Reader Q&A – What can I really expect if I join Americorps?

From a reader (who wished to remain anonymous):

Hello, I am interested in learning more about the Americorps and how it can possibly change my life for the better. I love to volunteer, however, full-time service means that I need to quit my current full-time job, right? I also need help with my student loans, and I know that with some years of service it can help me take care of them. Basically I just want to know what will happen to this young budding 24 year old graphic designer in the big city of NY? Will I have to move, quit my job, leave my family, friends and social life? Or is it not such a big deal?

Thanks, I am looking forward to hearing your brutally honest answers to my questions. Thanks!!!!! Your blog is pretty cool by the way.

*blush*

After thanking her for taking the time to send in a question (and for the warm-fuzzy blog love), I replied with the following long-winded detailed response:

Americorps is a really big deal, but it’s also just a year’s worth of big deal, so how big that is in the final accounting depends on you.

The nuts and bolts are simple –

1. Do it for love (or some other ulterior motive) and not for money. Unless you are currently financially independent in a way that doesn’t depend on ongoing income to maintain that independence, or you have another source of income, you will be more or less broke all year. You will get about 750 bucks a month, more or less, for each month you are in service. You will probably get some generic form of health insurance. You will also get something over 4 thousand bucks to pay for college expenses or student loans. Student loan payments will be deferred during your Americorps service and you can use the educational awards to pay them down. You can do Americorps twice, and so pay off a greater portion of your loans and have them deferred longer. In addition to the skills you learn through your service, you will learn all sorts of new life skills like applying for and using food stamps and learning how to tell good salvage food stores from not so good salvage food stores. If you have a hard time not having money, are squeamish about rolling the dice on ‘dent and ding’ cans or are easily frightened by the thought of sitting in social service lobbies next to homeless people for hours on end to apply for services, this may not be right for you. OTOH, for some folks it’s just another interesting side road to explore on the journey of life.

2. Americorps can be either full time or part time, depending on the program you end up going with, although the stipend and educational award for part-time service is, of course, about half that of full-time. You will not be able to work full-time during your Americorps gig, unless you’re that guy in the Ukraine who doesn’t sleep. You will, however, be able to work part-time (unless you join an Americorps VISTA program, which forbids having an outside job). Although the stipend generally covers basic living expenses, lot of Americorps members take weekend jobs, room with each other and so forth to make the ends meet easier. And Americorps sponsor programs generally bend over backwards to ensure that their members get by okay.

3. You will have no idea what you are doing for the first third of the year. It’s the nature of the beast. Unless your term as an Americorps member is spent in a program you already know well, after an all-to-brief orientation (a good portion of which will be spent teaching you how to be an Americorps member rather than how to do what you will be doing), you will be tossed into your program with a lot of good luck wishes and hopefully a great support team, and you’ll spend the first several months learning to swim before finally feeling like you’ve got the hang of it. Some people thrive in that sort of environment and most of the rest get along just fine, but it’s not for everyone. If you want to do Americorps, but find this sort of blind faith cliff-jumping scary, try to find a program with a non-profit with whom you’ve worked before and with people and systems you already know well.

4. Your social life will suffer pretty much exactly to the extent that your social life depends on a steady cash flow and late-night partying. If your friends and family are cool with pizza and movie rentals, and going to bed at a sufficient hour to get up early the next morning and go to work without a hangover – rather than insisting on expensive dinners out and first-run movies in the theater, followed by clubbing until 4am – you’ll be fine. If your friends and family are more Paris Hilton and Britney than That 70’s Show, you might be in for some serious stretches of alone time. Which may not be such a bad idea, all things considered. But cheer up – all your Americorps buddies will be in the same boat, so you can socialize with them (assuming you are in a program with a team of other Americorps members).

5. The work you will be doing will be very important, but realistically there’s a limit to what you can do with a year. It won’t always feel like you’re making a difference, nor will you always (or even ever) be visibly successful in terms of making things permanently and irrefutably better. Serving in Americorps is a very Sisyphean job – you’re there for a year to help serve social problems, environmental issues or other needs that took eons to create and will probably be eons in the solving. You will make a real and invaluable difference – that much is beyond doubt – but it will be a difference played out in small, personal victories rather than in grand battles or wars won. You will be one paddle on the eternal wheel moving this rig forward. You’ve got to be okay with that. [Edit – I do want to note that in Americorps, you probably will be a vital influence in the lives of the people you serve, perhaps even the vital influence that changes the course of their lives for the good – it’s just that the person or persons probably won’t realize how important you were until much later, if at all, and you will probably never know. At the time, the pivotal moment may pass unnoticed by both of you, or they may even be resistant as hell to what’s going on. That’s just the way those things tend to be. One great exception to this general rule is working with Habitat for Humanity – you actually finish houses and get to see people moving into what is often their first real home many times over during the course of a year. It’s an amazing feeling!]

6. Going in expecting to be the Enlightenment Fairy – changing lives with a touch of your magic Americorps wand, tossing handfuls of Fairy Fix-It Dust over the huddle masses and leaving a praise-singing trail of happy, grateful people in your wake – is just asking to be smacked over the head with a giant Clue-By-Four. OTOH, even those of us with totally open eyes and a clear vision of this reality still have those “does what I’m doing really matter” days – it’s okay, even expected, if you feel this way sometimes. If it becomes your overriding mindset, however, it’s time to talk with your supervisor about getting out of that unhealthy rut. [Edit: But yes, it does matter. Really and truly.]

7. You will hate Americorps. You will love Americorps. You will dread getting out of bed, and you will wish you didn’t have to go home. It will be the worst decision you ever made and the best thing you’ve ever done. You will count off days like a felon marking time and you will miss it terribly when you’re done. Sometimes, these things will happen more than once in the same day. Welcome to a life spent in service to the greater good: It’s the Vomit Comet of right action, complete with breathtaking climbs, stomach-dropping falls, heady views and jewel-like moments of perfect, weightless exhilaration and clarity that make it all worthwhile.

8. You’ll learn all sorts of cool stuff, meet amazingly cool people and take part in a wide variety of cool activities. If it’s a career move, a gap year, a “get my head together” sabbatical, a moral imperative or anything of that sort, it’s still a cool way to spend a year. But if you approach it as an adventure (with all that entails), it’s all that and a hell of a lot more fun.

Hope that answers your questions. If not, send more and I’ll do my best. In the meantime, check out the www.americorps.org site, especially the FAQs and the stories of service.

Soni Pitts

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