How to Know if AmeriCorps is For You: Advice to anyone who’s considering AmeriCorps from someone who did it
Someone recently told me that they were considering AmeriCorps and asked me about my experience and if I had any tips for them. I had these same questions before I joined in 2015 and was grasping at straws for advice on what the experience was actually like, Googling “how to know if AmeriCorps is for you.”
This is my advice to them, and anyone who is considering the programs.
What does a year in AmeriCorps mean?
Per the organization’s mission statement, a year in AmeriCorps is a year spent “improving lives and fostering civic engagement.”
That sounds great, right? But doesn’t give you any indication at what daily life is like.
Some members travel around the country in a team. Other members are stationed in one location and do most of their work in an office. Others work mostly in the field and are on construction sites building houses, in schools teaching children first aid, and so on.
You can read more about program specifics online. I went through an AmeriCorps state program, and was under the umbrella of the Washington Service Corps.
For me, and I think for many volunteers who complete the program, AmeriCorps is a challenging, very unique, quick-and-dirty year unlike anything experience that college or the corporate world can offer.
Deciding Factors that led me to Choose AmeriCorps
Even though it’s only one year of your life (or less, depending on the program), committing to national service is a big decision. No one can tell you exactly what your experience will be like, but taking a look at what is motivating you may help you see if you expectations are realistic. These were the factors that convinced me AmeriCorps was the the experience I wanted.
I wanted a work experience unlike a corporate job. I didn’t want to take the corporate road or resign myself to a life chained to my desk and email inbox. I wanted to help people and be active.
I wanted to do something unique, and stand out from my peers. All humanitarian and intrinsic rewards aside, I’m still competitive. I could only go into a year of service if I felt confident that it would help me get me a good job into a top masters program. Through research I found that the program seemed to have a lot of respect, and many universities offered incentives for AmeriCorps alum to attend.
I wanted to travel and move across the country. You can serve in AmeriCorps all over the country, and you don’t have to serve where you live. I seriously considered positions in Washington State, Tennessee and North Carolina before choosing WA and moving to Seattle from Pennsylvania. I had never been to the Pacific Northwest, or traveled cross-country.
What I Wish I Had Known Before I Applied
That I could have joined AmeriCorps right after high school. I didn’t hear about the program until after I graduated with my Bachelor’s degree, but I could’ve benefited greatly from a service experience prior to entering college.
Where you serve has a huge impact on your experience. You can choose from anywhere in the entire country – where would you like to live and explore? If cities call to you, don’t choose a placement in the middle of Idaho. If you love the mountains, don’t take a placement in Missouri.
If you love where you grew up but have always wondered about the other side of the country, go! It’s only a year, max (program lengths vary). Be brave, and go! You can do anything for a year. I found the experience of moving somewhere across the country where I didn’t know anyone extremely rewarding.
AmeriCorps is considered volunteering. I somehow missed this fact in my interview and research process, and was initially upset when I learned I was technically a volunteer. I felt like the year lost validity or status on my resume if I was a volunteer, or that it wouldn’t be respected or seen as difficult. I was so wrong. (Also, it doesn’t mean you’re not paid, but more on that here.)
Asking The Right Questions In Your Interview
If you’re thinking that more of less of this experience sounds like something you’re interested in, maybe it’s time to start applying.
It’s true of any job that you want to be properly prepared for the interview, but due to the range of opportunities in AmeriCorps it’s really helpful if you ask the right questions.
Important Question #1: What percentage of the time for this position is spent in the office versus in the field? If you’re doing a year of service to be active and not sit behind a computer, make sure you’re not signing up for a desk job. I sat behind a computer screen in a cubical most days. My roommates, who served in AmeriCorps with a different organization, were off wearing hard hats and building houses. There is a HUGE range of opportunities.
Important Question #2: What is the appropriate wardrobe for this position? Some positions mandate a uniform. You should know what to expect.
Important Question #3: How many other AmeriCorps members will I work with daily? How often will I see my supervisor? Some AmeriCorps are in teams – I was 1 of 6 AmeriCorps working in the same office. Other members work alone.
Important Question #4: What have previous holders of this position gone on to do? It can speak volumes about the position if the previous AmeriCorps members have stayed on and continued to work with that organization, or if none of the past 5 members have finished their term.
Important Question #5: Can I speak with an AmeriCorps member at this site and ask them questions about the experience? This was a game changer for me. When I narrowed my decision down to 2 final sites (one in Tennessee and the other in Washington State), this was what helped me decide. I spoke to a member in TN who said that if I joined that team I would need to be comfortable with a lot of spare time and be able to occupy myself. The member in WA gave a glowing review to her experience and program, and was staying on as an employee. With that insight, it wasn’t hard to decide.
Are you hearing your gut starting to whisper an answer? Is Americorps for you?
My Biggest Piece of Advice
If you accept a position in national service, go into it with low expectations.
Not because it will be bad, but because it’s an odd, quick and dirty year that is very unlike both college and a typical job and you can’t know exactly what it’ll be like until you’re living it.
Entering my term, I had a very clear picture in my head of what I wanted it to be like, and I spent months being unhappy before I accepted that the year I was living wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t what I initially wanted it to be.
AmeriCorps for me, and I think for many people, is a very challenging but worthwhile experience and the effect of that year ripples through many areas of my life.
What About You?
If you did a term of national service, do you feel similarly about your experience? What advice do you have for anyone considering the program(s)?
If you have questions or want to hear more, please comment! I’d love to hear from any other alum if this rings true with your experience.