Community service, traveling, working for the mission instead of for money – that’s what motivated me to join AmeriCorps. Maybe those same things have been nagging at your heart and have you considering a term of service, but you’re wondering: is it worth it?
Choosing to commit to a term of service is a big decision. Even if you’re 100% certain that AmeriCorps is for you, you’ll have a better experience if you have realistic expectations.
Here’s an honest review of the program pros and cons, and my biggest piece of advice for anyone who’s considering joining AmeriCorps.
Con #1: The stipend is really tight. Instead of being given a normal-sized paycheck, in AmeriCorps you’re typically given a “living stipend,” which is a small amount of money you receive twice a month. At the end of your term, you’re typically given another form of reimbursement, like an education award, for a larger lump sum of money.
But your week-to-week income? It’s skimpy. That’s probably the biggest drawback to a year of service. If you’re living in a city, that means that happy hours, lunches out and Ubering around the city will not be regular occurrences. But this can also be a positive (see pro #1).
Con #2: You’ll be job searching again by the end of your term. AmeriCorps is a temporary placement. In some ways this makes the experience more enjoyable: I went into my term thinking that even if I hated it, I could handle anything for 11 months. But there is some stress that goes along with taking a position with a end date.
This is unavoidable and just something to be aware of going into a term of service. My term was September through July (11.5 months) and I started job searching in April.
Positive #1: There are actually upsides to making little money. Not being able to pay for things like happy hour and drinks every night means you learn how to socialize without alcohol (and this can be a surprisingly lovely thing). When I moved on to a corporate job post-AmeriCorps, I found myself brought down by the fact that people rarely tried to socialize outside of the bar.
What happened to an old fashioned game night? A potluck? Spending an afternoon with friends in the park? These are staples in an AmeriCorps social life. Learning to budget and enjoy the cheap and free things in life is a wonderful and invaluable life skill to foster.
Positive #2: AmeirCorps members qualify for food stamps, so you never have to worry about going hungry. Actually, I never ate healthier than during my year of service. Food stamps can only be used on groceries, so there was no eating ramen for a month to save money for a weekend trip.
With groceries paid for and restaurant visits almost non-existent, this became the time in my life where I really learned to cook. Since cooking was the one thing we could all afford, it also became a communal activity between the AmeriCorps members where we learned and taught each other new things.
Positive #3: Many graduate schools match the education award. Most AmeriCorps programs give alum an education award, which can vary in size but is a couple thousand dollars that can only be used for education. There’s also a significant number of universities that will match the education award (meaning you get 2x as much). I’ve been told from a number of AmeriCorps alum that their graduate schools asked them about their AmeriCorps experience in interviews and felt their experience helped them gain acceptance.
Positive #4: You’ll be different from other job applicants (in a good way). At first when I was searching for a job post-AmeriCorps, I was nervous that it would sound soft or somehow less legitimate than a normal position. I actually got quite the opposite reaction. The program was respected by the people who interviewed me, or at the very least I think I earned points for being unique and having done something unconventional.
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 in invaluable ways.
If you’ve served in AmeriCorps, do you have any pros or cons to add?