flat out abusive.

      The only thing I’d add is that the 6 weeks of training felt like cult indoctrination to me. So much group think, and creepy team building activities where you were supposed to share tearful stories. I should have left then…

      1. sequined histories*

        Institute is so, so cult-like: the sleep deprivation, the chanting, the mystifying and unnecessary in-group lingo. I could go on.

        Star Trek fans: if you get involved you will definitely witness “There are 5 lights!” type situations.

      2. Another TFA Alum*

        This describes my experience exactly (including the year). I would not recommend the program to anyone. The worst part is the guilt that those kids deserved a better teacher than me.

    8. WorkerBee*

      Sigh, TFA. The experiences here ring true to me – I did the program in the mid-2000s. I was not an ed major but was interested in education, and I gave teaching an honest chance.

      The good….ish
      – The students and families I worked with were by and large wonderful. Even in this thread I’m not super comfortable with how they are described. There were outliers and they could be overwhelming, for sure, but I would work with the students and families in my community over over-privileged students any day, any time. They were by and large wonderful, smart, caring kids who tried hard with parents who were doing their best, and they were almost all facing enormous obstacles that really don’t need to be there and that much of the rest of the country doesn’t realize.
      – I have a lot of respect for many of my corps members. The people I connected with are amongst the most dedicated to service and ethically vigorous I have ever met. We struggled and continue to struggle with being in that program. But most of the people I connected with are still working in education, including me, or in fields that directly address the multiple and varied unfair challenges our students and communities faced. Despite the truth of all the bad, there are many incredible people who did the program.

      The bad –
      – Yes, they put everything on you, and ignore that these are really problems that are bigger than any single teacher can solve, and it leads to toxicity and burnout. It’s good to take a view of owning all the control that you can have – and a good teacher really can do a lot – but they take that ethos too far. My administration in the building only added to the feeling of do-everything-yourself-or-you-are-a-failure. It was amazing to switch to a workplace where people actually collaborated to solve problems. Shockingly, it works. I had to relearn a lot.
      – It’s racist. Look at the instagram for TFA is racist. Everything there echoes the experiences of my colleagues & students.
      – They have a narrow view of what’s good education, very focused on data. Data is good, of course, but only in context. When everyone teaches for 2 years, and most leaders have only taught for 2 years, you don’t as an org have a good sense of how any individual class or year of education needs to combine with a full developmental experience that will prepare students for life both in concrete skills and the self-knowledge to know what they want to do with their lives and feel confident getting there. This second part – the whole point of why we need to know specific skills, etc. – is not fleshed out because it isn’t easily measurable by standardized tests. They have huge blindspots around the arts, elective courses, and all kinds of things that make learning meaningful and are the start of real career paths for folks.

      I learned a lot in my experience, and it makes me better at what I do now every single day in both deep and broad ways. My students and I really cared about each other. They deserved much, much more than I was able to give them, and living with that really, really stinks.

    9. Az*

      I was a teacher in a school that hired TFA teachers early in my career. They were these privileged kids with no intention of staying in teaching, and they had no concept of pedagogy or behavior management. Teaching elementary school isn’t about the content, it’s about understanding child development and the science of education, and the people we got from TFA just didn’t have any meaningful background in education. They weren’t horrible, but it just seemed like a waste of everyone’s time (and not great for kids who already deal with so much chaos and instability).

  19. Anonymously Submitted*

    I served as an AmeriCorps VISTA outside of Pittsburgh, PA in 2012-2013. I started three months after I graduated college, and I had initially approached it as a gap year before going to grad school. It ended up being a really valuable experience for me, and it completely changed my career trajectory. I still work in the nonprofit sector today in a leadership position, and I don’t think I would be here if it weren’t for my service. I credit a lot of that to having a really great, supportive supervisor who also happened to have served as an AmeriCorps member.

    I do think there are problems with the program, which some others have identified in their comments. I was able to serve because I had a fair amount of privilege, which eased some of the burdens of service. My year of service was the last year that that outside employment was prohibited for VISTA members, so I was largely reliant on the stipend. There were a lot of people in my cohort who didn’t have the same positive experience I did at their respective sites, which I think can largely be attributed to their service sites not having a strong understanding of the program.

    1. Graphhopper*

      The service site is such a big factor! The nonprofit I worked for was over 100 years old and very well run, but some of the other nonprofits in the same VISTA group were really chaotic and unstable. One of them even shut down mid year.

      1. Anonymously Submitted*

        I agree! It is so important. I think a huge part of it is the ethos with which the site approaches hosting an AmeriCorps member. I think part of why my experience was positive is because I was viewed as a program coordinator and treated like a member of the team.

        I had a colleague later in my career who looked at AmeriCorps members as volunteers and treated them as if they weren’t able to do anything competently. It turned into a self-fulfilling prophecy because they weren’t given appropriately challenging work, and for the projects they did receive, they weren’t given much direction or support.

  20. Kat Em*

    My time in City Year (2001/2002) was absolutely pivotal. I was 18, had little experience, and more enthusiasm than skills. 9/11 occurred while we were still in training, which definitely affected our experience. There was a ton of structure (you were sent home if your pants weren’t creased or your socks were the wrong color), and plenty of support and training. It was also my first experience in a really diverse workplace. (Our corps was minority-majority and female-led.) I liken it to joining the military of community service. If that kind of environment is what you need, you’ll thrive. That being said, it’s a great program for kids after high school, but folks on the older end of the 17-24 spectrum may find it limiting, especially if you’ve got prior work experience. Workshops on things like doing your own taxes, speaking in public, and using the public library effectively may feel childish with more experience under your belt.

    But it was a transformative experience for me, and I’d recommend it highly.

    1. Northcoasty*

      Your comments about the targeted age are spot on – I was a college grad with a ton of experience working with kids and managing things, and I found it really limiting and a bit infantilizing. I had thought that my experience would have be a plus, but it was the opposite.

    2. coldbrewraktajino*

      The “life after City Year” was SO useful for me as a recent high school grad! I had taken a year off because I didn’t feel ready to go to college, and as the first person in my family to go to a 4 year college, it was incredibly valuable to be around college grads and people mid college. (my cohort was probably 1/3 people getting their GED, so there was a range of educational experience.) The mandatory workshops also pushed me to grow in ways I didn’t get in high school, and like you, it was my first experience in a diverse workplace.

      I agree with an above poster that the program probably benefited me much more than it did my students. But we weren’t in it for the money, that’s for sure.

    3. Ask Me About My Cats*

      At a certain point in my life I was choosing between going to Milwaukee for City Year or moving to Alaska for a job. I ended up choosing Alaska and I have always wondered where that other path might have taken me. City Year did seem like a fantastic program.

  21. WellRed*

    I’m not an alumnus of such programs but recently had a roommate in AmeriCorps. I was shocked and frankly a bit disgusted by the poverty wages. She was encouraged by the org to apply for all sorts of public assistance, including rent and heat.

  22. RPCV*

    I served in the Peace Corps in 2010-2012 right after college. I served in Honduras and my service ended when all of the Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated from the country due to increasing physical and sexual violence against volunteers and in general in the country. I have multiple friends who were volunteers and they were victims of violence. Several friends were raped. I know others who were shot or mugged. I managed to finish my service without being physically hurt but the emotional trauma still is an issue I deal with.

    I loved my service. I loved the host family I lived with and the community I served. However, in reality I probably wasn’t effective at impacting my community in any meaningful way. Honestly, what skills does a recent college grad truly have to share? Not much.

    It did help me tremendously in my career though. I learned Spanish and returned home able to quickly get a job as a Spanish interpreter. I also think having the Peace Corps on my resume helped me land my first, second and third professional jobs.

    My advice for people considering the Peace Corps, spend some real time researching the impact that Peace Corps has made in the country you’re considering serving. In the past, it has been used at times as a tool for US imperialism. It can also be a tool for good. And FYI – you’re probably not going to make a lasting impact on your community.

    1. Unattended Candles*

      I cannot agree with this advice more. I did short-term PeaceCorps in Liberia (3 months, had to evacuate due to Ebola…I think short-term assignments tend to be based around technical skills like engineering or healthcare, and in my case my university helped people to sign up). Great experience, but oh my gosh, do your research and use your common sense about placement. A guy I knew got knifed and I once had to stop a situation where some men tried to rape two women in my program. I think Honduras is a much more unstable than Liberia, but I found in my case whenever there was an issue it usually started because they were coming from a perspective of “I’m from America where I don’t really need to think about situations being dangerous.”

      That being said, I loved the service work I did there. Definitely had the shared experience of “I got more out of it than I feel like I could have ever put into it.” that a lot of volunteers who do PeaceCorps have. It also helped me to get the foot in the door for my current career (disaster response engineer), because I had real-world experience that a lot of my peers did not.

      If I have any advice, the stipend is pretty meager. I ended up saving up a little of own money before going and made a huge difference in being able to get proper food and nutrition for myself. Also, if you end up going to a tropical country, don’t bring cotton clothing. They will never dry during the rainy season.

    2. Zanele Ngwenya*

      Different continent but same with the sexual violence. Peace Corps did not give a realistic picture during signing up or training that the threat of sexual violence to women in some host countries was extreme, especially for young white women who had only ever been seen in host communities on the pornography shared via phones, so there was the added expectation of sexual looseness. Almost every woman I knew who didn’t carefully interpret the coded language of our safety trainers got raped (not saying it was their fault, just that the training coded their safety advice too thickly). I wore the most conservative dresses I could at all times, and followed all the safety training rules and I think that largely protected me, but there was an element of luck, too. I was threatened rape on multiple occasions (literally a man walks up and says “I am going to rape you” or grabs you on the street in broad daylight. Those I know who weren’t raped were also threatened or stalked to the point where they had to be re-located.
      I remember one interesting experience towards the end where I was walking down the streets of the capital city with a black PCV friend, and I was assaulted and fought the man off. I was so used to it I just kept walking and continuing our conversation, but she turned to me horrified and shocked at what had happened. I realized only then how I had become so used to it that I wasn’t even aware of how not ok it was.

    3. JB*


      PLEASE investigate the impact that these organizations have on the communities they’re in. While your heart may be in the right place, you should be fully aware of what you’re getting into– from the perspective of those you think you’ll be helping.

  23. Red Red Panda*

    I did AmerCorps in 2010-2011. I had always wanted to do some kind of service year and that felt like a tough time to find a job. I decided to only go through with it if I found a placement really related to my field, which I did, and I did enjoy the work. I appreciate that with AmeriCorps State and National you apply to specific placements, and if you interview for one that seems like a bad fit, you can decline that one still accept another later (as opposed to Peace Corps, where your placement is like-it-or-leave-it).

    Something that hadn’t occurred to me when I was applying is that it’s a great way to move somewhere new where you have no network or connections. So if the alternative was to keep living where I was living and/or be unemployed after my temp job was done, it was better than the alternative. I actually had a friend take an AmeriCorps placement over a permanent job in his current city, so that he and his partner could move where she wanted to move. That was a much harder decision than mine, but I think he was happy he took the leap.

    I had quite a bit of money saved up, sort of. I’d taken out student loans for the cost of living, but I ended up getting that temp job that covered my expenses. I used that money as a cushion because the stipend is so low. I’m not sure if I would have felt comfortable doing it otherwise. Plus I was lucky to find very low rent for the HCOL area where I moved.

    Several of the alums, including myself, got jobs at the non-profits where we had served. After a few years, none of us worked in those sorts of small non-profits anymore. Not only can the pay be low, but it can be hard to move up and a lot of smaller non-profits are dysfunctional environments that one will want to leave after a couple years. I felt like I was trying to start a career in a field where full-time jobs with benefits are rare (adult ESL education), so I was happy to have anything full-time, even if I eventually moved on to something else.

  24. farrisonhord*

    I did the Peace Corps and I think before joining you have to be really honest about the experience. In a lot of cases you’re going to get more out of it (especially long-term) than your site will. If you have this image of saving children in sub-Saharan Africa, that’s not going to be it. Peace Corps experiences also vary greatly depending on your country of service and in country staff. I don’t know that serving strongly helped my career (I was medically separated right before I hit the NCE mark for federal positions), but it definitely made me a better person.

    These two things best sum up my experience:
    1. This video came out while I was serving in Morocco like a decade ago and I remember laughing and crying with my site mates while watching it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yTZ–7EYj9w

    2. This quote: “Real travel is not about the highlights with which you dazzle your friends once you’re home. It’s about the loneliness, the solitude, the evenings spent by yourself, pining to be somewhere else. Those are the moments of true value. You feel half proud of them and half ashamed and you hold them to your heart.” – Tahir Shah

    1. nep*

      Agree…If you are interested in PC and you have some idea of ‘saving the world,’ take some more time to read, learn, and reflect. (Couldn’t stomach that entire video.)

      1. farrisonhord*

        Yeah the video didn’t age great, but the parts about pooping in a hole, being a long way from home, and not being qualified for the work you’re supposed to do all hit for me. Especially during service.

    2. More Coffee Please*

      Wow, that second quote spoke to me. I never served in a program like the Peace Corps, but I did work abroad for my company for 4 months in a rural part of a European country. The workday was fine, but my personal time was excruciatingly lonely. I tried to “make the most” of the experience, but I was counting down the days until I could go back home.

    3. Az*

      Gosh, I wish I’d heard that quote before now. I was in the army for a few years after high school and I was so lonely overseas, which I didn’t understand because I’d always wanted to travel. I thought I was doing it wrong.

  25. TCO*

    I did Lutheran Volunteer Corps from 2008-09, and it was overall a really good experience.

    LVC provided group housing (intentional communities with cohorts of volunteers) and some other benefits that not all programs do. We received payments to cover our housing and utilities, a shared grocery budget (wasn’t luxurious, but we didn’t have to rely on SNAP or other public assistance), transportation stipend, health insurance, etc. After covering all of those expenses, we each had $100/mo in personal money. That’s not much, but it was enough for most people. We also received the AmeriCorps education award which paid down a chunk of my student loans.

    So all of my basic needs were met better than they are in some service programs, but there was no opportunity to build savings or an emergency fund. That made it tough when I finished the program in 2009 in the middle of a recession and didn’t find a job right away. These programs definitely work best for people with a level of financial privilege, like having family support in the case of an emergency.

    That said, it was a really good experience. As someone who knew that I wanted a career in nonprofits, the experience I gained was directly beneficial to what I have done since then. And I found that it seemed like I got a higher level of responsibility and opportunity in my volunteer role than I would have if I had just been fresh out of college and competing for fully-paid professional roles (especially in a recession when I was competing with seasoned pros for entry-level roles). So that higher level of experience really benefitted me.

    I feel fortunate for my LVC year, both for the experience I gained and for the privilege I had to do it. For me, it was fulfilling community service that also boosted my nonprofit career. Things I learned in that role are still directly applicable to my job today. But it’s not the right program for everyone.

    1. A Red Panda*

      I spent a year in the Episcopal Service Corps (2011-2012) and my experience was similar. My motivation was partly personal, and partly because I had trouble finding full-time work after finishing my master’s. With my ESC program, I worked as volunteer coordinator for a refugee resettlement agency. The skills I learned there came in extremely helpful when I was job searching a couple years later, after I left a PhD program. Not sure I would’ve been hired without that non-academic work experience.

      1. A Red Panda*

        Forgot to mention that I am from a low-income background. The fact that our housing (“intentional community”) was provided was what made it feasible for me to participate, despite the low stipend.

  26. August*

    I was in AmeriCorps for two years after graduating college — one year as a VISTA with a university-affiliated nonprofit, and one year as a National member with a different nonprofit. I definitely have some mixed feelings about the experience.

    Pros: I was VERY nervous and insecure about my future at the time, so AmeriCorps was a great way to build my confidence in the working world. If you have kind supervisors, you can get a good amount of leeway to figure out professional norms and what you like in a workplace (prior to AmeriCorps, I’d only worked in food service and as an intern in policy offices, so I needed the help). I also worked in smaller cities in fairly well-known nonprofits, which went a really long way when it came to networking and my post-AmeriCorps job search. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to get my current job without my AmeriCorps experience.

    Cons: As everyone’s already pointed out, the stipend is absurd. I’m firmly of the opinion that a poverty-level stipend does nothing more than discourage poor and working-class people from getting involved in AmeriCorps and gaining that valuable working experience. You could literally make more working in food service. It only worked for me because I lived rent-free with my parents and worked a job on the weekends (which was actually the reason I was denied the SNAP benefits I was encouraged to apply for — my weekend job meant I made too much money). The Education Award was also a huge help, but frankly, I could’ve saved up more if I had gotten an average office job after college.

    People also don’t seem to respond to AmeriCorps in the same way they do Peace Corps; it doesn’t have quite the same level of clout. Hiring managers took a second look at my resume because of the orgs I worked with as an AmeriCorps member, not because of AmeriCorps itself.

    I feel like I’m ragging on AmeriCorps a bit too much here, so let me just say: overall, a net positive experience! I grew a lot, and I’m happy with the opportunities I had. But I did see other members of my cohort have a miserable time, and a lot of it was centered around money. I’d say look for positions where they provide free housing or food benefits, or live with relatives/friends rent-free. Otherwise, I’d strongly reconsider — if you’re relying on the stipend to pay rent, the financial stress may overwhelm everything else.

  27. Delta Blues*

    I did 3 years of VISTA after grad school at the height of the recession, I did one year with a state agency and the two more years at a National nonprofit. Like others have said the experience, especially then when no one was hiring, was invaluable. It actually launched my federal career and I’ve heard the same from several others I’ve served with.
    The health benefits aren’t great but they did teach me how to work with insurance companies and write professional letters appealing coverage decisions. I got very sick the last year and was able to have 100% of the tests covered based on everything I learned the years before.

    Overall it’s worth it as an internship or a way to get experience in a field, or just figure out what you like, but you need to ask a lot of questions and judge how good a position really is. Not all of them are equal in terms of mentor ship and experience. Some provide housing and extra perks too, but they all get a lot more applicants.
    That’s pretty true of all internships/entry level jobs though from my experience.

    1. Delta Blues*

      Oh and some AmeriCorps programs provide a lot more too! I didn’t do NCCC but I know folks who did and they’re housing, food, laundry, and travel, even tools were all covered. Plus they had the stipend.

      I had to pay all that out of my VISTA stipend and it was before VISTA let you have another job. So definitely look at what your best fit would be.

  28. Roman Holiday*


    I did a 10-11 month stint in Americorps*NCCC right out of high school in the mid-2000s. The program is very much all-consuming. You’re based in one city (in my case, Washington DC) but sent out on projects all over your assigned region. I spent time doing environmental projects (invasive species removal aka weeding) in Ohio, built equipment for a children’s camp in West Virginia, worked at an inner city school and a homeless shelter in DC and did disaster relief in Ohio (post flooding). It’s team-based, so you spend all your time with same group of 8-10 people in accommodations ranging from dorms to houses to camping. For me, having just turned 18 and grown up in a small west coast town, the experience was eye-opening in a lot of ways. I saw true poverty for the first time, experienced government-style bureaucracy, worked the longest hours and was exposed to more diverse viewpoints than I would have been otherwise. I like to think we contributed and did some good in the areas where we worked and I certainly got a lot out of the experience. The stipend is small, but with food and housing included, it was enough to live on and it includes a $5,000 scholarship after. Having something like 10,000 hours of “National Service” certainly looked impressive on a resume and I used it all the way through college. I would absolutely recommend it as a gap year program, with the caveat that it’s a big commitment and not for everyone.

  29. Banana Naan*

    I did a year with my state Americorp for a nonprofit that I interned with (Term 2017-2018).

    The Good:
    It was the first full-time role I ever had after graduating college. It pulled me out of a retail spiral and set me up for success in the nonprofit world. Because the nonprofit I worked for was a professional community hub, I made a lot of connections that led me to getting tons of interviews after my term ended, and I still keep in touch with many of my professional connections. I feel more aware of the political and social aspects to my city, and I vote in every election I can and participate in community townhalls. I still have my educational stipend as well and plan to save, save, save and return to graduate school in the future.

    The bad:
    The nonprofit capped my salary at $17,000 (the max you could make is $24,000). At the very beginning of the term, I was living with my parents, one of whom was taking medication that made their behavior erratic and abusive. (I am safe and fine now, and they have apologized and worked to make sure it doesn’t happen again). But it was a frightening time. I didn’t make enough to rent my own place, and I was trying to dig myself out of credit card debt. I’m single with no kids and live in a cheap city. I was only able to move out on my own a year after getting a full-time job with another nonprofit.

    While I was happily accepted by the nonprofit community, I think it was because of who I worked for, rather than the work I did while there. I mostly set up training rooms, printed training materials, and scheduled lunches, plus helped customers with questions and comments. Because I worked in a branch office with fewer employees, two hours away from the main office (and my actual supervisor), I got a different experience than my fellow Americorp member who was in the main office. From my conversations with other Americorp members, who you do your term with matters quite a bit.

    The educational award was a little under $6,000. Some schools will match it partially or fully if you go to grad school for public policy or education or social work, but outside of those fields, its just another scholarship.

    I’m ultimately grateful for my time as an Americorp member. But I would caution those who are interested to take stock of their support network, savings, and career and educational goals before applying.

  30. nep*

    Returned Peace Corps volunteer. Mixed feelings. Fantastic experience from the standpoint of spending a lot of time in another country, another culture. Learning languages, meeting amazing and inspiring people. (I wanted to ‘go deep’ in Africa, instead of going as a tourist, so I applied to Peace Corps with the aim of getting to a country in sub-Saharan Africa.) I’ve got mixed feelings about the institution of Peace Corps and even the whole idea of it.
    The PC experience did lead directly to other work in the region and then I ended up spending many years after that, so I wouldn’t trade any of it.
    It’s such an individual thing–even though you’re with an institution, you’re getting out of it what you put in, and you construct every interaction with what you bring to it as an individual and the grace and humility (or not) with which you interact with people.

    1. Matt*

      This is very accurate. I think you get out of it what you put in for most things we do in life. And there are very few (if any) occupations one can have where the institution that helps to facilitate your work matter more than meaning you derive from it yourself.

  31. Park Ranger*

    I did two three-month internships with the Student Conservation Association, which was linked with AmeriCorps, and am really glad I did. They place people in conservation roles with the Park Service, Forest Service, and BLM across the country. When I did it ten years ago, I received free transportation to and from my site location (e.g. round-trip airfare to California); free housing for the duration; a $75/week stipend for food; and $500 per month towards student loans or tuition. They were two amazing, fun, educational summer gigs, and got my foot in the door for an actual full-time paid position as a park ranger. SCAs are really respected in the world of parks and land management. I wouldn’t have done it for longer, cause that’s already a long time to not make enough to save or really pay the bills, but for three months it was awesome. (And I had the privilege of not having to pay for childcare, send money home, pay off additional cc debt, etc.)

  32. cheeky*

    My problem with these programs is that the stipend is truly a poverty wage (which is taxable, and you are not eligible for things like SNAP/food stamps), so the people who can commit to them tend to come from wealthier, more privileged backgrounds, with parents who can support them financially.

    1. Washi*

      It’s not true that you’re not eligible for SNAP! Quite the opposite actually – we were all given a memo from the Corporation for National Service (now just called Americorps) to take with us to the application interview, stating that our stipend should not even be counted as income, so we should get the maximum benefit if we had no other employment.

      This was years ago now, but I was able to get about $190/month, and it completely covered my food. SNAP is considered to be a “benefit” for Americorps members.

    2. MissBliss*

      The “you are not eligible for SNAP” thing might be regional, because we specifically instructed our AmeriCorps members on how to apply for SNAP. They were also, predominantly, already members of the low-income community we were serving. Specific programs had wealthier, more privileged people, who came from out of town to work on our programs. But the majority of people were folks from the community, who liked the idea of either the work they would be doing, or the additional services they could access (resume prep, GED tutoring, criminal record expungement, etc) through my former org.

      1. Sophie Hatter*

        I found there was a huge difference in demographics in my two years of AC. when I was a VISTA, most other VISTAs where white, 20 something women on their way to grad school for policy or something similar. When I was doing direct service, there was people of all ages and backgrounds.

    3. LQ*

      This is my issue too. I looked into it and seemed like a good candidate in a lot of ways. (I’ve done nonprofit or government work my whole career since, I seem like someone who would have done it.) But the conversations around it were so gross. You DO “get” to apply for SNAP and the like, and when I talked with folks about it they were saying it was a chance to learn what it was like to live below the poverty line and experience the hardship. I grew up below the poverty line, I did have all that kind of hardship.

      Kids who grow up below the poverty line to need more lessons in being poor or learning how to apply for benefits. They need a program where they are given a boat load of money and really wealthy folks to help them learn how to manage it with the support structures to build those skills.

  33. angrypedestrian*

    I also served in AmeriCorps NCCC in 2012, not long after I graduated college. During my time, I was based out of the Vinton, IA campus and worked in Indiana, Minnesota, South Dakota, and a few different spots in Iowa. Most of the projects are manual labor (trail building, removing invasive species, refurbishing summer camps, etc…), but I was also a camp counselor for a few weeks and helped run volunteer deployment in Henryville, IN for about a month after a tornado devastated the surrounding area. Our team also conducted a business survey of downtown Sioux Falls for their BID? Just a really wide range of projects working for everyone from the aforementioned BID, to local United Ways, to county conservation boards and everything in between.

    I always describe it as one of the greatest experiences of my life that I would never want to do again, but it was just what 22 year old me needed to help figure out what I might want to do with my life post-graduation, and it has eventually led to my current career in nonprofits. And I highly recommend it to similarly aimless young people who want to see more of country, meet some really interesting people, and do work that you probably won’t get the chance to do otherwise (I got to distantly hang out with bison while pulling old barbwire fence on a nature preserve! It was very cool!). It’s not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but you don’t have to worry about finding a way to secure housing or paying your bills on the tiny AmeriCorps stipend in VISTA or State/National programs, since most expenses are covered, which is nice. But yeah, as a couple others have said doing EVERYTHING with the same 10 people can get grating and having so much of your life consumed by AmeriCorps is tough, but I think it’s worth it if it’s something that sounds even remotely interesting.

    It’s definitely not for everyone, and, at least in my year, there were quite a few people that washed out, but I really loved it and made some great lifelong friends and built the foundation for a lot of skills I use in my work now!

    1. angrypedestrian*

      Oh and I will say this program was much more accessible to me as a person who comes from a working class background. I was accepted into City Year in New York after AmeriCorps, but ultimately had to decline because I just couldn’t afford to do it on the stipend they provided.

    2. anna green*

      “one of the greatest experiences of my life that I would never want to do again”
      This is excellent and exactly how I’d describe it :)

    3. Prairie*

      Yes I agree with everything in this post. I would say the interpersonal team dynamics are the most stressful part. Although there are some physical challenges as well. I also got to hang out on the other side of a fence from a bison but it had an oozing fistula and it was one of the most revolting experiences of my life.
      Also I was in your class. On Oak 4.

  34. JVC*

    I opted for Jesuit Volunteer Corp after graduating from a Jesuit University. The placement was great. The roommates not so much. For any placement where you are provided housing with other roommates, I think this can be really problematic unless you are super easy going or get really lucky with who else ends up in the same house.
    Like Americorp the money was tight. We had a stipend of around $100 a month and maybe $400 a month for food for the house. Thankfully my job fed me from time to time and I was still used to being a broke college student eating a lot of PB&J.
    The job was amazing and let me experience so many more aspects than the standard entry-level job. I was also given a ton of autonomy but still had supervisors if I needed help or direction. In many ways, it was a really good internship where you get more career development opportunities attending meetings your pay grade wouldn’t suggest you should be at the table. I think a lot of the success spoke to the organization is stable and prepared for a new person in that role. They had three positions – JVC, Lutheran version of JVC, and Americorp that had been happening for several years so they knew what we needed and helped with things like our unique transportation needs. It was hands down the best job and work environment I have ever had. I didn’t stay long term because I hated the weather and location, but it was a great way to fully experience a new part of the country from where I was raised.

    Overall I think these types of programs are great for anyone graduating and thinking about grad school but need a little break or just generally not sure what they want to do next. I think some of the Americorp positions are geared towards high school graduates before they start college. They all require a certain amount of privilege (living at home, savings, parental insurance, etc) or straight out poverty living though.

  35. Emily W*

    Ultra-specific recommendation here, but if anyone has recently graduated from a degree program (within the last 2 years, I believe) related to museum work and is struggling to break into the field (so, … everyone) I highly recommend the National Council for Preservation Education’s NPS internships, which is similar in mission to these other public service fellowships. Most positions pay $15/hr and some of the more remote parks have housing included. Obviously the experience will vary wildly by position, but I can’t say enough good things about my time. They have internships for collections management, education, curatorial, visitor services, etc, so you’ll have multiple options depending on your interest. My big tip is to be strategic — there are some positions that get dozens of applicants and some that get very few, so being strategic about where you apply is key.

  36. ChaaKiawYen*

    RPCV here: I loved my experience. I had a great host country I had previous experience with, a great site, and I would not change my experience for the world…however PC has a high dropout rate due to people applying for the wrong reasons all of the time. You have to think seriously about why you are applying for PC because if you’re just doing it as something to put on your resume, you will not be successful. The culture shock is real, the sexism and racism is real, crime happens, and often you have to censor yourself 24/7z it’s exhausting. You fail constantly, and you have to pick yourself up. If you lose the respect of your community, forget about it. It’s not just turning up in an office. Everyone is watching you all of the time. That said, I’m still in contact with my host parents, my students, my coworkers and I miss it everyday. I can’t imagine my life without this experience.

    P.S. you definitely need to know how to ride a bike. 15 km min every day for two years and three months.

    TLDR: Think very very very hard before applying.

    1. nep*

      Good points/tips. Agree think long and hard about your why.
      Also saw a lot of early terminations during training; there’s something about landing there and feeling the reality on the ground that hits you with a big dose of clarity. And making the decision to leave early is fine–it’s not ideal, but sometimes it’s only after getting to host country that the clarity comes.

    2. RPCV 01-03*

      I agree on making sure you’re in it for the right reasons. I had a former volunteer who married a host country national ask me “Did you save the world yet?” when I responded “It’s on the agenda for tomorrow.” He smiled and said he could always tell how successful a PCV would be depending on how seriously they took his question (or one like it). The other best piece of advice was to “work yourself out of a job.” If you could hand your project over to a host country counterpart, you were doing the best thing possible. If you were the only one sustaining it, it would not likely survive past your service.

      I also had a tremendous experience, but can still feel the loneliness and isolation. The fishbowl experience is exhausting–especially when you start to feel comfortable and part of the community, and then you just need to run to the store because you don’t feel well and you can feel all the eyes and curiosity. Having connections with other volunteers and a space where you can just “be” is critical.

      I am now a federal employee in the same field that my service was in, so it definitely helped career-wise. (Mostly by confirming that it was the line of work I wanted to do and led me to finding the most appropriate graduate degree path.) My graduate program took longer than my non-competative status, but I’m sure my service on my resume helped a lot. I was also able to count it as time in service for time off purposes and was able to buy my Peace Corps time into our retirement program (which is based on you salary during the years earned, so it’s super cheap!). All in all, it was one of the most difficult, most rewarding, and (at times) most confusing experiences of my life and I wouldn’t change it.

      1. ChaaKiawYen*

        Work yourself out of a job was definitely one of our training models as well! Also, listen to your community. That is a bit like the “save the world” question. You’re there on the invitation of the community who probably already has an idea of what they need assistance with. I knew a couple of people who didn’t adapt to that well and quit early on despite our weeks of training.

        I felt really lucky that I had community partners who were interested in projects I was interested and our in country staff was wonderful. Granted I was in a Posh Corps country meaning I had electricity (most of the time) and WiFi (sometimes). I genuinely miss my bucket showers.

        Did you guys do the DIE vs DIVE cultural empathy module?

  37. Shyra*

    I did a year of AmeriCorps in a health setting after college in 2017.

    Pros: I believe my service year was key to getting my next job (an excellent position in my desired field). There was supportive professional development that helped me define my career aspirations. Made good friends. Education award helped with my loans. It felt like a good way to ‘launch’ after college. Genuinely had a helpful impact for my clients.

    Cons: My program director was great but my host site was awful. Carefully evaluate the actual nonprofit you’d be serving at, not just the AmeriCorps program you’d be serving through. I had an issue with my food stamps that required getting a lawyer, which was very stressful. Due to limited time off and my toxic service site, I was sick for much of my service term.

    On the stipend: my take home after taxes was $930/month plus about $190/month in food stamps and a free transit pass. I was in a low COL area and on my parents’ health insurance and phone plan, so it wasn’t too hard. I basically only spent money on rent, utilities, groceries, and toiletries, plus maybe once a month of eating out or attending a cheap show. I rented a small room in a shared house with other people in my program.

    All in all, I’m glad I did it because I learned and grew professionally and felt like I actually did some good, but personally it was physically and emotionally difficult. I still suffer from severe digestive issues that I believe were in part accelerated by the stress I experienced that year. But I think most of the people I served with had a much better experience. The experience varies a lot based on your program, host site, and your own expectations/temperament, as well as your financial privilege going into the program (which is bad!).
    Also important: as others have mentioned, there are problematic/harmful race and class dynamics.

  38. Lisa*

    I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal in 2003-04. It was supposed to a two year commitment, not counting the three months of training at the beginning. I left after 6 months. It was one of the most miserable experiences of my life.

    I lost 30+ lbs during training, which my host family felt reflected badly on them, so they gave me a bad evaluation with the Peace Corps and I got in trouble for it.

    I was not allowed to ask questions in English in language class after the first couple of weeks “because you won’t be able to ask questions in English once you are in your village.” However my two classmates both spoke passable French and were allowed to ask questions in French because it is one of the languages of Senegal. This essentially meant they could have their questions clarified but I could not. I spent most of language class having no clue what was going on. I failed my language exam at the end of training and the country director at the time told me it was because I wasn’t trying hard enough. I had to sign an agreement saying they would send me to my site, but I would be retested in 3 months during our in-service training, and if I failed again they would send me home. I failed my exam again during in-service training, and when I asked what would happen now they laughed and said of course they wouldn’t send me home after 3 months at my site. I spent 3 months feeling like an idiot for no reason. That was the last straw and I left shortly after that.

    Another incident that stands out: during my 3 months out at my site I got in trouble for having my kittens stay at the regional office when I brought them into town to get them vaccinated against rabies because apparently my kittens made some people uncomfortable. (Besides being an office it was also like a dorm where volunteers stayed when they were in town for regional meetings and other business.) The Peace Corps rules said that you could keep pets, but you had to have them vaccinated against rabies. There was no vet in my tiny village. However nobody ever spoke to the volunteers for smoking pot (both against Peace Corps rules and local laws) or worried that the constant partying at the office might make anyone uncomfortable.

    I have a million other miserable stories about my time there but I’ll leave it at that.

    This all being said, there were plenty of people who loved the Peace Corps when I was there. Several fellow volunteers described it as heaven. Every country is run independently and the experience can be very different. I also think they give you more control now over what country you go to (when I did it you applied, they offered you an assignment, and you either agreed or turned it down to wait for another option.) I would also guess that most volunteers have cell phones now and can actually keep in contact with others. The whole time I was there I think I spoke to my family on the phone maybe 3 or 4 times. I did get some benefits from the experience. I have never quite lost my appreciation for simple things (electricity! refrigeration! abundant food!). And I think it was a useful experience to live in a majority Muslim country and really have the lesson that people are pretty much the same all over the world driven home. Also my terrifying kittens that made my fellow volunteers uncomfortable were able to graduate to spoiled American housecats and live out the rest of their lives with me in the US. :)

    If anyone was considering joining the Peace Corps my main advice would honestly be to not be afraid to quit if it isn’t right for you. It’s such a wild experience that I don’t think there’s any great way to tell how you’ll do without trying it for yourself. The things I thought would bother me (no electricity or running water) turned out to be easy to deal with, while the things that I thought I would being able to cope with (cultural differences like the way that women and children are treated like 2nd class citizens) turned out to really bug me.

    1. farrisonhord*

      I’m sorry you had a not great experience. A lot of my site mates stayed on in Morocco but were pretty miserable because they discontinued our programs two months after we got there and moved all our program staff into Youth Development. The part about people being the same all the world over is something I talk about all the time when people ask me about Peace Corps. I wish everyone could have that specific experience.

    2. nymitz*

      Waves at fellow Senegal volunteer from the pre-cell-phone era! Tamba, right? I’m so glad to know you’re doing well and the cats grew up fat and happy. You made the right choice by not being afraid to quit – Peace Corps isn’t right for everyone, and sometimes you can’t know that until you try it. Take heed, those of you considering! There are some great stories and points made throughout this thread.

  39. Threeve*

    I’m not sure if anyone has mentioned this elsewhere, but for some people, the year of “non-competitive eligibility” you get after national service is a Big Deal.

    It opens some doors for jobs in the federal government; between NCE and networking, some people consider a year with AmeriCorps as basically an investment in a future government career.

  40. Turanga Leela*

    Teach for America alumna here! There were a lot of good things. It was a fantastic thing to have on my resume; I’ve had managers say they hired me in part because of my TFA experience. I loved the friends I made, and I wound up moving to the region where I was assigned. It changed the course of my life. It also gave me a healthy perspective on the things I did afterward—law school cold-calling was not a big deal after teaching middle school.

    The cons: I have serious objections to aspects of TFA’s impact on education policy and the education labor market. I’d have real hesitation about joining the program at this point. Additionally, teaching is a really stressful job, and TFA is a high-pressure environment. It was hard on my health, and it wasn’t just me; a lot of my friends drank more, gained or lost weight, took up smoking again, etc.

    1. Turanga Leela*

      For what it’s worth, in TFA you get a teacher’s salary and benefits, so you make a living wage (although still low). I worked on a reservation and lived in subsidized teacher housing, and my $30k salary gave me a reasonably good quality of life.

      1. Fellow TFA Alumnus*

        I am also a TFA Alum (18 years ago!) and echo both your pros and cons. I am still in touch with many former students, and the experience changed my life trajectory. That said, I have mixed feelings about if I would join today; one of my reservations is TFA’s alignment with charter schools. I am a big public school proponent – attended them, taught in them, and now my kids attend them.

        1. Turanga Leela*

          The charter school thing is a big issue for me too. I’m not categorically opposed to charters, but in NYC, TFA places teachers in at least one large charter network that mistreats students and teachers and is actively competing with the public schools.


      Agreed on all these points (fellow TFA alumni). I think my experience was different than a lot of folks – while a lot of my friends DID become doctors, lawyers, MPPs, etc., I had a solid group of friends who stayed in the classroom.

      My personal experience was that it was super detrimental to my mental and physical health, and I think I probably did more harm than good in my classroom. I think TFA has done some work over the past ten years to improve the training and recruitment system – moving away from the “white savior” model (which was definitely too close to my experience) and to more of a “getting more people in the classroom” model (which might still have some problems).

      It’s a weird mixed bag when I look back on it…

  41. NCCC*

    I did NCCC in 2001 when I was 18. It has an upper age limit of 26 and I think that’s important. It is most certainly best as a “gap year” because you have literally no independence. You work, live, and eat as they tell you. (All expenses paid with a small stipend and education award.)

    It is an *excellent* way to try on many different types of service/careers on for size. There is a big focus on your team working in different sectors (education, environmental) for each project. Do be aware that nothing requires more than a high school level education, so you won’t be intellectually challenged like some other programs.

    I highly recommend NCCC under the correct circumstances. It was such an easy way to experience the country and many different types of people. I did everything from teach at an elementary school in Baltimore to build homes in rural Maine. It truly helped me learn what I did (and did NOT) want my future career to look like and I was much better informed going into college than my friends. I chose a degree program based on experience instead of guessing. :)

    1. pretzelgirl*

      I have a good friend that did NCCC in Maine, I think in 02 or 03. I think she did some kind of Forest Conservation but its been so long I cant be sure!

  42. Graphhopper*

    I was an AmeriCorps VISTA in 2013. Overall, I think the program benefitted me but I wouldn’t recommend it.

    I graduated college in 2012 with no debt but also no internship experience. (I didn’t realize that some internships were paid and while my tuition was covered by scholarships I had to cover the rest myself.) I worked part time while job searching but really struggled to find that first role. Finally, in December of 2012 I had two job offers and accepted the VISTA role. Even with the low stipend it payed more than my part time role. Part of the reason that I chose this role over the other was that it promised a certain percentage of my time would be devoted to professional development. Both positions were temporary, and while I knew the VISTA role would pay less, I believed the skills I would learn would be more valuable for future work.

    The nonprofit I worked for had a few VISTA workers, and partnered with other nonprofits in the VISTA program. All together there were about 25 of us. All of the VISTAs were required to meet as a group twice a month, once to highlight the work of a fellow VISTA and their nonprofit, and once for ‘professional development’. The professional development meetings were completely awful. I was expecting to learn hard skills and possibly earn certifications, but instead we got off-base resume advice, MBTI tests, and guest speakers with hyper specific career paths. This part of the program felt like a bait and switch.

    That said, I was able to do very interesting impactful work. After my VISTA year I moved into another role with the nonprofit and stayed for another two years. I was offered a promotion, but when I realized it paid less than the average starting salary for a graduate with my degree I declined and started job searching. The skills I picked up really paid off, and I was able to advance quickly. I became an analyst, and then a senior analyst, and now a Data Scientist. Sometimes I look at my coworkers and feel like I’ve taken the slow path, but other times I’m amazed that I’ve gotten here at all. I’m the only Latina Data Scientist that I know!

    Reasons it worked out for me that don’t apply to most VISTAs:
    – I was married and my spouse made enough to support me. Together we made about 35k, so our budget was tight but we weren’t below the poverty line.
    – We lived in the same city as our middle-class parents. Being able to raid their pantries, bring our laundry over, and drop in for family dinners was absolutely critical.
    – My VISTA work was all about data, and helped me develop skills that are highly compensated and widely relevant.
    – The nonprofit I worked for was established and well run.

  43. Northcoasty*

    I did City Year in Boston 2002. I ended up leaving the program after 4 months. It was a disservice to the students we were working with and I dealt with a ton of sexism from the leadership.

    I could go on and on, but this was the nail in the coffin for me: after complaining that the curriculum had been developed for 2nd graders but we were placed with 8th graders, the curriculum leader told us to write generic rap lyrics on big sheets of paper as our starting point. You know, like a movie. But in that movie, you have more than 20 minutes a week with kids, you are able to develop methods that work for your authentic self, and you have training in education and child development.

    I can’t imagine I wouldn’t have learned more and had more flexibility with nearly any other work/internship experience. After that, I got a part time job and volunteered in a few places – it was more fulfilling, I got paid MUCH better, and I didn’t have to do group calisthenics at 7am.

  44. Erin*

    I loved Americorps. I’m one of those corny people who really believes in the idea of national service. I had a great supervisor for the summer and I could have walked right into a GS job afterwards.
    The stipend was painful. It worked for me because I was on my parents’ health insurance and I was stationed at a national park, so I lived rent free in government housing. We were in the middle of nowhere so I didn’t have much to spend my money on anyway. I ate a lot of beans and tortillas.
    And if you’re interested in working with the government, Americorps experience does carry some weight.

  45. Nikara*

    I did two terms of service in a State/National Americorps program, with a disaster response non-profit. I knew I was interested in going into emergency management/disaster response, but I wanted to get some real experience before going to grad school. The program was a really good fit for me- it was my first time working in an office, but there were a bunch of other young people learning office norms with me. I got certified to teach a lot of different classes that were really helpful later on. I made many connections with people in the field that are still helpful today, more than ten years later.

    One of the most helpful things I learned in the program was public speaking. We did a lot of trainings on disaster preparedness and first aid. I wasn’t the most eloquent speaker at the beginning of the program. By the end, I was quite experienced, and I haven’t had any issues with stage fright since. Doing public speaking to different groups of folks every day for two years is a great way to gain that skill!

    My field is hard to break into without having a background as a first responder (firefighter, police, military). Americorps gave me the chance to actually respond to real disasters both locally (wildfires, mudslides) and nationally (I went to Alabama to respond to tornadoes). For people who want to break into the field, it’s a key entry point.

    What others have mentioned about the challenges with the pay and stipend are incredibly true. I lived at home, which is the only way I could afford it. But I was also in the class that graduated at the height of the Recession, so I would have likely struggled to make money no matter what. Our hours weren’t super crazy (during non-disaster response days). I was able to go to night school to become an EMT on the side. Americorps members definitely need to be paid more. There are systematic inequities in who can afford to join the program. And the quality of your experience will depend on the non-profit that you are working with, and your host site. But it can be an incredible opportunity, especially if you want to test to see if a field is going to be a good fit for you very early in your career.

  46. freefoofstamps*

    TL;DR: AmeriCorps is great; the benefits are surprisingly nice; perhaps don’t do it just as a gap year before (a poorly considered decision to attend) grad school.

    I did a year of AmeriCorps (a State/National Program, so more “boots-on-the-ground” type of experience but not living communally) right out of college in 2016-2017. I had a great time during my program! I was doing meaningful work and our team had bimonthly meetings that were reserved for professional development/team bonding. AmeriCorps is an especially great way to make a big move and meet lots of friends in a new city!

    Since finishing my year of service and entering the job market a few times, I would say the best thing about my experience is that it’s easy to represent AmeriCorps in a variety of contexts. Right after my AmeriCorps year, it took up a huge chunk on my resume and gave me such a huge variety of accomplishments/experiences, so I felt confident I could go into a variety of fields (my host site also offered to hire me!). I’m on the job market again now and I still feel like it’s a golden nugget on my resume. Because I have remained in the education/non-profit world, I’m easily able to connect with others that have done AmeriCorps or with people involved with Boys and Girls Clubs (where I completed my service).

    The stipend, of course, is abysmal. But, with the free food stamps and education award at the end, it’s not totally terrible. I did the math and I think with all of those perks (not counting health insurance) it worked out to be $12/hour, which in 2016 wasn’t too different from what some other recent psychology grads were making. Also, my program offered a LOT of vacation days and sick time. With a side hustle (for me it was babysitting) it was totally doable and well worth it for a year.

    The only thing I regret is that I had planned to start graduate school right after my year. This meant I was applying to programs in Nov-Dec and making the decision in April. I was one of those people that got a Master’s because I thought it was the right thing to do and I thought it would help me no matter what. Well, I got an MA in Spanish lit and surprise surprise, I was dead wrong. I know it’s easy to look back with rose colored glasses, but I really think I could have launched myself into a promising career that I was passionate about right after my AmeriCorps year and really take advantage of all those connections I made. So, I guess my final advice is that you can really maximize your AmeriCorps experience if you plan to stay in the field and work on building connections. Though, it can still be rewarding otherwise too.

    1. freefoofstamps*

      Replying to myself because I’m realizing that not all AmeriCorps compensation packages are the same, which I did not realize. Obviously, this will make a big difference! While the stipend was low my program offered really great benefits otherwise (insurance, gas reimbursement, something like 10 vacation days and 10 sick days, food stamps, plus the roughly $6,000 ed award that everyone gets).

  47. Jcb*

    I also did Americorps for a year and found the work to be really meaningful but the stipend puts a bad taste in my mouth about the whole program. I did Americorps because of the job and the organization rather than going in wanting to do an Americorps year, so it really felt like getting paid almost nothing to do a difficult job. The cohort of service members I was with were almost entirely well-off white women when the demographic we were serving was mostly children of color. That said, as an aforementioned white lady, I do think the experience of having to apply for SNAP was a good one for me to have. But, definitely restricts the people that can do Americorps. For me, it was worth it but as someone with their parents as a safety net (one I didn’t rely on during that year but could have!), I didn’t have to worry too much about being so underpaid for a year and the stipend still leaves a bad taste in my mouth about the experience.

  48. Anonly*

    I served in a state branch of the AmeriCorp, the Reading Corp. Our goal was to improve literacy for children that didn’t quite qualify for extra assistance but were at risk for falling behind in K-3. Overall it was a positive experience for me (and hopefully for the students I tutored and the school staff I worked with). In two years I worked two different schools and districts, both an easy commute from my parent’s house (because that’s the only place I could afford to stay [for free] and I was lucky enough they didn’t mind). You will need the support of parents, spouse, SOMEBODY to truly be successful and gain something in this role. This is not a position to start making a living off of, in fact, if the odds stack against you, you could accumulate more debt. This will NOT raise YOU out of poverty, but it will give you a taste of what poverty looks like first hand. That said, the programs themselves appear helpful to the populations we work with. Reading Corps seemed very data driven.

    Of Note:
    One of the first things we were warned about was the living stipend being at poverty level. There were no illusions of making minimum wage. So a lot of the other tutors in this program were:
    A. Recent college grads with soft science degrees who ended up pivoting and using the grant money we received to go BACK to school for education, or pursue a master’s in education or something related.
    B. Parents (usually moms) with kids in K-3 looking to be involved with the school somehow, usually their partner was making decent enough money to support the family at this time. I saw a few moms looking to gain experience to reenter the work force / go back to school.
    C. Retirees / Grandparents looking to get out of the house and give back to the community. Grant money could be gifted to children or grand children.

    Summary cash value:
    Living stipend put you at poverty line- be good at budgeting and be prepared to downsize, live with parents, etc… you will not be living on your own or going out at all with this wage. This in itself is a living lesson on frugality and appreciating what you have. Your insurance is practically non existent, so keep this in mind if you’re not 100% healthy or at risk for contracting something during service. This happened to me and resulted in medical debt that ended up paying down well after my student loans were paid off. The schools and Reading Corp were fantastic and accommodating to work with… but the lack of solid coverage hit HARD. Another reason to do this while you’re young and healthy or while you’re covered under a parent’s or spouse’s insurance.

    Grant Money: two years of service got me $10,000. This money expires in several years and was relatively easy to use through the AmeriCorps site and partner colleges. However, the money, despite being a federal grant, is taxed, I don’t know why this caught me off gaurd- but it did. So keep your documents come tax season. It does expire in 7 years and if you run into trouble finding a good time to invest (poor work schedules, chronic health issues, etc…) it is NOT easy to get an extension. For this reason I recommend these programs to people with an associates degree going back to wrap up the bachelors, if you want to use it actively for school. If you’ve already completed school don’t bother using it to go back unless you have a plan, instead dump it into paying off your loans, because you can (AND SHOULD) do that. There was a part time option too, so I could see this being a good option for those still in college part time or full time depending on how you could get your class schedule to balance with your tutoring schedule.

    We were required to “work / volunteer” additional hours: so here’s the thing, you qualify for the grant money (which is the big carrot here) by performing x hours community service. Balanced out it was 40+ hrs a week, if I remember right. Time tutoring in the school counts, but it was slightly less than 40 hrs a week, especially when you looked at school holidays. So if you found a volunteer gig after school or on the weekends, it was usually an extra 2-4 hrs a week and you’d hit your mark.

    I graduated 2008, I’d had my BA in English for a couple years, but my only work experience was working my way up to managing a local shoe store (not a lot of professional role models there). 2010 I took a risk and did the Reading Corp, to date it is still my favorite work experience. I had no desire to work education and still don’t, but I loved tutoring 1 on 1. Loved the school setting and the staff. Loved the support from the Reading Corp. I got a lot of the office, hands on, non-retail professional experience my resume was lacking. I learned a lot about our education system and literacy. I learned a lot about planning ahead, scheduling, adapting, budgeting, how to speak professionally without a script, etc. There were a lot of solid life lessons that can be applied to a professional career.

    BUT this is one of those things, you get out of it what you put into it. Depending on your site and Corps office, you can have some great professional role models, training models, etc. There are great opportunities for Networking or just taking time to experiment through volunteer work with what you want to do or what skill sets you want to gain.

    It still took another 4 years, after my term of service was completed, to find a professional position in alignment with my skill set and needed pay grade. Maybe that would have been faster if I’d stuck with education, but I didn’t. BUT my time with the Reading Corps is still sited in interviews because that was were I learned the basics. When I think about how I should be treated at work or how I should treat others, I think of my time in the Reading Corp. Part of why I had a couple jobs in that 4 years, I won’t tolerate being abused by an employer longer than it takes to find a new position elsewhere. I improved and got a pay raise with every new job offer because of what I learned in AmeriCorps. My only regret is that I didn’t fast track myself and join in my last two years of college.

    It is, at the end of the day, a service / volunteer position, but to receive much, you must first give much. This is “plant the seed” kind of work, don’t expect instant results, especially if you haven’t put in the work. You won’t see much if all you do is your minimum hours/ work to get by and then call it a day.

    If you are on your own without fiscal support I would take a hard pass on these positions until you’re in a good place to do so. You do need a certain amount of privilege to not just survive but thrive before, during, and after your time in the AmeriCorps.

  49. Meghan*

    I did the AmeriCorps AIDS United program (which I believe has now been discontinued) about half a decade ago. I have mixed feelings. On one hand, the program definitely helped shape the early years of my career. I was able to get into a MPH program with funding despite little public health experience in undergrad. I was able to defer my student loans for a year. I was able to find a place where I could learn valuable skills like HIV counseling, mental health first aid, project management, event planning. I got to liason with community organizations. I was able to leave the soul-crushing minimum wage job that I was working post-college. We had about ten people in my city’s cohort, and we developed the sort of comradery you get with other broke twenty-somethings who want to work in social services. I still keep in touch with a lot of them. They have gone on to become doctors, nurses, non-profit leaders, researchers. We’ve flown across the country to visit each other; we’ve referred each other to jobs in our sectors.

    But there was a lot that I didn’t like. I made $14,000 a year to do work that was comparable to what the full-time staff at my host site were doing. Technically I only worked 4 days a week at my host site with each Friday being a “community project” like building clinics, planting gardens for food banks, doing HIV tests at churches. But during the regular week I was given tasks that were worthy of a full-time job. I ran meetings of staff who were decades older and making three times my salary. I felt like cheap labor so that the non-profit I worked at could generate more revenue from the for-profit company we were subcontracting services out to. At one point my food stamps (AmeriCorps members would get the full amount to supplement our poverty wages) were inexplicably cut off by the state and it took months for me to get them back, making me food insecure. I couldn’t afford furniture for the apartment I shared with roommates. I had to take up gigs where I could to supplement my income, but the people in my cohort who came from wealth didn’t.

    Additionally, AmeriCorps comes with political restrictions. You can’t refer people you work with to abortions, or help them register to vote. We ran a blog for our program where my cohort members and I wanted to write about real injustices we perceived in the communities where we were working. We wanted to talk about mass incarceration, redlining, structural inequities. But we were discouraged from being too “political,” as that could jeopardize the program’s funding. So we instead posted photos of us painting doors, weeding gardens, wearing matching shirts. I think we were all pretty bitter by the end of it.

    Would I do it again? No idea. I’m pretty lucky that things worked out for me and I have a stable career in public health. I’m sure I could have done it without AmeriCorps, but it definitely helped.

  50. Jlb*

    Americorps VISTA, was an eye-opening experience, especially as someone who is dedicated to working with nonprofits. It really made me aware of the legitimate reasons a lot of people are hesitant to help the poor, since many of our clients were actively trying to stay on welfare despite enrolling in our programs on becoming self-sufficient. It’s hard for me to be objective because our Americorps Program Coordinator was a terrible person/manager and the org leaders wouldn’t do anything about her so that soured my experience a lot. Obviously the pay stinks but we made it work in my VISTA group by sharing a house between 5 roommates.

    Big positive, I got my next job largely because a fellow alum saw it on my resume and asked HR to give me a shot, so there is something to be said about the networking value, if you can live with the low pay.

  51. Uhdrea*

    I can’t speak to AmeriCorps itself, but my mom taught at a school that placed AmeriCorps members into teaching positions and the general consensus among the rest of the staff was that the members were generally invested and kind, but they were not trained to be teachers, especially in a district where so many students had compounding factors (poverty, incarcerated family members, etc).

    I’m sure there’s significant variance, but at least in the district she worked in, having AmeriCorps teaching experience on a resume wasn’t particularly seen as a positive, so much as a potential red flag.

  52. SeniorTechnicalWriter*

    I served 3 years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kenya, in the IT and Small Business group. I lived with a homestay family for 2 months during training. They had dirt floors and an outside “cho” (outhouse), but it was a great experience. Then I moved to my placement and served the rest of my time there. It’s lonely and sometimes scary. You have to be very flexible and self-motivated, and love new experiences. When I returned to the US, I was on the federal government’s internal hiring list for a year. It was during the recession (2007-2008) and yet I received 4 job offers within 1-1/2 weeks of applying! (For government jobs, you have to make sure you follow the application instructions completely – it took an hour for each job I applied for, but it was worth it!) Serving in the Peace Corps changed my life and it was the best thing I’ve ever done! It’s helped me get new jobs even now, because RPCVs are known for being self-motivated and hard workers. I’d definitely recommend doing it, if you have the motivation and willingness (after the pandemic, of course).

  53. Nat*

    New commenter but I think this is such a great question! I did Americorps VISTA the year after college as a newly-minted English Lit grad. I would not be where I am without this year. It started my career and gave me real job experience, I took on a lot of responsibility and was hired on after I finished the year-long fellowship, and I made friends (some of whom had placements that weren’t as great as mine, such as non-profits that were financially unstable, had little oversight, or were badly managed). If you can stay on your parents’ health insurance, don’t mind spending a year living on very little income, and spend some time bonding with roommates/other Americorps or City Year people, its worth it. During my year, I babysat, harvested pumpkins, and pretty much did anything on the side that would pay.

    I went back to grad school, lived a similarly frugal lifestyle, and then applied to be a VISTA Leader. During the interview, I realized that the program just wasn’t a good fit for me anymore. I’m older, I want stability, health insurance, and the ability to buy a house, and it felt exploitative to hire me with the professional experience I have with under my belt for so little pay. All to say, it depends where you are in life. You need to treat it as a one-year internship to jump start your job experience.

  54. Zanele Ngwenya*

    RPCV here (12-14). The benefits seem to be lower than Americorps financially speaking (loan forgiveness, etc…). I went through my stipend of around $200 USD every month on transportation and food with none leftover for small luxuries beyond the occasional chocolate bar. I now have severe, life-long health impacts from the hard physical labor and many diseases from bad water. There’s a lot of internal debate among RPCVs right now about cancelling Peace Corps for being neo-colonial in nature, and while the program definitely needs improvement, I still have absolutely ZERO trust in any “development professional” from western countries who hasn’t lived at least 2 years in absolute poverty with their service community, because I have seen EVERY major international NGO you might donate to and think does things the “right way” swoop into my community and absolutely wreck things. It is, in my opinion, one of the only programs that effectively de-colonizes western savior mindsets (for the most part, for the ones willing to learn). I will say that host-country staff were AMAZING, and the American careerists in Peace Corps were insanely tone-deaf about the challenges volunteers faced, many not even having done PC themselves, or they did it decades ago in a faraway country with a vastly different set of cultural assumptions. The personal growth benefits I gained would have been unmatched in any other scenario of working abroad, including in the development realm, so I would do it again.

  55. Pisikoa*

    I actually did both Peace Corps and Americorps, so I can speak to both! Prepare yourself for a pretty long comment, haha.

    Peace Corps was a transformative experience, and absolutely changed the course of my life. I loved my time as a volunteer. However, your experience will vary wildly from country to country, and it is DEFINITELY not for everyone.

    – You are truly embedded in the local culture. You receive months of intensive language & job training before you are sent to your placement, and Peace Corps places a really strong emphasis on community-driven development (i.e., see what the community actually needs from you, rather than coming in with your own preconceived notions of how you are going to “fix” anything). For anyone who is considering a future career in international development, this will be a strong foundation and open a lot of doors.
    – You are given a lot of freedom in your day-to-day. Aside from X hours at your school/community center/what have you, you can really define for yourself what Peace Corps service means. I mostly taught English/literacy, but I also did programs on HIV/AIDS & sex education, hosted a women’s empowerment sleepaway camp for girls, launched a national creative writing competition, and ran a library (among other things). If there’s something you’re passionate about that’s outside your job description, you have the flexibility to go for it.
    – Finally, Peace Corps provides a sufficient housing & food stipend, and your travel & medical expense are covered (TAKE NOTE, AMERICORPS).

    – You live on a very short leash with a ton of rules, and if you leave your village for any reason you have to report your every move to Peace Corps (including vacations). These rules are for your safety but that doesn’t make it feel less like you have an overbearing babysitter.
    – As mentioned above, your experience with PC will vary wildly between programs. I served in two separate locations; one had an incredible Health & Safety staff, who knew their sh*t and were immediately responsive to any needs, whereas the other one… was honestly pretty negligent, and volunteers had to rely on each other much more for support. If you’re considering a placement, I would recommend asking current volunteers about this.
    – It is very hard to measure your impact. A lot of volunteers throw themselves into building projects (e.g., community centers, libraries, computer labs) because that way, you leave behind a tangible bit of evidence that you made a difference — if you’re just teaching, or running HIV-awareness programs, there’s really no mechanism in place to evaluate how effective your efforts have been. Know that you may walk away after 2-3 years feeling unsure how much you’ve helped the community you’ve come to love.
    – You have a lot of freedom in your day-to-day. This has many upsides, as mentioned above, but the downside is that you are your own motivator. No one is really holding you accountable for anything beyond the bare minimum, and it is very, very easy to check out (especially if you have run into conflicts at your site). Ultimately, I believe that you get out of Peace Corps what you put into it, but there are a lot of people for whom this model just does not work.

    There are other pros and cons, of course, but these are the high-level trends that seem to apply across the board!

    As for Americorps, I’m just going to echo what other commentators have said: the stipend is goddamn ridiculous, ESPECIALLY since a condition of employment is that you cannot have any other jobs at the same time. I had a great experience with a really meaningful organization, but I’ll confess that I had to do part-time work under the table just to afford rent & groceries. The recruiter actually recommended that I go on food stamps during the job interview (which should have been a flag, but hey, I was young and it was for a good cause). Thank goodness I was able to get on Medi-Cal (California’s Medicaid) to cover healthcare during this time.

    Again, I don’t regret my time with that particular organization, but Americorps’ model is just taking advantage of young people. They should be giving their volunteers enough to live on, at least, instead of expecting them to struggle because it’s “for a good cause.” Say what you will about Peace Corps, but I didn’t worry about affording medication or rent once during my entire tenure. Still grumpy about it, obviously, but I hope these details help others make informed choices!

    1. RPCV*

      Completely agree with all of your pros and cons about Peace Corps! Definitely get out what you put in.

      1. Pisikoa*

        Haha yay, so glad they resonated with a fellow RPCV! And yeah, I definitely knew people who were just not a good fit (for the job, for the structure, for the local culture, what have you), or who couldn’t make reality match their expectations. No shame in that — and no shame in ETing, for that matter! — but blaming Peace Corps for it seemed a bit misguided, at least in some cases.

      1. Pisikoa*

        Right?! I’ve read in other comments that they’ve apparently changed their policy about not allowing you to have any outside jobs, which is an improvement, but it’s not as good as actually paying people a living wage for full-time work.

  56. D-Kander*

    I served with AmeriCorps HealthCorps from 2011 to 2013. The health center I worked at hired a lot of AmeriCorps members after their year+ of service. My mom is a patient at our health center, and so were many of fellow members- They really looked to provide a bridge for non-college educated community members to full-time employment in our health center. Not every program runs the same way, but I feel our program benefited staff and our patients.

    AmeriCorps VISTA was founded first and focused on getting college educated people more familar with service and non-profits. The stipend makes a lot of sense here- It gives middle class/upper middle class folks first-hand experiences with the daily struggles of living in poverty, like applying to SNAP/food stamps. But for me and a lot of my fellow members, we had been living in poverty/grew up in poverty. So I get what the goal was, but I’m not sure this tiny stipend is the best way to achieve that goal.

    I was hired at the health center I served at, went on to manage a department of 25, and am now applying to medical school. Every place I’ve applied had valued my service and seen it as a benefit. But I only work in non-profits, so duh they value the service and experience.

    Seeing a lot of other friend graduate into the 2008 recession, people felt like they had no other options but a year of service. When we can’t find jobs, AmeriCorps might seem better than nothing. But I’d argue that if you aren’t building a career in non-profits/public education/emergency response, you will probably have fewer benefits from your year and likely resent the pay. It’s not for everyone, but I loved my years of service.

  57. TurtleUp*

    I did City Year right out of college, an AmeriCorps program that places you in a classroom WITH a teacher (unlike TFA where you are the teacher) to provide support to students. Corps members are organized into teams of 8-12 within the school.

    I generally had a good experience. Loved my teacher, team and students. Did not like the overall organization. The regular trainings we had were not a good experience for me, the “culture” and rules were often overbearing, and the staff generally didn’t appear to care THAT much about the corp members they were employing. Now that I’m in a solid career, I can sort of understand better that it must be exhausting to deal with brand new grads that turn over every 10 months and get why they didn’t seem as invested in us as I thought they should be. But I still maintain they could’ve done better.

    The stipend and hours were tough (10k/10months when I did it and 55ish hours/wk sometimes more), but they’re pretty upfront about that. I knew what I was getting into with that aspect of it.

    They ARE very serious about professional development, so I got some decent career advice (though most of it was obviously oriented towards education which ended up not being the path I took) and I generally find that even years later employers like that I did a service year. It’s at least a talking point.

    I would do it again and recommend it to other young people who are interested in a career in education (though perhaps not that specific program to those who are interested in different career paths).

  58. BugSwallowersAnonymous*

    I did a year with Quaker Voluntary Service right out of college! QVS has a similar structure to many service years, but with an extra emphasis on intentional communal living and Quaker spirituality & conflict resolution. I lived with 6 other people in their 20s for 11 months. I also worked full time for a nonprofit, and was hired on at the end of my service year, which seems to be a fairy common experience.

    -great for making friends and establishing connections
    -I got to explore Quaker spirituality, which is something I was interested in
    -I was able to get my foot in the door at my current workplace, and they actually ended up creating a position for me that hadn’t existed before

    -I didn’t realize until I was partway through the program that I was ready for more independence than I could get within the structure of the service year. After completing a difficult college degree, I was ready to have the freedom to use my money, time, etc. how I chose, rather than spending most of my free time doing QVS-related activities, and having to submit receipts for all my food expenses.
    -The pay is basically nonexistent (they pay for your rent, food, etc.) – you really are supposed to live and breathe the program.

    So my recommendation for anyone considering this kind of service year, is to just be as honest with yourself as possible about what you’re hoping to get out of it. I don’t regret it, but I’m also not 100% sure that I would do it again. There’s nothing wrong with the program! I just think I wasn’t quite the right match for it.

  59. throwaway123*

    I served in 2010 at a public library as an AmierCorps VISTA and supported their adult programming. VISTA is different from the other AmeriCorps branches because you cannot take outside payment (no outside jobs or babysitting, etc.) during service and have to live at the poverty level.

    I felt like it was a good experience between college and a first professional position, since we were required to attend monthly training sessions when we got together as a larger group with the other VISTAS in the state. We had a large kick off training at the regional level and two professional conferences at the state level. I remember during one of the state level trainings, we were split into small groups for a game. The point of the game was to figure out how to get from one side to another with your team, but you could only step on few pieces of paper provided to your team to cross to the other side (the floor is lava). We looked at the other teams and said,”Let share our paper and make a bridge across.” So, we compiled our paper together to make a bridge and we easily crossed together. The trainer was shocked. The “correct” solution was to tear the paper into two to make more steps and beat the other teams. He never saw anything like it – teams that were supposed to compete against each other that didn’t know each other just start working together. I think the sums up the spirit of people who volunteer for AmeriCorps.

    I made some dumb newbie professional mistakes, but also learned a lot that year. I was less idealistic after the experience and more practical. I felt more prepared for my first professional job because of it and also just felt more content with things in my first professional job after going through the experience.

    My pet peeve was / is when people referred to it as a job or still refer to it as job. It’s not a job. The payment for AmeriCorps is a small living stipend so you can serve / volunteer for a year. It’s service.

    Like anything it depends on where you are placed and who your supervisors are in terms of what you get out it.

    Good luck to anyone that signs up for service!

    1. Lucette Kensack*

      FYI, the rule about second jobs has changed since you did your service. VISTAs are now allowed to have a second job, as long as it doesn’t interfere with their VISTA position.

  60. Nonprofit person*

    I did 2 years of AmeriCorps (2004-2006) and worked at two different non-profits. I loved the work, loved the people, and was able to live very modestly in a small east coast city on the stipend. I used my education award to pay for my masters. It didn’t cover all of it, but it did cover the vast majority. It lead me to a career in non-profits, and was probably pivotal in getting my first and second “real” jobs. I had a very positive experience and would recommend AmeriCorps to others.

    Looking back, I have a lot of hopes, dreams, and wishes for my sector that AmeriCorps could not and will not fix. The work that I did in the communities was important, and I wish non-profits had the level of support where they could make these volunteer positions staff positions, with individuals making a entry level salary with benefits. Sector wide, this leads to a lead weight on salaries. If you can hire an entry level person for $AmeriCorps Stipend, then you only need to pay your actual staff $AmeriCorps Stipend+1. If I only got my first and second jobs “real” jobs because I could afford to spend 2 years making an AmeriCorps Stipend, what does that mean for all of the candidates who couldn’t afford to do that? Looking back it smacks of middle class privileged in a way that I was blind to at the time.

  61. Tequila & Oxford Commas*

    I did two years as an AmeriCorps VISTA waaaaaaay back in 2002 – 2004. The pros and cons have been well covered by faster commenters; I’ll say that it was a very positive experience for me. I applied for the specific posting, at a Habitat for Humanity affiliate in the town I was already living in, rather than applying directly to AmeriCorps and being assigned to a placement — definitely recommend this approach because it allowed me to do my research before I even applied. (Who am I kidding, I was barely in my 20s, did very little research, and just got lucky, but hopefully the Youth of Today would do better.)

    One helpful tip: because many people are unfamiliar with VISTA, it wasn’t a useful job title to use in most contexts, so I worked with my supervisors to come up with a more standard job title that aligned with what I actually did — think “Program Coordinator” or the like. After my term of service was over, I used that title on my resume, with “(AmeriCorps VISTA)” after my title. I think that was helpful for potential employers because there are so many misconceptions around the program — even with that, and a bulleted list of my responsibilities/accomplishments, I STILL had people assume I’d been physically building the houses myself. I can assure you that, for the good of all concerned, I did very little construction!

    1. Sophie Hatter*

      AmeriCorps made my resume titles so long! ‘Program Coordinator/AmeriCorps VISTA” is a mouthful, but people in interviews were taken aback when I left off the VISTA part, so I had to put the whole thing.

      1. Tequila & Oxford Commas*

        True! And of course nonprofits, especially ones that are volunteer-run without full-time staff, can have enough turnover/lack of documentation that a reference check could be an issue if you don’t have both titles. I never had an issue with this but I can imagine a potential employer speaking to a volunteer who hadn’t known me as anything other than “the VISTA.”

  62. AC Alumna*

    As someone who did 2 years of AmeriCorps and currently manage an AmeriCorps program…

    1) Service can be a super valuable experience, depending on the program and how much you’re willing to put into it. I’ve seen people who were very deliberate and intentional about how they used their year of service to further their career goals, get super involved at their host site locations, and build strong relationships with staff. They tended to look back on service much more fondly than those who didn’t have as strong an idea going in of what they wanted out of the experience. It is a good stepping stone between school and a “real” job, though it did really skew my perspective on salary when it came time to move on. Anything seems like big money after living off $12k/year!

    2) The stipend definitely needs to be revisited. It really limits service to those who can afford the opportunity, meaning my applicants skew much more heavily towards privileged white college graduates. Service almost ends up being a “privilege” rather than something that can provide professional development and support to those who could really use it. This really makes our program unrepresentative of the population we serve and does a disservice to the community.

    3) The Education Award is not that great since it is taxable at the federal level. If you don’t coach members on how to use it correctly, they are in for a surprise. While I was about to pay back around $10,000 towards my student loans, I got hit pretty heavily in taxes (~$1,000, maybe?) when I was not making very much money. While I did see that coming (my program offered financial literacy training around this), I feel it does take away from this being the big-ticket benefit to national service.

    4) Agreed to comments above – we’ve had AmeriCorps members that had to apply for FoodShare to participate. I know another member in my cohort whose car broke down and who experienced some health issues, and it made their experience MUCH more challenging. There is health insurance offered but it is somewhat limited and does not extend to any dependents a member may have.

    All in all, I like the idea in principal but wish national service did more to reduce existing inequities.

  63. Texan In Exile*

    I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chile, 1993-95, after I got my MBA. I was in the business development program and worked with a group of indigenous (Mapuche) women who wove and sold their traditional textiles.

    Professionally, it’s probably the most fun job I have ever had, with the most freedom and the most opportunities to experiment. How to increase sales and reduce costs for a store? It was so fun.

    The most important skill I learned, though, was not a technical one about how to increase sales – it was how to get people who do not report to you to work with you to implement your ideas. I was informed very early on that the group had not asked for me and I was not the boss of them.

    Personally, it was very lonely. I was a single woman in a town where everyone had lived their whole life and had made all their friends by kindergarten. I spent most of my free time alone, which I don’t mind if I choose it but I don’t like if it’s forced on me.

    But personally I also got to travel all over. And unlike some PCVs now, I did not have to (or maybe I was supposed to but never did) report my location at all times. My Chilean PC boss, who is still my friend, pretty much left me alone.

    I don’t think having Peace Corps on my resume has helped me, but then, I have always sought corporate jobs. I think maybe PC is perceived as a vacation as opposed to work – I actually think it hurt me when I got home from Chile. It took me, in 1996, 18 months to find a job.

    I left Chile thinking I hadn’t accomplished that much – I did increase sales and margins and reduce costs, but I didn’t know if my changes would endure, which is what I wanted. I returned to Chile five years after my PC service and got to see my former co-workers. I visited the store where the women in the co-op sold their products and discovered they were still making and selling the high-margin products I had designed and introduced.

    I am still in touch with my former counterpart – we are facebook friends and we message occasionally. And, as I said, I am still friends with MariCarmen, my PC boss. In Ordinary Times, I see her every October when she comes to Chicago for her current job’s annual meeting.

    I am really happy I did PC and honestly, if I could convince my husband, I would do it again. (But after our cats die, so not for another ten years, I hope.)

  64. FormerAmeriCorpsMember*

    I did a year of AmeriCorps service with a youth development agency and had a fantastic experience. The kiddos were great, I learned a ton, and my one-on-one interaction with students, combined with the guidance of the org’s clinical team, helped me figure out that I wanted to get a grad degree in social work and also that I wanted to focus more on macro-level work than micro-level. The pay was awful, but I was able to live at home and save during that year, which is a privilege I know isn’t available to everyone. The hour requirement seemed daunting at first, until I started working and tracking those hours and realized that they reflect a normal work schedule and was able to fulfill them just by doing my job every day. I highly recommend doing a year or two of service!

    One caveat is that I had very little interaction with AmeriCorps overall. I applied to an AmeriCorps position through the organization and had some AmeriCorps-specific training when I started the position, but besides that and hour-tracking, all of my training and work was organized through the org I worked for. There was a whole group of AmeriCorps members so we all got trained together and the org treated us a specific type of staff, but my interactions with the larger AmeriCorps body was limited.

  65. 2013 AmeriCorps*VISTA*

    I served a year with AmeriCorps*VISTA after I graduated college in 2013. I was struggling to find another job, and when I was offered the position, it seemed like my only available lifeline. Thankfully, I didn’t have any debt and lived with family, but I know other people in my cohort who spent weeks (actually more like months) applying for food stamps, lived with 3-4 roommates, and also babysat on the side to make ends meet in New York City.

    I don’t regret doing it because it allowed me to meet people my age and led me to my next job at a nonprofit, something I was really passionate about at the time. That year was also basically a crash course in budgeting – I became very money savvy during that time, which has helped me make better money decisions in the years after. However, I do think that I would have eventually found another job that paid more out of the gate and would have provided me the same (or better) work experience. Spending my first few years out of college in the nonprofit world really warped my sense of self-worth, and when I first moved into another industry, I was incredibly underpaid.

    My advice would be only to do it if you’re actually interested in some part of the role, whether it be the job function or the mission, etc. or if it will help you relocate to a place you truly, wholeheartedly want to live.

  66. Zephy*

    City Year Miami, 2013-2014 here.

    Pros: Got to live in a really cool place for a year. Met a lot of really cool people. Solidified that K-12 education was not the field for me, which sounds like a con, but if you aren’t sure what you do want, it’s good to be sure of what you don’t want. We did a lot of community service projects, which I loved. I’ve been able to talk about the experience in interviews. I grew a lot as a person, like I gained a lot of confidence and developed a lot of “adulting” skills. I also got a free pair of Timberland boots out of the deal, too, along with some nice jackets, lmao. Throughout my service year there were a lot of training sessions about “life after City Year” (“LACY”), which I appreciated – they brought in people from various companies and fields to show us what our options could be after our service year, since (like me) a lot of folks did this because they didn’t know what else to do/didn’t have anything else lined up after college.

    Cons: Like everyone else said, the pay was the biggest con. My stipend was about $1000/month, in Miami, FL, which is an expensive city to live in. My partner and I were lucky to find 350sqft studio apartment for $950/mo, utilities included, and had help from our parents with some other expenses. But he wasn’t ever able to find a job while we were there, so he basically spent a year playing videogames and burning through his savings to pay rent; I still feel pretty badly about that. The hours were also pretty brutal – I had to get up at 4 AM and catch 2 buses to get to my site by 6:30 AM, and then I started my journey home at 4:30-5 PM. My second homebound bus was a line that ran to the airport, so delays coming home were common. Some days the bus was delayed so much that I would walk a mile or so up the street to a shopping center and have my partner pick me up there, because that was actually only about 10-15 minutes from home by car.

  67. WorkerBee*

    I did TFA and that’s … a whole convo. What I will say is if your program includes an education award, really analyze that against your student loans unlike stupid 20-something me. If you are deferring loan payments while in a program, and you have a lot of loans, the education award might not really make the difference you thought it would, or a difference at all, due to the interest that adds up.

  68. RPCV*

    I was a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2006-08. For me it was a great experience and really shaped my career (I ended up getting a masters in social work and continue to work in the HIV field, which was my assignment in PC). I joined partially because I had no idea what I wanted to do after college and ended up loving the work. The Peace Corps stipend is low but you’re paid in line with what your counterpart (a local at the site where you are assigned) makes and for many/most Volunteers housing is provided. I never had an issue with not having enough money to make it through the month and was even able to travel without using TOO much of the money I had saved up before leaving, just for a few extra special things I wanted to do that were a little more expensive.

    I do think that having that experience helped me stand out when I applied for my first job after returning, but at this point it’s more of just an interesting thing on my resume and something I can point to to talk about things like being able to work with limited resources etc.

  69. Another RPCV*

    Oh, hey! Something I can speak to after lurking for years. I did a 27 month stint (3 months training, 2 years of service) in Central Asia from 2002-2004. My service saw neighboring countries evacuate for SARS, gathering in central locations due to fear about retaliation during the 2003 Iraq invasion, and assorted other “current” events from bygone times.

    I concur with my fellow RPCVs about having mixed feelings about my service. On the whole, the medical staff and local employees and contacts were fabulous, and the “life” employees were less great. During my exit interview I was told that they ignored my placement requests and stuck me where they did because they had expected me to quit early and wanted to make it easy to get me out of the country. Another volunteer also told me that they were being moved to my site after I left so the school I’d been placed with would “get a better volunteer experience”, so if there had been any feedback at any point, it would have been appreciated.

    I made some great lifelong friends and connections, an appreciation for how little we in the US typically understand about other regions of the world, and frustration with some of my fellow volunteers who lived in the Peace Corps bubble during their service rather than trying to learn during their placement. (Socializing only with other volunteers, weekly care packages from home with US food, and being deliberately loud Americans wherever they went as examples.) Our monthly stipend was low and remained low since most volunteers wouldn’t fill out the report on local prices so the federal bureaucracy was not satisfied.

    That all being said, I don’t regret my time, and believe that I got a lot more out of it than I put in. I think people applying should strongly consider their long term goals and motivations, and not pursue it if they have a savior complex. Check out outreach events and talk to other RPCVs, and understand that our experiences may not match your own, since so much depends on the region and the staff for the program/location. For unpopular takes, I’m part of the group of RPCVs that think it would benefit the US as a whole if we had a two year service requirement for all adults, whether abroad or domestic, with the caveat that folks should be placed outside their home area so they can experience other ways of life and grow by being uncomfortable for a while.

    1. nep*

      I had this thought during PC training that before we headed to our villages/sites, our job description (such as it is) was four pages long, and three and a half pages remained blank till we got to site and learned a bit about the culture and situation on the ground.

  70. StudentLife4Life*

    State (CA) AmeriCorps alum here! I completed two service terms in the mid-2010s. I worked with a Volunteer Management program in a low-income elementary school. I am very grateful for my time with the program, but there are many, many aspects to consider before committing to a term of service.

    The Good:
    The personal connections I made during those years were the highlight, by a long shot. Having a pre-built peer group was a wonderful way to transition out of college and into the professional world. You get the experience of working in a professional setting, but you’re not going through it alone. The shared experiences, both highs and lows, bonded us very tightly in a short period of time. Though we now live and work all across the US, we still chat regularly and even compete in a friendly fantasy football league each year.

    The position also served as a great talking point in post-service interviews. I landed my first professional job at a college not long after completing my service. My Director often mentioned my background in AmeriCorps as a strong point in my application.

    The Bad:
    The stipend is so low. We were located in Northern California, which is not a cheap place to live even if you are making a standard wage. I lived on food stamps, shared a room (not just apartment), and relied on public transportation, in order to make the costs reasonable. Like one of the other commenters mentioned, looking back, I feel very privileged to have been able to make this work. I do believe that the pay structure makes this type of service inaccessible to folks who don’t have strong financial support systems or the ability to take out loans.

    The hours were also rough; all the AmeriCorps members at my site worked 10hr days and had some required weekend hours and trainings, too.

    The Ugly:
    My program/site had a serious lack of infrastructure or plans to sustain any improvements that the members made during their year of service. I spent two years making volunteer connections, building program templates, designing onboarding processes and procedures, and training new members. Then, they eliminated the program at my site the year after I left, so none of that work was implemented. I learned a lot personally in the role, but was left feeling like I didn’t make much of an impact on my school site.

    Some interpersonal/bureaucratic drama within my program led to some seriously sketchy hiring/firing decisions. The AmeriCorps program was limited by what the school site wanted, so they could only hire people who the principal personally liked. I disagreed with many of these choices, but it did make me think about how ingrained office politics are within the service world.

  71. Seeking Second Childhood*

    I know someone who has speculated about doing a volunteer year in the future. Can someone talk about the current application process?
    (In the 1980’s, the Peace Corps application packet was so large and intimidating that I didn’t complete it. It was bigger than college applications, and for those I could ask my high school guidance counselor questions. I still wish I’d done it, so I’m thinking ahead to help my young friend, if that’s what they decide.)

    1. 2017 alum*

      I went through the process in 2015, so not super recent but not too long ago. The initial application was done through the MyAmeriCorps website, which allowed you to identify specific interests (e.g. education, conservation, volunteer management) and locations. There, you could connect with specific service organizations and apply directly with them.

      Overall, I remember the whole process being reasonably quick and not too intimidating. I submitted the application, called in to a group info session, had a video interview (I was out of state) over Skype, and received an offer within a week. I moved out to my new state and began service a month later.

  72. Noriko*

    I did my AmeriCorps VISTA service in 2015-2016, I graduated in 2012 and had worked a full time first job before I joined. My reasoning was that I was interested in public service but wanted to do marketing. However, lacking an undergrad degree in marketing I struggled to get any traction in that area.

    For me, it was a game changer. I was able to get skills that I needed for the marketing sector and was hired by the organization after my service and now have been working in nonprofits for 4 years in a marketing role. I was also part of a cohort where, despite working at different locations, we would meet every other week together and discuss various social justice topics. I met some of my best friends there. I think if you are interested in the work that is done, it can be open a lot of doors. VISTA, especially, I think offers a lot of freedom to learn and experiment. However, it can often feel directionless so you need to advocate for projects you are interested. If your organization is uninterested in allowing you to grow and pursue things then I would not bother.

    However, serving was only sustainable for me because I was able to live at home and did not have to pay rent or food. My current organization uses AmeriCorps and I can see how the low pay stipend model tends to attract people like me, upper middle class and white, and turns off those who have backgrounds and experience that mirror those we serve (which we desperately want) because they are aware of the traumatic experiences that come with poverty and have worked to overcome it. The AmeriCorps model can essentially retraumatize people. I think the idea of “experiencing poverty to better relate to those you serve” is a pointless exercise by CNCS. Most people in my cohort were never in danger of real poverty, because our families were there to support us. Looking back, it almost feels like the uncomfortable idea of wearing poverty as a costume for a year. I think AmeriCorps needs to move away from this model in order to be sustainable.

    Ultimately, AmeriCorps was a good personal experience and can really open doors. But I feel like the model needs to change. It’s not sustainable and has the danger of exacerbating inequities. If it would require you to put yourself into a risky position, I would reconsider.

    1. Sophie Hatter*

      “I think AmeriCorps needs to move away from this model to be sustainable.”

      I’m not sure much about AC is sustainable. If the job market gets better, more people will be able to get entry level jobs instead of having to do AC first. I think that’s a good thing.

      1. Noriko*

        That’s exactly my point. If organizations that rely on their use of AC members to carry out their mission want to be sustainable in a good job market and attract quality candidates they need to offer something more competitive. There are a lot of people out there who want to serve and do good things but not at the expense of not being able to pay for rent or food. As minimum wage increases in major cities (as it should and has not increased enough tbh), AC becomes less and less attractive and thus the organizations less sustainable..

      2. Former AmeriCorps Director*

        “If the job market gets better, more people will be able to get entry level jobs instead of having to do AC first.”

        I don’t think that’s necessarily completely true. I ran a program that existed from the worst of the last recession to the height of the economy, and I tracked application rates. While we did have slightly higher applications during the height of the recession, it actually didn’t vary that much, which surprised me. I’m sure that had a lot to do with the type of program we were, but there are qualified people interested in AmeriCorps/national service no matter the economy.

    2. DontRiskIt*

      This is extremely well-said. I had never thought about the poverty in those terms before, as I grew up in poverty and live in a very poor state, but the experience did submit me to some re-traumatization. I agree that the program the way it is currently designed has people “wearing poverty as a costume” and is very problematic. If people familiar with poverty serve, they risk being retraumatized. If people who can afford to serve do, there is a risk of the “white savior syndrome.” It needs to be reevaluated.

  73. Victoria, Please*

    I’ll tell you about my failed experience. Please be kind, okay?

    Evangelical Christian kid, thought I wanted to be a missionary development worker. I didn’t, for one thing, but was not self aware enough to know it. Or mature enough to have prepared myself for it through small-scale volunteerism and international experiences. Adults in my life didn’t help when they praised my plans without probing them. (So if you have a young person in your life…)

    I joined a very respected and effective mission organization without realizing that the reason it works is because literally *everyone else* in the organization had 1) grown up in that church for generations and 2) were married couples going to the field together. We received a grand total of 10 days of training in the US, which mixed people doing domestic and international gigs, and were put on planes. Honestly I can’t remember what the training did include, besides some social justice stuff and the MBTI — but it did NOT include: Language. Safety. First aid. Mental health. Cultural education. Technical education. History of the country. Practical information on how to live in a significantly underdeveloped country. We were told that when things go wrong, “muddle through.”

    I couldn’t do it. I arrived in country and only stayed three weeks. I paid them back for the plane ticket, of course.

    So… my advice for people who want to do things like this is “Start small. Don’t lie to yourself.”

    1. Victoria, Please*

      Btw, if this seems too far afield — it was meant to be the 2-3 year kind of thing that AmeriCorps or Peace Corps is. Volunteer, stipend, etc. That’s the connection I mean.

  74. Retail Not Retail*

    About financials – do NOT take advantage of the student loan forbearance or whatever if you’re going into nonprofit work. Start the clock on the PSLF payments – they’re income based so your payment of $0 counts.

    Anyway I squandered any opportunities and was doing financially better than I am now making $9/hr full time because I make too much for EBT in my state and I was in a state that took the medicaid expansion. Now I have to pay $200 a month for insurance.

    1. Retail Not Retail*

      I’m also at a non-profit now and feel like I’m cheating at the PSLF because again – income based.

  75. The bread burglar*

    I did a year with AmeriCorps in 2009-2010. It was in my field of study (public relations) for a charity local to my university. So it gave me hands on experience and a bit of money (living stipend) as a student. I learned I hated P.R. and have not worked in it since. So in that regard it was helpful. I don’t know that it would have been helpful like career wise or anything if I hadn’t been a student. And frankly I don’t use it. I wouldn’t do it now. But for young people looking for experience it could be great.

    That being said. I met some really lovely people at the events. I loved the conference. But those werent super frequent.

  76. Sophie Hatter*

    I have a bit of a sour taste in my mouth from my two years in AmeriCorps. I couldn’t find a job in my field 6 months after college, so I applied for, and got, a VISTA position. I naively thought it would give me the experience to get a better job in my field. The position was disorganized, my supervision wasn’t consistent, and I definitely made a lot of white savior type mistakes. I didn’t know what I was doing or have a lot of guidance. And since the program was designed to have a different VISTA each year for 3 years, I can only assume they would have to hire a person just as clueless as me next time and start all over. It seems to be a way to hire people for cheap and skip out on finding actual FT employees you have to pay. After my VISTA year, I ended up doing another AmeriCorps position with more direct service, more what I wanted to do. I thought this would position me to move into a similar position in nonprofits. That position was a lot better in terms of guidance, but when I finished I still wasn’t qualified for any of the jobs I applied for. I ended up working at a school in a grant funded position, then substitute teaching for few hours and low wages, and then getting a seasonal job, and finally this year found a full-time nonprofit job related to the work I’d done in AmeriCorps. Sure it gave me experience, but in this job market 2 years of experience isn’t enough. I struggled a lot with the work I found afterwords- I had been broke for two years in AC as a sacrifice, thinking it would help me move to a not-broke place, which turned out not to be true. This is very personal to me and lots of people have found great jobs right away, and I think the experience eventually helped, but it was sold to a desperate college grad as something that would help me more than it did.

  77. DontRiskIt*

    I did 2 years of AmeriCorps VISTA. It worked out super well for me partly because it got me out of the food industry and paid for the first year of graduate school, and partly because the nonprofit I was stationed at gave me as much high-level nonprofit experience I could handle. I was able to write grants, and attend top level board meetings, go to conferences, etc. The “money” (if you could call it that) was horrible, however. I was on food stamps and Medicaid, my partner worked but he was in a low level food industry at the time so it was really tight. I am only just now starting to get back on my feet and pay off the credit card debt I accumulated then, three years after my service time ended. But because of the experience I gained, I was able to jump into a higher level position than I would have been able to right out of bartending, for sure. I did it to totally shake up my life, and because I am passionate about public service, but I would say if you aren’t passionate about what you are doing, and if you get placed somewhere that is not going to give you any good experience, it will not be worth it for you.

  78. Emily*

    I served with AmeriCorps VISTA for a year in 2019-2020 as the volunteer coordinator at a homeless shelter. I definitely thought there were pros and cons to the program but it can be great if it fits what you are looking for.

    I got to have a lot of creative freedom in building a volunteer program as I saw fit. As I was just out of school, this was a great opportunity to gain professional experience and grow quickly in a way that most entry level roles don’t allow for.

    I did find that there was a missing link in getting support. It seems that the host site didn’t have a great understanding of what VISTA provides or expects of their members. In the same way, VISTA didn’t realize what the host site provided or expected from their members. This left me in the middle, trying to meet the needs of both parties and it didn’t always work perfectly.

    VISTA is different from other AmeriCorps programs in that it requires that all your service be indirect, capacity building. This means that I can’t be the one passing out lunches, I have to build a sustainable program that will continue to provide lunches during and after my tenure there. I am fully on board with this in theory but it often limits what you are allowed to do and can cause tension with a host site that thinks “ok but someone needs to pass out lunches today.” This is a tedious line to walk and requires good boundary setting skills, but it can also support you in achieving sustainable changes.

    I came into service with high hopes of changing the world for the better and serving underserved people. I definitely got to do some of that but I also wasted lots of time dealing with issues or useless projects that VISTA and my host site cared about.

    So based on my experience I would say look critically into your host site before you commit because that site will be critical to your experience in VISTA. This is definitely a good opportunity to serve a community but it’s far from a perfect program and it takes a good deal of commitment to your mission to make it worth it.

  79. Womanaroundtown*

    I did a year of JVC right out of college. JVC is religiously affiliated (Jesuit Volunteer Corps), but I am not religious. I did it because they provided stipend to cover full rent and utilities, plus food and a small amount for personal use. There’s also a huge alumni network, through which I’ve found three apartments/roommates and several job leads. Honestly, this year shaped my entire career thus far and opened doors I would never have expected. You apply to positions before receiving interviews from different jobs, and then rank them, so that you have some control over your placement. Post program, I got a similar job in my hometown, and after two years decided to go to law school. I ended up getting a significant scholarship at a very good school, as well as entry into their elite public interest scholars program. Based on my college grades (decent, but no honors), I am certain that my resume and experience is what helped me get into that program and get the scholarship. I’m now two years post-law school in a great position doing relatively similar work (but in law), and I happen to have significantly more experience than some of my colleagues in our practice area (think housing for housing law) due to my past jobs. I wouldn’t necessarily have even considered a religious program until a friend recommended it, but this particular program was truly the catalyst to a career I didn’t even know I was interested in.

  80. FormerETA*

    I haven’t seen anyone mention Fulbright here, so I’ll leave my two cents.

    I did a Fulbright teaching grant (ETA – English Teaching Assistant) several years ago. In many ways, it’s a light (or luxe, depending on how you look at it) version of the positions described above; you’re expected to be a “cultural ambassador” as well as a teacher, so your workload is a bit lighter, with the understanding that you’ll get involved with the community somehow in another function. You definitely get more perks than with other organizations; in many countries, as I understand it, there’s a very close link between the US Embassy and FB – there certainly was in mine – so you may have the opportunity to attend special events, meet with high-level officials, etc., and there’s often other support components (like retreat-type events) as well. That said, the pay is still very low, though there’s either a stipend for housing and food OR you live with a host family.

    My understanding is that the program varies dramatically from country to country in terms of what age you’ll teach, what your living situation is like, etc. I will say that overall, I had an incredible experience and would recommend it strongly; I became really close to the people in my cohort, I was truly immersed in another culture, I was able to create a lot of leadership opportunities for myself, and people generally seem to be impressed by the word “Fulbright” on my resume (even though this was much less competitive than, say, a research grant). That said, it’s not that easy to come back from another country and just get a job; I did it right after university and ended up feeling like I was a little bit behind my peers in terms of career progress, because I couldn’t find employment immediately after returning and ended up in a few jobs that weren’t quite as tied to my ultimate work goals.

    Another initiative worth mentioning, especially for people interested in education and youth development, is Breakthrough Collaborative. It’s a similar model to TFA, but the fellowship can be done in college and takes place over a summer, which means that the opportunity cost is much less, even though the pay is similarly poor; moreover, you’re generally working with kids who have opted in to the program, so it’s a bit less daunting. I absolutely loved my time with Breakthrough and would recommend at least looking at it.

    (And FWIW re: TFA: I have a lot of friends and acquaintances that have gone through it, with widely varying experiences. Some people really loved it and felt it was a good program that came with some challenges, others didn’t. I think that “is the model morally okay” and “is this a good experience” are often two separate threads.)

    1. Beth Jacobs*

      I think your point about Fulbright being impressive is so true. I’ve only encountered Fulbright scholars who got funding for grad school in the US, and that’s basically limited to geniuses.

  81. Mainer*

    I was a Peace Corps TEFL volunteer in Ukraine 2010-2012. In my experience (and after speaking with RPCVs from other countries), your experience can vary tremendously based on where you’re located and what you’re doing. The TEFL programming is well established and I felt fully prepared to add value to my community after our training. Other PC programs can be more ambiguous in their goals and direction, so you have to very self motivated to make an impact and self directed to figure out where you can add the most value in your assignment. I had a great experience which left me with experience in teaching, curriculum development, leadership training, project management, and grant administration . I’d highly recommend the PC for anyone looking to get out of their comfort zone.

  82. TwoRottenTomatoes*

    I did City Year Chicago in 2008-2009 and that was one of the toughest years of my life at the time. We had to do 1700 hours of community service and had to put up with a lot of rules that were downright silly. I’ll never forget having to do PT in the middle of downtown Chicago every week along with Goldfish crackers and Little Caesar’s pizza at nearly every weekly meeting. I wouldn’t have made it through that year if it wasn’t for my school teammates and the kids I tutored. After City Year ended, I moved on to a smaller AmeriCorps program on the East Coast that still involved working with K-12 students. While the experiences I had contributed to the work I do today (and to my mindset), both programs made me realize that I absolutely did NOT want to work in K-12 education.

  83. Kacey*

    I graduated in 2010 during the recession when nobody was hiring. I applied to several AmeriCorps positions where I live to get some experience, but with my minimum student loan payments ($1k/month, plus rent and food and my partner was in medical school full time so money was insanely tight for me) I had to make I couldn’t swing working for them at the abysmal pay (they informed me I could not work an additional part time job to make ends meet, I had to have 24/7 availability) and had to turn the offers down. I believe the pay was something ridiculous like 12k/year (an dangling a 5k grant after completion to go towards student loans).

    I ended up working for a non-profit full time at 25k/year plus working part-time retail for a year until I broke into a good entry-level position for my career path.

    I had several friends actually do AmeriCorps though and they struggled terribly financially. I really judge the program for taking advantage of new graduates like that and would not recommend unless you can live with family or something and not worry about finances.

  84. Per My Last Email*

    I did an AmeriCorps term in the city where I attended college immediately after graduating in 2006. I worked with youth who were incarcerated on re-entry plans and matching them with mentors.
    Pros: I learned a lot about juvenile justice and child welfare, which are areas that I had “real” jobs in later in my career, and I’m still volunteering now as a CASA. I kept my commitment to “getting things done for America.” I got to see the challenges that kids and families in my community were facing firsthand and try to be a part of removing barriers. I also learned valuable skills that helped me later as a fundraiser, project manager, and networked enough that I made connections that benefited my career. Some of the kids benefited from the work the organization did and succeeded.

    Cons: Not all of the kids benefited. We didn’t have enough funding, and I was too young and not well trained enough to help with larger systemic problems. I fear sometimes we made things worse. I’ve also learned how participating in AmeriCorps is really something that you can only do if you have privilege (which I did and do), and I think changes need to be made to how the program pays and trains people. I had a great experience, but I have seen members be underused or be used for menial projects at other organizations where I’ve worked which isn’t supposed to be how the program runs at all.

    National service is a great concept, but overall, it needs reformed to be able to continue and be relevant in 2020.

  85. Tessera Member 042*

    I had a fairly unique Americorps experience serving at a residential school for children with developmental disabilities because the school’s model revolved around a cohort of international “coworker” volunteers arriving every year, and those of us who were from the US happened to be eligible for the Americorps benefits. Therefore, unlike many of the previous stories, I had my room and board and medical insurance covered by the school, so I didn’t have to worry about rent or applying for food stamps. I even had a single (small) room to myself rather than having to share with another coworker.

    Pros: I was exposed to a unique educational model which treated all students their age no matter their abilities and really worked to scaffold information and skills to help them build from their current levels. For example, I assisted in the 11th grade classroom as students learned the stories of The Divine Comedy and Hamlet, just like regular high schoolers did. This has really informed my own educational approach as I moved into high school and now college teaching. I also learned about the kinds of paperwork and reports that special education requires, and even helped draft some of the house reports. I also got training in several useful skills such as first aid, CPR, and non-violent crisis intervention.
    I also learned a ton about customs from all over the world. We each took turns cooking, so I got to taste dishes from Denmark and South Korea. We celebrated European (usually Christian) holidays like Michaelmas, and I got to play St. Lucia wearing a candle wreath and handing out buns (fulfilling a childhood dream inspired by the Kirstin books in the American Girl series).
    We also made close connections as a community, working together to build wheelchair accessible walking paths through the woods and bonding over house meetings. I am still Facebook friends with several of those coworkers I spent time with, and I can see why some chose to stay and take long-term positions at the school.

    Cons: The schedule was intense; you are “on” with the kids from the time they get up until the time they go to bed, including 1 night watch until 10 PM per week. Only 1 day and 1 afternoon off. A lot of time doing housework and maintenance.
    Some of the students also had pretty intense medical conditions that could be a bit intimidating when you’re the person in charge. For example, one of the children I looked after had epilepsy, so I had to learn how to treat her during and after seizures. Not a huge deal in the relative safety of the house, but much scarier when in the middle of a hike through the woods!
    The campus was also pretty isolated, although they did provide the use of cars; however, I didn’t have my license at the time, and was dependent on getting rides to go anywhere on my days off. Most of the international volunteers eagerly banded together to take trips to popular tourist destinations like New York and Washington DC, but I wasn’t particularly close to the other people who had the same day off, so I rarely joined in, opting instead to visit my college friends when I could.
    The community was also founded on the principles of anthroposophy, which included some fairly….unique beliefs in spirituality and nature. There were Christian-ish religious services on Sundays (my day off, thankfully–I’m Catholic, and was able to attend my own church services instead) and we sometimes did activities like trying to wake up the gnomes at the start of spring. So on the one hand, you have a group of volunteers thinking it’s a big joke and another group of longer-term volunteers taking it very seriously as they studied to get a degree in these principles, creating a little bit of tension.

    The experience was a really unique one and I think helped me build confidence in the idea of going into teaching, despite being a shy introvert. But I don’t know that I would particularly recommend Americorps service in general to others unless they were really informed about the program.

  86. Aparna J*

    I was in the Peace Corps in Lesotho from 2011-2014, right after college. I have no regrets about doing it, I absolutely loved it, so here are my thoughts:
    1) PRO – Amazing life-changing experience, CON – it’s REALLY hard: I had a family friend ask me about PC, it was her back-up option if she didn’t get to Teach for America and I told her that it’s not the right choice for her. During my toughest times, sometimes knowing that I wanted to be here was the only thing that kept me going (it is an emotional roller coaster with a lot of ups and downs). If this is your second choice, you’re just not going to get through it. Everyone has a different reason for joining, adventure, career, break from a career, etc. so this isn’t about checking your reason for going. But most people who join PC have a “if I didn’t get in I had no idea what else I would do” mindset. That’s what gets you through the hard times.

    2) PRO – who will grow a lot as a human, CON – it’s not always easy to connect them back to your career: There’s a sunning joke that one of things you get out of PC is becoming fluent in a language you’ll never use again. If you want to go into the non-profit or public sector, Peace Corps is a household name. People know the experience and value it. But if your’e going into the private sector, like I did, it can come off as a “career break” which is bad. Therefore, it’s important to know how to dissect your PC experience into skills that relate to your next career step. PC does not do a good job supporting that. I was lucky, an edtech company saw my experience teaching in PC and saw that as relevant experience. But years later, when I was job searching, I realized how my resume was focused on things I was proud of rather than relevant accomplishments. I wish I had had someone who was really good with resumes help me.

    4) PRO – it’s a relatively unstructured experience, CON – it’s a relatively unstructured experience: PC is not a job, it’s more like a life style. I was teaching so I had a more structured experience than many other volunteers. But I had to figure out how to be productive during holidays and weekends because you never really stop working. You don’t really have a boss, you don’t really have career growth…it’s a strange limbo to be in. This can be awful if you really need structure to be productive or amazing because you can really make the experience what you want it to be. I had one friend who helped plan a beauty pageant while I had another friend literally do nothing for a year because her org that sponsored her lost funding. The experience is going to be exactly what you make of it.

    5) PRO/CON – PC advertising isn’t that accurate: If you’ve seen the advertising about the person who built a playground from trash, that WILL NOT be your experience. You will be surprised at what you do and don’t accomplish and you kind of have to accept it for what it is. Anyone from PC will tell you – you gain more out if it than your community.

    6) PRO/CON – walls will become your best friend: Right before I left, a new volunteer visited me to see if she wanted any of my stuff. And she asked, any piece of advice? And I told her, you’re going to be surprised how much time you spend talking to walls. PC is lonely, you’re surrounded by people who just don’t understand you, how you look, where you come from. You are literally an alien. This is the hardest thing about being in PC.

    7) CON – you will miss a lot of stuff from home: You might be in a foreign country but everyone at home is moving forward in life. You will miss babies being born, you will miss that first promotion, you will miss deaths, weddings, new significant others. And it will be hard because you can’t go back in time to be there. This is still the hardest thing for me: I missed the birth of my first niece and nephew, I missed my grandmother’s death, I wasn’t there for my family when my brother was going through mental health challenges or my father was in the worst health of his life. Yes, you can visit home, but the honest truth is that you will miss A LOT.

    8) PRO – traveling and visiting new places: Traveling to a new country was incredibly easy while I was in PC and I had a bunch of travel buddies right there with me. We would plan a trip for every school holiday (PC gives you 2 vacay days a month which you can collect to take vacations). I took local buses, hitchhiked, and backpacked through the entire region with fellow volunteers.

  87. space monkey*

    I really believe in the mission of the AmeriCorps VISTA program, but I had a terrible time in my placement. Others have mentioned the absurdity and insulting justification for the stipend. At the time I served, you also weren’t allowed to have a second job, meaning people did under the table work, sold plasma, etc. I never got on food stamps because I knew that if I ever really needed to, I could ask my family for help with groceries, and I felt incredibly guilty about the idea of taking resources away from people who didn’t have that safety net. I think it’s ridiculous that a government service program leads with “and you can apply for food stamps, don’t worry!” instead of just paying adequate compensation to start.

    What made my service so dysfunctional was a total lack of oversight from the main office in our city and a service location that billed itself one way, and in reality, didn’t actually have any intention of doing the project that my position was supposed to be supporting. Instead, VISTAs were basically treated as errand people — the running joke in the office was that they would “get the VISTAs to do” any undesirable task. On one occasion, we got a report of a break in at one of our sites and the VISTAs were ask to walk over and check it out. Not, you know, the police. The work environment was crazy toxic (pettiness! territoriality! sabotage!) and we had little to no supervision. I spent months working on an office remodel project because there was absolutely nothing else for me to do. At one point we brought a formal complaint to our state coordinator and we basically got blown off.

    I have friends who had positions in other organizations that had tremendous, transformative experiences. Like I said, I support the mission. So I know my experience may have been uniquely awful in some ways (and honestly, it wasn’t all bad, that time in my life was really productive and interesting in other ways). But the complete lack of accountability and bait-and-switch with what the job said it was with what it actually was remains really disappointing to me. Part of me still regrets not trying to switch to the nonprofit that my friend worked for (also as a VISTA) at the time. His bosses loved him and gave him all kinds of support so that he had a good work experience, and he wound up staying for three years and pulling off a project that has literally transformed his neighborhood.

  88. oh hai*

    My experience was somewhat atypical. In my late 20s, I joined VISTA as a way to finally move out of my hometown/parents’ house. I had a masters degree and a part-time job, but there were very few options for full-time work in my hometown and basically none in my chosen field. I was lucky enough to be accepted into a competitive* (not all VISTA positions even make you interview) position, in my field (which was an unusual fit for VISTA), in a low unemployment rate state.

    The $800 a month stipend plus public benefits was actually a raise for me and I got VERY lucky in finding an affordable room for rent in an expensive city. My site treated us like employees and the experience was positive. It wasn’t a perfect workplace and I was okay with not getting a permanent position there after I was done, but I appreciated that they were understanding of what the program was for and how little money we had. They lifted the prohibition on working outside of VISTA while I was there (which good, because it was awful), so I did some other work to help make ends meet. After my two year term, I was able to continue to work in my field and stay in the city (I even live in the same affordable place, although the rent has gone up to the point where I would not have been able to afford it while in VISTA).

    I would say the following are important to consider:

    1. Can you afford to live where you are thinking about serving? (look at real actual rooms for rent)
    2. Does your placement relate to what you want to do or offer skills/experience you want to gain? Related: if you are looking to use VISTA to relocate, what sort of reputation does your site have?
    *3. Consider which site ask you to interview for the position and which approve you with just an application. There are good and bad in both camps I’m sure, but that ones that interview at least give you a chance to ask questions and learn more about the site directly before you accept (do they seem friendly/professional/organized? are the other VISTAs you would be working with included in the interview process?)
    4. Be clear about the tasks your position includes. The number one complaint I saw from people at other sites was either that they didn’t have enough work/had boring tasks OR were being asked to work too much, on things above their skill level or on things they were specifically not supposed to do as VISTA (i.e. performing direct service).
    5. What is Medicaid like in the state you are serving? VISTA service typically makes you eligible for the “max” of public benefits but states are different.

    1. Re'lar Fela*

      Oh wow! I didn’t realize they lifted the ban on outside work. That’s fantastic!! It would have been a huge benefit for me during my VISTA year.

  89. pajamamommas*

    I did a year of Lutheran Volunteer Corps right after college. It was a great experience! All of the LVCers in each city live in a house together and do various activities related to social justice and spirituality (you don’t have to be Lutheran or even Christian to do the program). It was helpful as I was just starting out in a new city, since it provided a job, a community, and a place to live. I thought that I wanted a career in some area of social service/social justice, so it was helpful to try out one area of the field. I was also later able to use the Americorps education grant to pay for grad school in social work.

  90. Lindsay Gee*

    I don’t have any direct involvement with this, and genuinely don’t have much knowledge about the programs. However, an organization I follow, NoWhiteSaviours (instagram and other places) have recently done a few informational posts about the harm these corps have done to the places they operate in the form of institutionalized ethnocentrism. So I would say if anyone is interested in these corps, to also look at it from the other end of the spectrum. Check out this group (NoWhiteSaviours) and see these corps from the point of the view of the communities they serve and make an informed decision after learning about how some of these corps operate in a really problematic way.

    1. nep*

      It’s an issue across all of ‘aid.’ We see this push for ‘the decolonisation of aid.’ Will meaningful change happen? Remains to be seen.
      The communities they serve‘–I would even question PC’s use of that word serve.

  91. Pinkpeony*

    I did City Year in Ohio from 2015-16. I moved from the west coast just for the program. I had to save and raise money for the move, but found out in the past couple years that they added a small moving stipend so that’s cool. The pay was terrible, I believe it was about 12k for the year. I was in a better position than most because I was able to share an apartment with my sister and partner so it wasn’t painful, they were able to pay a little more. Also they give you 5k at the end to apply to your loans, but all that money is taxed even though it can only go towards loans, so that was pretty painful come tax time.

    I mostly liked my experience overall – near the end when I had really bonded with my students and team I finally felt like it was worth it. I’m not sure if I helped the students – I loved teaching them and the belief of City Year is to help the kids who are right on the edge of succeeding – not the kids who are just too far behind to save. I hoped I was a good mentor – I came from one of the whitest cities in the US to a school that was 95% Black and I was really self conscious about trying not to be a white savior, becuase that narrative is bullshit.

    I felt pretty isolated in the beginning of my experience, my team manager zeroed in on me for some reason and always was pulling me aside to criticize me and tell me I was alienating the whole team and that no one liked me, I was literally so depressed I couldn’t function. The day he quit was the happiest day of my service. I don’t blame City Year for his behavior but I wish I had had the support from staff above him when I felt like he had backed me into a corner. I would also say that no two experiences will ever be the same. Not just regionally, but there were people in my corps group who worked at different schools and their experience and school program was run completely differently and it made it hard to adjust expectations.

  92. Simon Oh*

    I served in AmeriCorps in Philadelphia from 2012 to 2013, where I worked on after-school programming on weekdays and food bank support on weekends.

    I enjoyed the food bank duties more, being consistent with my long-standing support for such institutions. As for after-school programming, it leaves much to be desired although it mainly had to deal with poor professional support and conflicts with management. It also wasn’t the boost to my career prospects in another field as I had hoped (I wound up being unemployed for more than a year after my service year ended for various reasons). Nevertheless, I did develop a greater understanding of challenges in educating working-class students of color and how their home lives affect their ability to learn and advance in life. I wish my experience was better so I could’ve worked more with them and develop more substantive, transferable experience.

  93. Nonprofit4life*

    I did Peace Corps and then AmeriCorps (City Year). I loved both experiences, but I definitely got more out of them then I gave to either community I was working within. That lack of really helping people in either program inspired me to go to law school so I could gain some actual skills to help people with. Having the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps on my resume helped me get into a much better law school than I would have gotten into based on my grades and scores alone. Now I work in public interest law and am able to benefit people much more than I was able to in either the Peace Corps or City Year. As many here have already said, it takes a lot of privilege to be able to do either program, and the demographics of the folks I served in Peace Corps and City Year with reflected this– with City Year being significantly more diverse than the Peace Corps. I was able to use my Peace Corps resettlement money to supplement the very low City Year pay. I used the education award from City Year to pay for a but of law school.

  94. AmeriYes*

    I did an AmeriCorps program in Washington, DC with the NCAC Red Cross (which was exceptionally cool in that it was in the National Headquarters on E St). It was great. I didn’t know what I wanted to do right after graduating and I learned a ton about operating in an office environment, managing an autonomous working environment, how to prepare for disasters, and how to work with very different groups than I had historically been exposed to.

    The pay was really low — I actually qualified for SNAP — and DC was really expensive. Luckily, and I realize the privilege in this, my parents were able to provide some additional support and between a lower priced rent and a handful of roommates, it worked.

    It was one of the best years of my life.

  95. Re'lar Fela*

    AmeriCorps VISTA alum here (2011-2012).

    I graduated in 2011 with a degree in English and was striking out looking for work. I applied for AmeriCorps, interviewed with a few different organizations and locations, was offered all of them, and chose an organization in the city where I had attended college.

    I had an absolutely fantastic–though somewhat unconventional–experience. My supervisor and colleagues treated me exactly like any other employee and gave me so many incredible opportunities. I was placed in the national office of a non-profit and was able to work with partner agencies across the country. I also had the opportunity to write and edit newsletters, activity guides, social media and blog posts, and more. I attended advisory board meetings with leaders from across the country and just generally learned a lot. The compensation was absolutely awful and it was hard to see some of my friends with “real” jobs living large. But ultimately, it taught me a lot about budgeting and navigating systems (holy cow, getting food stamps was a nightmare). The best part of the entire experience was that they received a grant a couple of months after my term of service ended which allowed them to hire me on full time. Then, a few years later, my supervisor from my VISTA year moved on to a new organization and brought me with her. In doing work for that organization over the course of the next four years, I connected with and trained an agency that I absolutely adored. I now work at that agency as a director.

    So really, I owe my entire career path to my AmeriCorps VISTA experience. It opened a lot of doors and introduced me to some fantastic people. That said, a lot of other folks who I attended PSO with ended up being glorified interns and then moving on to completely unrelated careers. So YMMV.

    1. Re'lar Fela*

      Oh, and I found AAM during my VISTA year and worked my way through every single post. So that was definitely a pro as well :)

  96. TreenaKravm*

    I did a year of an Americorps State/National program, called HealthCorps in 2012-2013 right after graduating from undergrad. I had done a lot of internships during uni and got a competitive position that required a specialized skill set.

    I worked in a federally qualified FQHC providing health education to patients and managing a volunteer/youth development program. It definitely was a good professional experience for me–I was heavily trained and was given a lot of responsibility. I also learned a lot about management, professional norms, dealing with a terrible manager, and more. I also know I contributed a lot to the community I served. I probably would have contributed more with a few extra years of experience, but it was still solid as an entry level job. It definitely was what allowed me to get my second FT job afterwards.

    About half of the people doing HealthCorps were people spending the year applying to med/nursing school. Usually it went like this: undergrad, premed coursework, Americorps/med school apps, med school, etc. A couple of people did the coursework afterwards. I was not interested in med school at all, and specifically wanted to make a move to a different area while still working in non-profits. Most non-profits really prefer local candidates, especially entry level, so I would advise people to use Americorps to relocate yourself and start building a network in the geographic region you want to be in.

    Stipend wise, yes it’s a joke and their reasoning is terrible. I lived with my fiancé and that meant I was comfortable, but many struggled and had to rent rooms or do other things. Everyone used food stamps, that was essentially part of the benefits package. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, it was good to know what it was like to apply, and get judged for buying food and alcohol while using your EBT card.

    If anyone has any questions, feel free to ask!

  97. Supercatz*

    Served 2 years as an AmeriCorps VISTA, 1 year as VISTA Leader. The first site I was with was amazing, a beautiful spot in an extremely rural area that was very low income. The area had recently been devastated by a natural disaster but the people with my organization and the community in general were and are amazing. My only criticism from that period was of AmeriCorps itself; so much of their training and best practices are geared toward urban communities with so many more resources. There is virtually nothing available training wise to specifically address the needs of rural and frontier communities (at least there wasn’t when I served). The second site I ended up at was a faith-based non-profit in a suburban community. That was when things took a turn for the worse. I was basically treated like an indentured servant and expected to work 60-70 hours a week with no sick time or even lunch breaks. Most of the staff were rude, entitled, and believed they were better than me because they made more money. I was terrified of anyone finding out I wasn’t a Christian because other VISTAs who had come before me had been “outed” as nom-Christians and were harassed until they left. Somehow I managed to make the best of it at that hellhole and even managed to get a leader position. The stipend is a joke, the insurance sucked, and AmeriCorps VISTA dragged their heels for so long when I tried to use my educational award that it ended up lapsing before I could use it because they would never approve the release of funds when I requested it. All said I would not recommend AmeriCorps to anyone unless they are truly desperate. The only really good thing I got out of it was my husband, who I met during my service. We have been married 15 years now and he is the love of my life so I guess AmeriCorps wasn’t a total loss after all!!!

  98. Nonprofit Program Manager*

    I manage a VISTA Program. I love what I do but wish I could offer a living wage to the VISTA members.

  99. sarah*

    Yes! This is what I tell anyone thinking of doing AmeriCorps– just like a ‘regular job,’ there are good sites and bad sites, well defined roles and poorly defined roles, strong supervisors and awful supervisors.

    I did two Americorps years (City Year Chicago ’06-’07 and another State and National program ’11-’12) and I had a positive experience at both overall, but I know people who have had toxic, pointless, or demoralizing experiences.

    Vet your site, vet your program. Ask questions about the role– see if they’ve thought it through or they’re just trying to figure out out as they go. See if you can talk to an alum from the site. Think about whether the program will position you well in terms of networking and professional development, because you’ll be looking for a job in 12 months.

    I tend to recommend larger programs where there’s at least 10 or so corps members, either at one site or spread out across sites but under a larger umbrella. Feels like those programs tend to have a bit more capacity to support members vs the nonprofits who just have a few ACs that they treat as interns (though again, it’s not a hard and fast rule).

  100. AmeriCorps Alum*

    I’ve done two State/National AmeriCorps years, and echo what’s already been said about the pay. I was privileged enough to still be on my parent’s health insurance, so that aspect of AmeriCorps benefits didn’t impact me as much as food stamps and the stipend.

    My first program was a historic preservation/museum type program in WV, where you could serve with that type of site throughout the state, and overall, the program was not the best fit for me. I had dreamed of being in the musuem/history field, but am now looking elsewhere due to the general state of the field and a desire to work more broadly in the nonprofit sector.

    My second program was with a land conservation focused AmeriCorps program, with partnerships with MA-based land trusts. There was a whole bunch of training and after service professional development, which was highly helpful. Plus there were built in “member pods”, where you were in a group of 3-6 other members and you could discuss challenges, projects, goals, and more, plus be mentored by an alum of the program.

    I’d reccomend if you’re looking at an AmeriCorps program that has various different types of sites that you can select to serve at, ask about support from the overall program, not just the specific site, and any type of program wide training, professional development, and connection with fellow service members.

    Also consider what you’re looking to get out of the program-experience, networking, new career, etc. This will help you in narrowing down your opptions

  101. Exhausted Frontline Worker*

    Late to the party here, but thanks Alison for answering my question!

    Unpopular opinion, but the terrible pay was actually one of the easier things to deal with about my VISTA year (2015-2016). My stipend was $975 in a medium COL city. Rent with two other AmeriCorps roommates was $425, and we found a nice 3 bed/3 bath in a safe, working-class neighborhood. I qualified for SNAP and our house got LIHEAP (energy assistance). Bus pass in a not-so-great public transit city was about $40/month. Student loans were deferred. My year was the first year (in our state? Nationally? IDK) that health insurance was offered to VISTAs outside of catastrophic care, but I opted to stay on my parents. I also stayed on my family phone plan, but I could have afforded it if my parents weren’t able/willing to help. After all my expenses were paid, I usually had about $200-$300 left over per month. I certainly wasn’t traveling abroad or buying diamonds, but I was able to afford the occasional lunch out, happy hour, movie or new pair of pants. Knowing my parents could help me out in an emergency is of course an immense privilege; the people in my statewide program ranged from growing up in gated communities to growing up in poverty, and I’d say I fell in the middle. Only one person out of 20ish quit due to financial hardship, and even then it was only because he and his fiancee ended up getting pregnant a little earlier than planned. (100% would have done the same thing if I were him). It’s definitely not possible to support children or dependent adults on the stipend, but the value of your compensation vs COL varies widely, and there are some placements like mine where it’s doable without support from your family or partner, it just requires a lot of research. I think I lived more comfortably as a VISTA than I later did as a grad student working part-time. Living in LCOL small cities is where people tend to live most comfortably as the stipend isn’t enough in more expensive cities, and the isolation of a rural area is extreme. tl;dr do your research as not all compensation packages are created equal.

    That being said…I agree with everyone above who commented that you don’t need to live with poverty wages to do anti-poverty work, and that service corps programs do favor people with more privilege and we ought to dismantle this system. My current non-profit relies on a lot of cheap labor from religiously affiliated service corps volunteers and social work interns, and as a full-time staff it feels inequitable, and also causes huge disruption to our clients when they all leave every summer and we need to replace and train a new crop. We are looking at alternative funding options to phase that out post-corona, or at least hire fewer of them, because it is definitely not fair to staff or clients.

    For me, the biggest pro of my experience was that it gave me an entry into the white collar world when I was otherwise struggling to get it. I grew up lower middle class in a rural area. One parent worked retail and the other in a field with extremely specific hiring practices. I had been working since a young teen in food service and babysitting, but most internships where I went to school were unpaid which I could not afford, and were non-existent back in my hometown. So despite graduating from a well-known university, I couldn’t find job after sending out several applications, not because I wasn’t employable, but because I didn’t know to apply for jobs and network. Might of helped if I knew this blog existed back then. I also had no concept of office norms. So if you are in that weird culture gap like I am, VISTA is an amazing soft landing. And without a doubt it helped me land my next job and get into grad school.

    My biggest cons were that my non-profit placement was extremely dysfunctional, but that wasn’t VISTA’s fault, and I got tied up in weird VISTA bureaucracy when some of my projects fell apart due to forces outside of my control shortly after I arrived, and it took months to get approval to work on new projects from the state office–that definitely was VISTA’s fault. I spent much of my time trying to help out other staff and being told no since it wasn’t in my VAD, and we had something like a 40% staff turnover (including the CEO!) out of 125ish staff in the year I was at my non-profit. Fortunately there were a few other VISTAs onsite I commiserated with, and unlike some other VISTA placements where people are incredibly overworked I primarily worked 40-hour weeks during standard business hours. Mostly I was bored and frustrated. I never fully bought into the AmeriCorps ethos that I was single handedly going to eradicate poverty by building capacity or whatever. I’m glad I was self-aware enough to see that at 23 as I’ve seen others be in for rude awakenings. Going into a service year can be a good experience, but don’t set lofty goals about changing the world. Be open to unlearning to systems you may have previously learned and aim to create a small positive impact on where you served. It’s not for everyone and it was one of the least fulfilling jobs I’ve had, but I personally don’t regret having done it.

  102. EAW*

    I applied for & was offered an Americorps VISTA job right after graduating college (back in 2010), and quickly realized I’d have to turn it down because of the salary. I didn’t have family in the area I could live with, and would have needed to buy a car to get to the job location (which was not easily accessible on buses). I was VERY torn about this decision, as it was a nonprofit I had volunteered with previously and liked – plus I didn’t have anything else lined up! But there was just no way I’d be able to make it work. When I called the nonprofit to politely decline, the boss was totally unsurprised and shared that most people who take their Americorps jobs are only able to do it if they have family or a significant other to live with who can pay the bills. That at least made me feel a little better about declining.

    In the end, it worked out well and I have no regrets turning it down. Sure, it took a few more hard months of job-searching, but I eventually landed another job – which launched me into the field that’s become my passion and career! Plus, that job paid more than twice as much as Americorps would have … shocking considering that it was itself a pretty low-paid entry-level job.

  103. MeowMeow*

    I did an Americorps term in WA state in 2010-11 and it was one of the best experiences of my life. It gave me an opportunity to get experience doing something I was passionate about at an organization I still love and now work for. I think the best part of it was that, since I was so affordable, the org let me design and take off several programs that I was excited about. It gave me more flexibility than I could ever have when I cost more / hour, which was perfect at the time in my life. That is very much org dependent, though, and not necessarily something that Americorps makes easy for orgs to allow members to do.

    I have a couple of additional thoughts to share based on what I’ve read in the comments:
    – At least in WA’s Washington Service Corps program, the stipend is not considered income for the purposes of calculating food stamps. Every Americorps member here qualifies for the highest amount of EBT (food stamps) that an individual could receive, and everyone I know who served a term was encouraged to sign up for food stamps because of this, which would be several hundred dollars a month to complement the stipend. Unless you have other primarily insurance, you also qualified for volunteer insurance (now, at least in WA since then, that’s become you qualifying for state provided insurance at no cost). The state insurance covered more than my parents fancier insurance – my dad (an insurance salesperson) told me to stay on it as long as possible after he looked it over. All this to say that at least in my experience in WA, the reliance on state benefits was by design and made a huge positive difference.
    – If you have student loans, Americorps allows you to put repayment of most loan types on hold. Usually that makes a large difference for folks participating in the program as well.
    – I went from working an as a preschool teacher with no benefits to the Americorps position. I calculated everything out and between the stipend, education award, and food stamps I made more at the Americorps position. I think that really speaks to how underpaid some positions are, more than how high the stipend was, but it made it feel like a fine transition for me to do something I was more passionate about. I think that stipend would feel very different to people coming from other employment.
    – All that said, I have heard that WA is one of the better states to serve an Americorps term, so the above may be unique to WA state.

    1. Linda Evangelista*

      I served in WA too! I agree with all your upsides, but I do think it is program-dependent. My personal experience wasn’t as good, though I didn’t feel like I was strapped financially which is a plus. However, nobody told me (a dumb, privileged 23 year old) that the education award would be taxable once used. That sucked lol

      1. MeowMeow*

        Linda, that was definitely a surprise for me too! I used it over a couple of years which let me balance it out more, but I wish they’d done a financial planning training. There sure we’re enough other trainings that it seems easy to fit in!

    2. Starbuck*

      ANother upside in WA- certain programs (like the Individual placements at the Dept of Ecology) get paid the WA state minimum wage hourly instead of a stipend, which is still one of the highest in the country. Like many have said in this thread, it’s SUPER program dependent. If you go for one of the environmental positions you can get some really great networking opportunities.

  104. Liz*

    I did one year of VISTA and one year of national direct AmeriCorps.
    I agree with everyone saying the stipends are ridiculous.
    For those who do this after college and think they’re going to go to grad school though, consider this:I was on that poverty level stipend when I was filling out my FAFSA for grad school.
    Very delayed, but super nice upside of the whole thing.

  105. SamIam*

    I completed a year of service back in 2011 in Los Angeles, without family to live with. It was rough. The management of the program is usually overseen by second year americorps volunteers, so while their hearts may be in the right place, most are not experienced or talented managers.

    However, with that being said – the experience was worthwhile, I met lifelong friends through the program and in the communities I worked in, and I got exposure to some cool side-experiences as a result, as well.

    If I were to do it again, I would be sure to sort out a better living situation and I would ensure that the job title aligns with your future career plans.

  106. Sam*

    I’m currently in my second year of Americorps VISTA (working at two different colleges, maintaining relative anonymity because I’m active). I’m going to be honest – I’m looking to get out right now and am quite literally too poor to quit. I absolutely would not recommend it to anyone who doesn’t have ample savings or liquid assets to draw on. I took the job because I couldn’t find something in my field right out of undergrad, and regret it pretty much every day.

    Your experience highly depends on what your placement is; this is reflected in the folks I serve(d) with. My first placement was great, and even though the work was hard I felt I was paid enough and enjoyed it well enough. My second, however, is an absolute mess. I’m paid even less because I relocated to a county whose cost of living is lower, and nearly always have to squeeze my food stamps to last until the end of the month. I have over a thousand dollars in credit card debt, but literally can’t take another job because I can’t afford to move out of my site-provided housing. Americorps takes advantage of its volunteers by paying them at the poverty line, leveraging how much they care about their community, and not providing adequate support when trouble arises.

    I will say, I know folks who I’ve served with who’ve used Americorps as a springboard into grad school and it’s been great experience for them to leverage. I would not recommend this route for anyone without ample external financial support or savings; no matter how many benefits your individual site gives you, it is beyond difficult to survive without a second job. I’m more than happy to answer questions from folks, I’ll just not give many specifics.

  107. Apple Cobbler*

    A warning about the hiring process for Peace Corps: if you accept an offer and then disclose in your mandatory health history questionnaire that you have any mental health history, even a transient, mild episode of anxiety or depression that fully resolved with treatment (something a lot of college students experience while adjusting to new places or high pressure academic environments) Peace Corps will rescind your offer. Fact.

    1. A*

      That isn’t true. You have to fill out forms explaining your current status, how long it’s been since you are diagnosed, if you have changed medication recently, and what you will do to protect your mental health during PC. They won’t let you join if you have a recent diagnosis or recent change in medication.

      1. Apple Cobbler*

        It is true. It happened to someone I am very close to who did not have either of the situations you indicated – no recent diagnosis, no change in medication. As I said in my post, the Peace Corps rescinded an offer after this person disclosed a mild, transient episode that fully resolved with treatment. Today the National Alliance Mental Illness and the food company Kind launched a petition to end the practice of asking intrusive psychiatric questions on medical board license applications. Those organizations are working to end that practice because having psychiatric history is not an accurate predictor of mental fitness, which makes such questions irrelevant Asking those questions also discourages people from getting treatment and could potentially violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prevents discrimination by public entities on the basis of disability. People need to be aware that Peace Corps does in fact behave in this manner, both so they can protect themselves and so that the American people can demand that Peace Corps too end this highly discriminatory practice.

  108. EchoGirl*

    I did two years in Public Allies, which is a program that sub-places members at various organizations, so it’s four days a week at the organization and then one day where the whole group comes together for training. My placement (after an extensive interview and rating process, they didn’t just arbitrarily assign placements) was a legal services program for low-income seniors.

    Positives: First of all, I really liked the greater diversity of positions rather than everybody doing the same thing. I think it was less limiting and therefore meant a group with a lot more perspective/skill diversity compared to one where everyone was doing the same work. (For example, a group where everyone works in schools would only draw in people interested in working with kids.) My first year in particular, there was also a pretty cool dynamic within the group — there were definitely times where the entire group would go out of their way to meet the needs of a few, which is something you don’t see very often and was very welcome and heartwarming. Also, my placement was awesome; if I hadn’t been set on moving states after finishing the program, I might’ve tried to get hired on permanently.

    The biggest downside was that there were a lot of organization/structure problems. All the program staff were overworked, which meant they couldn’t really support us to the extent that we needed, and there was also high turnover (gee, I wonder why). I think a lot of people ended up feeling like they’d been thrown in the deep end and told to swim; both years I was there, a few members ended up leaving the program because they didn’t have the support they needed — sometimes it was negligence on the part of the program staff, but other times it was just that they were simply spread too thin. There were also some issues around last-minute changes/information and unclear expectations, and I remember that in my second year, it sometimes seemed like the second-year cohort (who were expected to take a more leadership role) were held to a higher standard than the staff. I don’t believe these were inherent problems with the program so much as the staff, particularly the program director — I liked her very much as a person but I don’t think she was a good fit for that role.

    I will say that in my case, while the stipend was probably low for the amount/level of work we were doing, I found it was plenty to live on. It might be different for someone who is supporting another person/people, but for someone who was only supporting myself and a pair of cats, it was sufficient.

    This is the general overview, please feel free to ask specific questions, if you like.

    1. Anonymous*

      Adding on a little bit now that I’m more awake, I would say my first year was definitely more positive than negative; I’d do it again. My second year not so much, but I was also having some fairly major issues of my own (I was on mental health medications that weren’t a good fit for me); it’s hard to say if it actually was worse, or if I would’ve felt differently if I’d been in the same mental health state that I was in the first year.

    2. EchoGirl*

      Sorry to keep adding on, but I thought I should mention that the Public Allies stipend was $1700/mo before taxes, or about $1500 after (plus SNAP), and I was living in a place where I could rent a *nice* apartment (I’m bad at guessing square footage but I’d say 600 square feet minimum and that’s probably low, in a clean and well-maintained building with good public transit access) for $700/mo. Other people’s experiences may involve programs that paid less and/or higher cost-of-living areas, which could account for why my experience was different.

  109. Katherine Vanderveen*

    I did an Americorps NCCC and it was truly life changing and taught me a lot about myself and differences across the country. It was a great thing to do immediately after college. I do have to say though, I was really fortunate to have had parents who could support me financially. There was a small
    Stipend and we were provided with all food, lodging and uniforms, but I would have struggled much more had I not been able to rely on my parents and know I had a place to go home to after.

  110. Baxterthedog*

    I have worked for several non profits and I secretly despise AmeriCorps and its similar programs. Not the people who do it, I know many wonderful people who have done the program including close friends but I hate the program itself. Here’s why, overall I do not think the program works well or for it’s intention. Due to the fact they literally pay below minimum wage it causes many people to self select out as they do not have the family support to make it work. Second the people in the program go through a very brief training and then are dumped at the door of non profits, some are amazing and get it, others not so much. Keep in mind these aren’t employees so we can’t just fire them. This creates a cycle of never ending turnover in non profits, a field that already has way too much turn over. People come for a year, get paid crap then leave, many of whom give up carking or end up too busy working side jobs. This also allows many nonprofits to stack themselves with AmeriCorps volunteers instead of actual employees, they say that AmeriCorps volunteers don’t replace employees but that is simply not true, if they didn’t have volunteers they would have to procure real funds and pay employees. It also damages the benefits for everyone else in the organization, how can I ask for a raise when they are paying the person sitting next to me $6 an hour. Americorp cheapens the field and overlooks that people in this field need to have substantial education and training, we are processionals and disservice to be treated and compensated as such.

  111. anonymoose*

    I was a part of the NCCC FEMA corps 2016 class and honestly I ended up quitting early- it truly felt like a cult. I don’t know if it’s because it was the residential program or what but the ideology and rigidity felt very uncomfortable for me and when my father had a heart attack in my fourth week I ended up quitting to go home. I met some amazing people and got to see the entire west coast which was awesome and the work they did was meaningful and incredible but I had a super negative experience and wouldn’t recommend the residential programs to anyone.

  112. Linda Evangelista*

    I did a year in an Americorps State and National program tutoring students in college readiness programs.

    The good: I adooooored my students. I worked with high schoolers and with elementary in the summer, they were super funny, and I learned how to interact with kids for the first time in my life (I previously just ‘hated kids’). Plus, I made some acquaintances via my colleagues that I still keep in touch with.

    The bad: Everything else about it. Personally, I had undiagnosed mental illness. But more broadly, the stipend was hot garbage (“But don’t worry, you’ll get food stamps!”). We had two weeks of training before we were tossed in a school. School placements were made without any consideration for where people lived and who had access to a car (ex. one of my roommates got placed at the furthest school from her possible, and she didn’t have a car. She wasn’t placed anywhere near myself and our other roommate, who both had cars.)

    We had to do weekly service projects with the local parks department. We were never given adequate safety gear. One particularly egregious example, we were brought to the site of a home the city purchased from the parent of a person who died of a drug overdose. Our task was to clean up the property. We were given previously-used canvas gloves to clean a property that was KNOWN to have hazardous material (hypodermic needles, etc.), and the home itself was so riddled with mold that they *eventually* decided we wouldn’t be attending to it because no one thought to brought masks, etc.

    And then at the end of it all, we left our schools and went our separate ways. My students were sad!! This happened to them every year. Occasionally someone would stay a second year but there was no continuity, which is so bad for them. I couldn’t reasonably stay because my mental health was *tanking*, but I felt horrible about it.

    Americorps underpays volunteers and takes valuable positions away from real educators who are trained for this. Teachers need to be paid more. Teachers need more resources. Americorps needs to go. Not to mention, it didn’t do anything for my resume – I ended up kickstarting my career via my connections from a previous internship and from team sports, lol

  113. Rachel B.*

    Not an alum but a nonprofit employer who tried it out. We thought it would be a way to bring an enthusiastic though inexperienced person onto the team we otherwise could not have brought on. I would not do it again. We wanted to ensure the fellow made a decent wage by making up the difference and were told that was prohibited by the program. We then tried to reduce their hours (effectively raising their rate) so they could work another job and were told that was also prohibited, and strict timesheets had to be kept. The fellow ended up quitting because their housemate situation changed for reasons beyond their control and it was just not sustainable. They did not come from a wealthy background: the program parameters are not workable for our community.

  114. EL*

    I did a school based Americorps program in 2008-2009. The plus was that I had health insurance again while serving but I was the poorest I’ve ever been in my life. My area has very low cost of living and I still couldn’t make it work without a second job. Many of my fellow “volunteers” had teaching degrees and were trying to get a foot in the door in the local competitive school systems. I had no teaching background and was in over my head.

  115. Un Peu Dépaysé*

    I did an Americorps VISTA year with an organization in New England in 2015-2016, and honestly had a really rough experience. There were a lot of separate problems that conspired to make things pretty toxic.

    I worked as a communications VISTA for a women’s crisis center and shelter. Before I say any of the bad stuff, I want to say that Americorps as an organization was great. I just had a bad placement. This is not at all an indictment of the program. I relocated across the country to work at this site, and when I arrived, I was introduced to a staff of about 8 other people. About 6 weeks after I started, a polarizing event that I never really got to hear the full story on occurred, and all but 3 people (including me) quit. What followed was 6 months of me being asked to do things that I was not contracted to do, me realizing that the reason so many probably left was because the E.D. Was spineless and the other staff member toxic and micromanaging. There was a lot of talk about us having a flat structure without hierarchy, but instead of a partnership it resulted in strong personalities dominating and bullying. It was just so bad in terms of culture. The other really frustrating part was the lack of supervision on a project I was contracted to work on. Very little guidance, no 1:1s, and when I completed it 7 months in, they basically told me this was not what they wanted and they were going to have the next VISTA “fix” it. I ended up requesting early termination at the 10-month mark from my state office, which they granted, and I got out of there as fast as I could. Still got the credit for the full year and the education award, so worth it I guess. But it was a hellish year.

    I’ll be honest: it ruined non-profit work for me. I left, went back to school, and now teach public school French, not at all related to what I did as a VISTA. I love what I do now, it’s a different kind of service; but I feel like that was a wasted year for me and have some frustrated feelings about it. What I tell people about doing it is this: make sure you are assigned to a good organization. That can make it or break it for you. Ask to talk to previous Americorps members, or interns, or something. I learned after the fact that there was a string of bad intern experiences before I arrived that I just didn’t know to ask about.

    1. Un Peu Dépaysé*

      Oh, and like others are saying: the pay was borderline criminal. There was no housing I could afford in the area, even with a roommate, and I was at least 1000 miles from anyone I knew. I ended up living in the women’s shelter that I was serving. I qualified for $75/month in food stamps. Which never lasted. So yeah. I’m a public school teacher and make more than twice what I made that year, and I still struggle financially. The finances are a majorly raw deal and just not worth it if you ask me.

  116. Health Educator*

    I did a year of service with an AmeriCorps program called National Health Corps. I had an amazing time and at the end of my program I had 5 job interviews and 2 offers in the field. Despite the low pay, it was absolutely worth it to me. I recognize that not everyone has the same experience and here are some factors that contributed to how well it worked for me:

    *I was 23 years old with few expenses. I wanted to move to the area and work in this field anyway

    * I was placed with a great mentor

    *My service site gave me a lot of autonomy and let me set my own hours and start random projects that appealed to me

    *My program had a great community spirit so I quickly made friends in the program. I was able to room with other Corps members so I could afford a decent apartment.

    It’s been 5 years since I served but I am still grateful for my experience with AmeriCorps and the connections I made there.

    1. Health Educator*

      I should add that I also had family support. My parents were a financial safety net that allowed me to make the stipend work. I know not everyone has the privilege.

  117. MCL*

    I worked in a small Midwest city from August 2006-August 2007 as a VISTA. I worked in elementary schools as a volunteer coordinator for a literacy project. I was in a cohort of maybe 20 other VISTA volunteers. To be 100% honest, part of the reason I took the position was because it was in the city where I wanted to go to grad school and I wanted to live there for a year to qualify for in-state tuition. Secondarily, I was attracted to the service aspect of the project and it was somewhat related to my grad school field of interest and it was a way to get some experience.

    What did you like, not like, find surprising about your program?
    I liked being part of a cohort, it instantly gave me a support network in a new city. Overall, I liked working in the schools I was placed in and got to know a lot more about the community. I still live in the same city in 2020 and feel like I the project gave me a lot deeper connection to my community than I would have had otherwise. I did meet other AmeriCorps service members on other projects and learned that not everyone’s program was well-run (my project had been running for several years at the point I came on and had strong and consistent leadership). My roommate was an AmeriCorps service member on a different project and hers was not well managed, so she found it a bit frustrating. I was a little surprised by the indirect service component of VISTA work – VISTAs are not doing a lot of direct service which had been explained to me but I found I wanted to do more of it in my role. I was able to use my education award on my graduate school tuition, so that was also a benefit for me.

    What advice would you give to others who are considering doing your program or a similar one?
    Take a hard look at the stipend and make sure that it will work for you to live on where you’re going to serve. It did work for me, but I was living in a city that (at the time) had reasonably affordable housing and I was able to save a lot of money by living with a roommate. I’d say about 40% of my income was spent on rent, heat was included with my apartment. The rest of my income was spent on transportation costs, other utility bills, phone bill, internet, and I still had a tiny bit left for eating at a cheap restaurant or going to a movie. I was able to get SNAP assistance for groceries, so I actually was able to feed myself relatively decently. When I was making a similar amount of money the next year while I was a full time student in grad school, I lost my SNAP benefits due to being a student and it was very tough. At least one person in my cohort struggled to receive SNAP benefits, which really was hard on their budget – I think it eventually got fixed, but not retroactively. In retrospect I’d say that I lived modestly but not uncomfortably, but I am fortunate that I never had huge car repair bills or an expensive illness while I served. I was not able to save any money, though – I was pretty much living month-to-month. I was also in my early 20’s and used to living very frugally, most of my VISTA cohort either had roommates or partners. I also had a support network – my family was able and willing to help out should there have been a big emergency. I think this can make AmeriCorps service difficult for people who do not have this kind of support.

    Also, think about transportation. I did have an old beater of a van, so I could get to my service sites (one was a 25 minute drive from my apartment, in the next town over). Some of my cohort did not have cars, so they used public transportation or biked. The managers did try to assign people based on transportation needs, but there were still a couple of people who spent a lot of time on the bus. Make sure you take that into account.

    So for me, I had an overall good experience – that is clearly not universally true given the other stories here, so please use your interview to ask lots of questions to determine if this kind of role would be a good fit for you!

    1. MCL*

      Also, I don’t remember if this was clear to me when I started or not – VISTAs (at least at the time) were not allowed to have second jobs. So, no moonlighting as a bartender or waiting tables or whatever other part time work. Some of my cohort were doing this kind of work under the table. I picked up extra cash by petsitting. Just an extra layer of complication, which I found really annoying. I definitely would have worked an official second job had it been allowed.

  118. Fed to UN and Back*

    Not sure if this qualifies under “public service fellowship” but I think should be considered and looked into by some out there. I did a three year stint as a UN Associate Professional Officer (there is also the Junior Professional Officer), sponsored by my country (the US). Note there are age limits. APOs are for those that have already started their careers, go to work for a UN Agency for 1-3 years, then go back home to use that experience. JPOs tend to be right out of college.
    While I was paid more than minimum wage, it was a great experience, and I am glad I did it (was this or doing a Master’s degree), my UN agency was about 30 years behind the US (think LGBTQ equality, women’s rights, etc.), the bureaucracy was insane, and it caused lasting immigration problems going there and coming home. Also parts of the working environment was toxic, the Executive level manager was largely absent (physically and figuratively), and I had an micro-manager (wish I knew of AAM at the time!). However, not all of the Agency was this way, so I just got a bad group, so it just depends on where you apply. But this is something I recommend college grads look into, and those a couple of years into there career looking for a fresh start/change in a related field.

  119. Kim*

    I both participated in AmeriCorp in the 1990s, and was the supervisor for some AmeriCorp employees later in my career. Back in the 90s, my AmeriCorp position included free room and board, so despite the very low stipend, I was able to survive. I had a reasonably positive experience in the program, and overall was pleased that I took part. My view changed, however, in 2011, when I supervised a number of AmeriCorp program members that worked in an after-school program in NYC. What we asked of those young people was ridiculous– they worked very long hours, had very little support, and were even expected to provide their own cell phone for use on the job. I understood that part of the program’s design was to have participants feel what life was like for people living in poverty, but frankly, forcing people to suffer does not actually change the economic structures that cause poverty to begin with. If we really want to lift people out of poverty, I am hard pressed to understand how under-paying folks will make that happen. I felt like the low stipend and the high expectations were exploitative, and not in the best interest of the participants, the program, or the community we were meant to serve.

  120. SyFy Scientist*

    I did Americorps NCCC in 2001 (we started September 10, 2001 so I’ll always remember that first week) after graduating from undergrad. I had a great experience and it provided a soft transition between college and the working world. I did share a dorm room (yes, a single room with a shared kitchen down the hall shared with 10 people) in discounted institutional housing with another Americorps member for that year.

    My Americorps crew was all college graduates working mainly outdoors in a specialty that we chose and was a very competitive program to get into. I had a great time and think fondly about our various antics in shared housing. I’ve stayed peripherally in this profession and area so I do think it helped with my professional development. I’d say about 1/3 to 1/2 of my crew stayed in the area and/or profession.

    One note for people to plan for future federal employment – Americorps NCCC and any other Americorps programs other than VISTA will NOT count towards your time in federal service.

  121. FJV*

    Oof, missed this post. I did the Jesuit Volunteer Corps for two years and much of what I could say is similar to two others who shared their experiences upthread: I worked at fantastic organizations on opposite sides of the country and built a much more diverse skill set than I think I would have in a new job outside of a year of service program. I’m now nearly a decade removed from time in the program and work in a field far different from my undergrad studies thanks to my placement during JVC.

    However, in my experience and those of JVs I worked alongside subsequently, the organization has significant failings in recognizing, addressing, and supporting mental health in its volunteers. Volunteers’ main points of contact with JVC staff are often former volunteers only shortly removed from their own experiences who are not trained to support individuals struggling with mental health and can be slow to react to a community (as we called a house of volunteers) trying to cope with and support a fellow volunteer who is struggling. Friends in other programs, faith-based and otherwise, have shared with me a much different experience with their programs.

    I would strongly recommend everyone find a year-of-service program – the experience truly changed me and my life for the better and I’m grateful I had the opportunity. I would just as strongly encourage folks to find a program that is not JVC.

  122. SyFyScientist*

    I did Americorps NCCC in 2001 (we started September 10, 2001 so I’ll always remember that first week) after graduating from undergrad. It was an environmental non-profit and did trailwork, recycling sorting, environmental monitoring, etc. We did not do education or work with communities other than doing volunteer trailwork activities. This is a type of work that already leans heavily on robust volunteer programs and employees a lot of seasonal staff.

    I had a great experience and it provided a soft transition between college and the working world. I did share a dorm room (yes, a single room with a shared kitchen down the hall shared with 10 people) in discounted institutional housing with another Americorps member for that year.

    My Americorps crew was all college graduates working mainly outdoors in a specialty that we chose and was a very competitive program to get into. I had a great time and think fondly about our various antics in shared housing. I’ve stayed peripherally in this profession and area so I do think it helped with my professional development. I’d say about 1/3 to 1/2 of my crew stayed in the area and/or profession.

    One note for people to plan for future federal employment – Americorps NCCC and any other Americorps programs other than VISTA will NOT count towards your time in federal service.

  123. MediumBertie*

    I did AmeriCorps 6 (wow!) years ago at a local branch of a national nonprofit. It was my first “job” after college, and I owe my future jobs to it, in a big way.

    The good: I worked for an organization whose mission I really believe in and it gave me the experience to get other jobs that were better compensated. I was part of a group of Americorps members who served at a variety of nonprofits in the area, and I made good friends.

    The bad: The “compensation”/role. My position should not have been a volunteer position. I was tasked with running a huge program and then was given an additional program that was required to maintain a federal grant that was responsible for a third of the budget of the organization. If the program was unsuccessful, the organization would not have been able to continue with almost all of their youth-serving programs. Since completing my Americorps year, I got my master’s degree and have positions of increasing responsibility in public libraries, and I have never had a job with as much responsibility and stress as my position, so I would advise anyone to really figure out what the role is before doing it. It should’ve been paid at least $45k a year, but they really got a deal with me and a VISTA (who apparently wasn’t supposed to be doing direct service, but ended up having to anyway).

    Overall, I don’t think it’s terrible, but I think it’s important that people are paid at least a little more, considering most of the people I did Americorps with were already on food stamps beforehand (also, getting paid very little doesn’t really make you “understand” the people you’re serving so much as devalue the work that you’re doing). If you can get a full-time position at a non-profit or school or government organization, I would definitely suggest that.

  124. tabihabibi*

    I held an AmeriCorps VISTA position 2011-2012. I think the problematic compensation bit has been pretty well explored here even though I have big feelings about it. I worked for a city government initiative and did actually end up continuing to work part-time for the department I worked most closely with, and later worked full-time for that city though in a mostly unrelated position. I think some insight into the city’s work culture and dynamics, communication styles, and how programs get off the ground was helpful. On the other hand, I have wondered if I would have continued to be chronically underpaid /quite/ so badly working there if I hadn’t started below minimum wage.

    For anyone considering AmeriCorps VISTA, I think it’s useful to consider that (I think) a lot of the placement locations kind of view AmeriCorps like an in-kind grant. They have something they want to do, apply to see if they can get an AmeriCorps position to do it, and might just be figuring it out from there. Places that haven’t previously had an AmeriCorps placement have a lot to figure out about how the whole thing works. Getting a read on the organization’s capacity to support the work they want the VISTA to do is a useful indicator of what you might be able to acheive. I also would look at whether what you would be charged with has been important to the organization for a long time and/or is likely to have continued support. Working under a Mayoral initiative wasn’t the best for that; I staffed the first year of a 3-year AmeriCorps VISTA program and I was sad to later hear that the third year didn’t even actually happen (change in Mayor, change in priorities—a lot of the staff in charge of my program area left before my year was up). In my placement, I ended up feeling like the overall direction of what my site wanted was only half-baked, and while the initiative needed more resources, there was a mismatch between what the VISTA program could offer and what they needed. I definitely had some good experiences and got to create my own goals and challenges within the parameters of my mission. I created some pretty rad youth events and helped along some budding organizational partnerships. Doing AmeriCorps in a city also gave me the opportunity to attend some small trainings with other groups throughout the year which were way better than the big training at the beginning. Still, I had a hard time framing my work in future interviews.

    I also had the experience of applying for and accepting an AmeriCorps placement that I later turned down. It wasn’t the only red flag, but the thing that did it was that they originally offered to take care of housing for their AmeriCorps cohort (making it possible to a strange city on AmeriCorps stipend), and then took back that offer maybe 3 days before I was supposed to move. Again, the placement site is key.

  125. StatsLass*

    I was never an AmeriCorps member, but I did supervise and work with a number (70+) of them. I have no problems with members, but the program as a whole, and how supervising agencies user their members, leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    While it was 2014, FT members at my site made less than 1400 a month..In a very expensive N.CA area. They were expected to get Section 8 (list has been closed for well over a decade) and food stamps so they could experience the poverty their students do. Naturally they only wanted BA/BS or up people that were willing to work 50-60 hour weeks for 1400…a month. The health insurance (through a federal program) was not considered sufficient by ACA standards. It literally only made sense for folx that lived with family for free and still had their health insurance. These supervising sites exploit their fellows.

    There is potential for good networking and job experience, but none of my friends from those days look positively upon their AmeriCorps time.

  126. Naomi*

    I served a year in the NYC Civic Corps before going to grad. school. I would avoid this kind of thing if at all possible!! I was hoping to gain experience in the nonprofit sector, but I gained very little experience and to be honest, most of the time I was stuck in a small, cramped room listening to relatively wealthy girls talk about fancy restaurants and European trips that I could never afford on my stipend. Other than that, basically, a couple times a month I helped bag stuff up at pantries. Seems like it would’ve better to have worked elsewhere and just volunteer at a pantry periodically.

    The commenter above explained this perfectly:
    “But the stipend is deeply unfair and needs to be fixed, and the reasoning behind it is insulting. We were told we were kept at poverty level for whatever city we served in so we would have a deeper understanding of the people we served: poor and working class people.

    But most of us WERE poor and working class people. The people of my cohort who could genuinely afford to live on that pay were few and far between: most of us already utilized the very services we focused on providing. My year in AmeriCorps only served to keep me poor for another year.”

    I very much agree with this – my program was a NYC-based program, and the majority of the people were people of color, and most of the people I spoke with were from low-income backgrounds. For me personally the lack of income was very stressful and negatively impacted my mental health and resulted in having to opt for what were at times unsafe living conditions.

    Even if you do have the means to support yourself independently or anything of the sort, I would really recommend avoiding programs like this (at least the NYC version) – the experience gained was minimal at best, and I learned nothing of value about social justice or equity in the role itself (the NYC has great groups doing work related to this VOCAL NY, Get Organized BK, Rise & Resist, to name a few)

  127. Carie Kizziar*

    Carie from Kentucky – I served 2 VISTA terms and one AmeriCorps term. The education award allowed me to complete my degree, which I would not have been able to do otherwise. I had a great deal of interest on loans paid after I served and I had free health insurance. I am surprised by the fact that the stipend is mentioned in nearly all the posts that I read. Honestly, I am not sure I understand this. People are warned before they take the position that the stipend is not sufficient for most people to be able to make ends meet. Yes, the stipend is not enough for the effort one gives, but “service” is not supposed to be about the money. National Service, like Miltiary service is supposed to be about making a sacrifice for the country or community. It is meant to open eyes to the difficulty many Americans face. It is meant to engender a sense of pride, provide a lesson in empathy, the opportunity to take ownership for the plight of our fellow Americans who suffer under poverty, food insecurity, educational iniquities, drug addiction, and so many other states of being that others suffer. When I think back to my years of service I don’t think about how poor I was, what I was lacking or how I suffered. I think about the impact I made, the pride I felt, the people whose lives I helped to improve (if only for a short time), and I am eternally grateful for it. Service is “the action of helping or doing work for someone”, “an act of assistance”, it is central to others, not ourselves. Service was hard, stressful and there were times I didn’t think I could make it through. Still, everyday I went to my service site, I was reminded that no matter how bad I thought I had it, others suffered under the weight of so much more. I remained in the National Service family after my 3 years of service. I went on to be a member coordinator for two different AmeriCorps programs, where I got to help other appreciate their service journey. Now I work for the State Commission giving me yet another opportunity to serve the state I love and call home. AmeriCorps changed my career trajectory. I am extremely proud to still be a part of the National Service family. It would be great if Congress recognized the impact AmeriCorps could have and did more to support its members with better compensation, but service should be something we do for the benefit of others, not ourselves.

  128. Julie Struck*

    I stumbled over AmeriCorps while looking for a way to be paid while volunteering at an Indiana homeless shelter and other area social service agencies. I interviewed for several Senior Corps positions in Henderson and Owensboro, KY, and got five offers to serve — a real thrill for a fifty-something, desperate for a career change and meaningful work to replace the drudgery that teaching in higher ed had become. My AmeriCorps experience changed my life profoundly, and gave me hope that I had finally found my servant leader niche. I did. In 2016-2017 I accepted a VISTA Leader position and in 2018 I became the director of an AmeriCorps program in Kentucky with a focus on disaster services and with members all over the state in positions directly assisting those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. I can’t think of more important work, regardless of the pay. Regarding the living allowance, everybody knows what they are getting themselves into financially when they become an AmeriCorps. It is a choice to serve. The only AmeriCorps benefit issue in my two years of service was experiencing that VISTAs get considerably less living allowance than AmeriCorps members, at least in my state and at that site, and do not have access to the same benefits (reduced EBT and medical insurance). This is unfair, and needs to change. I also agree that in this day and age and era of fear and uncertainty, continuing to push and support a policy that VISTAs need to “experience” poverty is outdated and quite possibly insulting to people like me, who grew up poor, struggled to put myself through college as an adult and single parent, and was already quite familiar with this “experience”. VISTA should be a step up from AmeriCorps, not down. But…I love AmeriCorps, and love that I am working with college students who are about being of service instead of all about themselves, and their grades.

  129. Lynn Rippy*

    AmeriCorps has been part of the YouthBuild DNA for 20+ years. Thousands of members work in part-time positions to create low-income housing for communities cross the country, support digital literacy and access to computers, support healthcare in their communities and improve the environment throught recycling, forestry, food production and much more. The ability for young people to serve opens door of opportunity and access to community resources. Much more though is the chnace for young people to understand their role in communities and their responsibilities as citizens. Giving back through service is personally rewarding, promotes skill building, promotes leadership development and allows for strong interaction with our fellow community members. State commissions support the specific goals of their states and counties. In the end, people earn a college scholarship to continue their lifelong learning. Our country and communities are stronger as a result of this domestic service opportuntity!

  130. JB*

    I’m a bit late to this, but I thought I would chime in with my experience. I think the program does have some merits and is probably very beneficial for some organizations. I did a little under a year with AmeriCorps*VISTA. My position was somewhat unique because it was Campus Compact, so a community college hosted me but I primarily worked with a local high school. I was fresh out of college, so it was my opportunity to get experience so that I could get experience (if that makes sense). But that was about it. What I really remember about the experience was that both of my host sites did not communicate with one another about what my role was supposed to be, so I ultimately ended up not doing a lot. I received next to no training, and honestly that experience kind of scarred me with every job I’ve had after that about being left to fend for myself. It was meant to be a one year thing before I went back to school, but then my plans with school didn’t pan out. I panicked, decided to apply for other jobs, and ended up leaving 4 months early. I remember that there was A LOT of attrition with my cohort, so I wasn’t the only one!

    I think my overall advice is to really thoroughly vet your service site before accepting the offer and make sure they have a plan for what the service member will be doing. Also, if you are gunning for the end of term award to pay for graduate school or student loans you have to stay for the full term. I didn’t get a dime of it, but I also don’t regret leaving. I took a temp job that ended up giving me a lot more valuable professional experience and paid better.

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