Sure, you can coast through your year of service, or even two, without accomplishing much more than earning a steady (if vanishingly small) paycheck and doing a spot or two of good in the world. And that’s not an entirely bad way to spend a couple of years, if that’s all you want to do. But if you really want to do more than catch the wave and surf it out, there are many ways you can upgrade your user experience.
1. Make some friends. Unless you’re serving as a single member in an isolated situation, you’re going to be making a lot of friends during your term of service, be it your fellow Americorps members or other folks you serve with. If having a large group of diverse, like-minded people is high on your list of priorities, this is a great opportunity to seal the deal on what could prove to be some seriously great long-term friendships. Take the time to really get to know the folks you want to keep around, and make a point of not letting those connections fade away after your year is up – something that is all to easy to do when you scatter to the winds the day after ‘corps graduation.
2. Work your network. Being an Americorps member is a great way to get to know people who will be very important to you and your future. Whether you will be going to college, entering (or reentering) the workforce, continuing with community service in some way or, who knows, maybe even running for office, your time in Americorps is probably one of the best times to meet and get to know the movers and shakers in your community. As part of your service, you’ll be invited to a lot of community-boosting events that your local Illuminati would give their 4th quarter earnings to attend, and your tangible commitment and dedication to public service will give you an edge of respect and credibility with people who are in a position to help you. You’d be a fool not to take advantage of that while you can.
3. Learn marketable, transferable skills. If there’s one thing you’re going to do in Americorps, it’s learn new stuff. If there’s a part of your program that you’d especially like to know more about or feel would be valuable to learn, or a skill you feel would enhance your ability to do your service, chances are someone will be more than happy to put you on that project or at least offer some tips and training. Whether it’s spreadsheets, grant writing, event coordination or whatever, if it’s a skill that gives you a leg up on the competition, you might as well dive in while the training is free, immersive and hands-on. Keep it up, and by the time you graduate from the ‘corps, your resume will look like it’s been on one of those Extreme Makeover shows.
4. Get certifiable. Some of the best perks of an Americorps service are the certifications. From the merely useful to the financially lucrative, by the end of a service year you’ll need a forklift to haul your resume around, what with all the sparkly certifications padding it out. From CPR to specialized skills, most of these certifications cost an arm and a leg to get on your own, but you’ll be getting paid to take them in Americorps. Take advantage of that while you can – you never know when they’ll come in handy.
5. Grow as a person. One of the coolest, and hardest, things about Americorps is that if you aren’t personally challenged to within inches of your known limits at least once a week, you aren’t paying attention. A year of that and you’re either a new and better person, or a dead one – and I’m pretty sure the casualty rate for Americorps members is still pretty low. The team-building exercises, the trainings, the work you do, the people and situations you run into – all of these will scour away your comfort zone and, once you’re opened up and susceptible to outside influence, you’ll be put through more eye-opening experiences than a Jehovah’s Witness at his first Burning Man rave. Sure, you could just blow it all off and never get fully invested in the process, but what’s the point of that? Hell, it’s free – you might as well get what you can out of it. Who knows, you might just come out the other end a better person than you went in.
Of course, these are just a few of the ways you can make the most of your Americorps service. I’ll be adding more to the list in future posts. In the meantime, if you take one idea away from this post, it should be this: Americorps can either be a way to occupy a year, or a doorway to a new future. Either way, you’re going to be there until the end. You might as well get everything out of it that you can while you’re there.