First of all, national and community service? Yep, I'm talking about all that is full-time service years or any opportunity through AmeriCorps or something similar (not the military). Surprisingly, in Minnesota where AmeriCorps members seem to be serving almost everywhere, I run into many of people who have never even heard of it. National service varies incredibly as service members work in education, technology, the environment, and disaster relief or serve in very different programs like VISTA, Senior Corps, NCC, or FEMA. The complexity of a service term can't really be described in an elevator pitch and starting off by saying "service" throws people way off.
I'm probably your definition of an AmeriCorps lifer. After my first AmeriCorps summer term in college I dusted my hands off, took in the experience, never imagined I would complete two more terms and eventually work on staff at an AmeriCorps organization. Given my experience, I'm AmeriCorps/national service legit so read on.
So what are some common misconceptions about AmeriCorps/national service?
A service year means you don't get paid.
Actually, people who serve get paid a living stipend based on the cost of living where they're serving and what program they're in. Most of the time, service members get paid about $1,500 per month while other residential programs pay for housing. All the time, AmeriCorps service members receive over $5,000 at the end of their term to put towards past or future education expenses. Yep, it's not a lot and it's not easy but there are other major payoffs.
People only do AmeriCorps because they can't find another job.
No. Not necessarily. There are always low-wage or low-skill jobs out there if someone is willing look for them and takes whatever comes their way. These days many colleges are turning out idealistic (mostly liberal arts) graduates who want a lot of responsibility and to find meaning in their jobs right after they get that diploma. Rightly so because they just spent four (+) years and a lot of money in hopes of being qualified for something beyond sub-par. They then find out they won't be actually qualified for another three to four years and won't be able to achieve a fraction of what their parents did in their early 20s.
People choose service positions because they see a cause they want to be a part of, want to do something other than retail, want to learn more about our society without textbooks, want an adventure, or just want to gain a real experience they haven't had before. Unlike jobs some young adults take to pay the bills, national service jobs are critical for creating future knowledgeable and dedicated civic leaders.
AmeriCorps means people just a volunteer for an entire year.
Heck to the no. Most people outside of the nonprofit world associate "volunteer" with feel-good, generally low-skilled, irregular, cushy work. Service terms are so far from that. National service members work 40+ hours a week to solve problems, create systems, advance organizations' missions and try to work towards a better future without much hand holding or resources to get things done. Yeah, there are a lot of oh crap what do I do now? moments, but service members have no choice but to rise to each occasion to make things happen. National service is only volunteer work in the sense that people give a great amount of time and expect something other than just monetary compensation in return.
AmeriCorps and national service opportunities are accessible to everyone.
Unfortunately no. As mentioned before, supporting oneself on the pay for an entire year is incredibly tough. I was only able to take my national service positions because I didn't have private student loans to worry about, had parents who helped replace my worn out shoes when I couldn't afford them and had a boyfriend who spotted me grocery money/eventually let me live with him rent-free.
Yes, service members are eligible for food stamps and some childcare assistance, but even with those options it's nearly impossible for people with varied and complicated circumstances to complete these year-long terms. With even small increases in pay and benefits, both national service partner organizations and local communities could benefit from hiring more candidates from diverse backgrounds. Hiring people who live in a community to work in their own community can make an impact for years to come.
National service can be hard to understand unless you've actually done it. I'm one of many people who can say that AmeriCorps has shaped my career and life in ways I never thought possible. The opportunities I received, the things I saw, the problems I solved, the people I met, the places I explored and the unique lessons I learned though national service were just what I needed to get to where I am today. AmeriCorps saved me from a career at Whole Foods and kept pushing me to just aim higher.
Sure, not everything about national service is romantic. I remember the time I broke down crying on my way to work thinking I just couldn't do another day, how much I didn't love the VISTA oath and how hard it was to see my peers saving money while I was eating off-brand frosted flakes from the bodega for three meals to make it to my next paycheck. It was a long road and I don't think I'd go back and change it.
Tell me about what national service did for you.
Tell me about what you think people get wrong about national service.