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Is AmeriCorps Worth It? Experience Rundown

November 27, 2018 3 Comments
Is AmeriCorps worth it_Seattle 2016_Kayla Ihrig_Writing From Nowhere
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Community service, traveling, working for a 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 AmeriCorps 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 the right 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.

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 AmeriCorps members travel around the country or region in a cohort. Other service members are stationed in one location and do the majority of their work in an office. Some work mostly in the field and are in schools teaching kids first aid, on construction sites building homes, and so on.

You can read more about program specifics online. For my service, I went through an AmeriCorps state program, and was under the umbrella of the Washington Service Corps.

For me, and I think for many service members who complete the program, AmeriCorps is a very unique, sometimes challenging, quick-and-dirty year unlike any experience that college or the corporate world can offer.

3 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.

The truth is, no one can answer the question “is AmeriCorps worth it” for you. Because no one can tell you exactly what your experience will be like. But taking a look at what is motivating you will help you see if you expectations are realistic.

Here are the 3 factors that convinced me AmeriCorps was the the experience I wanted:

I wanted an 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. Helping people and having exciting new experiences was more important to me.

Ironically, after my AmeriCorps term of service I actually did go into a corporate environment, but I left after a year because it confirmed that this wasn’t for me (but more on that here, if you’re interested).

If you also feel adverse to work at a desk job, maybe the digital nomad lifestyle is for you.

I wanted to do something unique, and stand out from my peers.

All humanitarian and intrinsic rewards of serving aside, I’m still competitive person. I could only go into a year of service if I felt confident that it would help me get me a good job or be accepted into a top masters program.

Through my research, I found that the program seemed to have a lot of respect, and many universities offered incentives for AmeriCorps alum to join their programs.

I wanted to travel and move across the country.

You can serve in AmeriCorps all over the country, so you don’t have to serve where you live. I grew up and went to college in Pennsylvania, but I only seriously considered positions in Washington State, Tennessee and North Carolina before choosing WA and moving from Pa to Seattle.

is AmeriCorps worth it_Kayla Ihrig_Writing From Nowhere
On the left is Montana, and on the right is Washington State. My AmeriCorps year of service showed me more of the US than I would’ve dreamed possible in only a year. If you’ve always wanted to travel more, take a placement on the other side of the country. What’s stopping you? Roadtrip 2015

I was 22 years old, had never been to the Pacific Northwest or roadtripped cross county before. But, I said yes, packed up my Ford Focus and hit the road with one of my best friends.

The night before I left, my parents threw a big going away party, with a beautiful cake that read “Good Luck In Seattle, Kayla.” I was so excited. But I still cried like baby saying goodbye and backing my stuffed-to-the-brim car out of my parent’s driveway.

is AmeriCorps worth it_Kayla Ihrig_Writing From Nowhere
Adventure called, and one of my best friends was there to answer with me. Katie and I roadtripped 2,600 miles. (P.S. 22-year-old me wasn’t waste-conscious, but now I use a Stojo cup to divert disposable cups from the landfill). Pennsylvania, 2016

What You Should Know About AmeriCorps Before You Apply

You don’t need a degree for all national service programs and can join AmeriCorps right after high school.

It’s all too common for college students to graduate with an (expensive) degree and still have no idea what they want out of life. I wholeheartedly believe that AmeriCorps will help give you clarity finding your own answer to that question.

Why not enter college with some more clarity, life experience and money for education?

Every year in my high school, military recruiters spoke to our classes trying to recruit students to join the armed services before attending college. Why are the armed services pushed to teenagers and not the non-armed national service branches?

I didn’t hear about AmeriCorps 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 the urban jungle calls to you, do not choose a placement in the middle of Montana. If you love the sun and beach, do not take a placement in Washington State.

Even if you love where you grew up but have always wondered about the other side of the country, go! You can come back. You are not buying a one-way ticket. And it’s only a year, max (program lengths vary). Be brave, and go! You can do anything for a year.

is AmeriCorps worth it_Kayla Ihrig_Writing From Nowhere
My first big move in life was to Seattle for my AmeriCorps position. Taking that leap gave me the confidence to keep taking big leaps- like moving to Chicago (pictured left) and the Netherlands (right).

The experience of moving somewhere new and building a life for yourself is so rewarding and builds so much character.

AmeriCorps is considered volunteering.

I somehow missed (or didn’t want to hear) this fact in my interview and research process. And when I realized I was classified as a volunteer, I was initially upset. I felt like the year lost validity or status on my resume. That it wouldn’t be respected or seen as difficult.

I was wrong. People know and respect the AmeriCorps program. Having it on your resume send a positive message to a potential employer.

Also, it doesn’t mean you’re not paid, but more on that here.

Are you hearing your gut starting to whisper an answer? Is Americorps worth it to you? 

Is AmeriCorps Worth It? Pros And Cons

AmeriCorps Cons

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.

is AmeriCorps worth it_Kayla Ihrig_Writing From Nowhere
On the left: my tiny bedroom, hardly wider than an open futon (which was my bed for one year). You will not be living luxuriously on your AmeriCorps stipend. But, on the right: the view from the lake on that I was able to walk to from this apartment. You win some, you lose some. Seattle 2015

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.

AmeriCorps Pros

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.

Living off of a poverty-line stipend helped directly prepare me for quitting my salaried job 2 years later, and becoming a digital nomad. But more about my experience with the digital nomad lifestyle here. Mexico, 2017

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.

is AmeriCorps worth it_peru_Kayla Ihrig_Writing From Nowhere
Here are some pictures from my travels in Peru, where I’m repping my AmeriCorps t-shirt (logo on the right sleeve). I always pack it when I go traveling, even abroad, in hopes of bumping into another AmeriCorps alum. Peru, 2018

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.

Asking The Right Questions In Your AmeriCorps Interview

If you’ve been gnawing on the question “is AmeriCorps worth it?” and you’ve arrived at a yes – AH-MAZING! You just made a major life decision to serve your community. I’m proud of you, friend.

And, if your answer to the question “is AmeriCorps worth it?” came out a resounding NO – there’s no shame. Good for you for doing your research and making an informed decision.

Once you’ve arrived at the answer yes, or even maybe

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.

is AmeriCorps worth it_Kayla Ihrig_Writing From Nowhere
I hated being in my cubicle. And I spent 70% of my term of service there, because I didn’t ask the right questions in my interview. On outings into the field, I was my happiest. Washington State 2016

Important Question #2: What is the appropriate wardrobe for this position?

Some positions mandate a uniform. Others don’t. 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, and some members work alone. I was 1 of 6 AmeriCorps working in the same office, and that team environment shaped my experience greatly. The answer to this question will drastically change your experience.

Important Question #4: What have previous AmeriCorps members in this position gone on to do?

Have the previous AmeriCorps members have stayed on as volunteers? Have any of them gone on to be hired by the organization?

Or have none of the past 5 members even finished their terms?

You’ll get a lot of insight with these answers.

After my AmeriCorps term ended, I moved to Chicago for a marketing position at an architecture firm. Some members choose to serve more than one term.

My sister and I roadtripped from Seattle, down the west coast and across to my new home: Chicago. Another life-changing travel experience squeezed in between life chapters. 2016

Important Question #5: Can I speak with the service member serving in this position currently and ask them questions about the experience? 

This might be a total game-changer for you. When I narrowed my decision down to 2 final service sites (one in Washington State and another in Tennessee), this question determined my destiny. I spoke to an AmeriCorps member in Tennessee who told me that I would need to be comfortable with a lot of spare time and be able to occupy myself if I accepted that position. The member in Washington State gave a glowing review of her experience and the program, and was even hired to stay 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 worth it to you? 

Is AmeriCorps Worth It Summary: 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.

“Is AmeriCorps worth it?” Do you still not know the answer? I do. You just read 2,000+ words and are still here, interested. Curious. Wanting to know more. That’s your gut telling you to go for it. GO!

Is AmeriCorps Worth It For 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 still have questions, please comment or email me at kayla@writingfromnowhere.com. Il do my best to help. AmeriCorps was a challenging experience for me, but Iit was really formative in my 20s and helped lead me to the non-standard lifestyle of travel and being a digital nomad.

And if you’ve served in AmeriCorps, do you have any pros or cons to add? Did you have an answer to the question “is AmeriCorps worth it?” right away or did you find your answer through service?

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