I Just Started My Second Year In AmeriCorps, And I'm Still Conflicted About The Program

Picture a bunch of mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly college-educated kids being told that they can “solve poverty” with minimal training.
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October 16, 2014
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work, poverty, student loans, Americorps

If you’re like many current college students struggling to find a job in your chosen field while carrying a student loan burden, you may have looked into AmeriCorps as a post-grad option. I just finished a year of AmeriCorps VISTA in August, and then started a state AmeriCorps program the next week. In the last 14 months, I’ve developed useful skills, learned a ton and bonded with truly fantastic people.

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t recommend AmeriCorps unless your circumstances, personality and project description fit together really well. National service can be very stressful in ways that standard employment is not, and it definitely helps to have access to certain resources. If you don’t have some kind of financial safety net, you need a super resilient, can-do mentality.

I happened upon my two terms of service due to a combination of chance and necessity. I grew up in southeastern Ohio and went to college at Ohio State, which is less than an hour from my hometown. When my boyfriend got accepted to a graduate program at the University of Oregon, I jumped at the chance to move somewhere new. As I started to look for work in Eugene, though, I quickly realized that I wouldn’t be finding a standard full-time job in our new home. Turns out that tons of young people with limited qualifications decide to move to Oregon and look for jobs.

Two weeks before we started our drive across the country, I finally got a phone interview. It was for an AmeriCorps VISTA position at a public health department in Albany, Oregon -- definitely not what I had in mind. Albany is a very white, very conservative town located 45 minutes north of Eugene on I-5, but I figured I could handle the commute for the right work environment. And since I grew up in a similarly white, conservative town, I wasn’t exactly worried about culture shock.

All of my reservations about the position were moot once I got acquainted with the interview panel. They were kind, friendly and they clearly loved their work. Because of past experiences with an extremely toxic work environment (disgusting stories for another time), I accepted the VISTA position mostly because I got such a good feeling about my future coworkers.

Regardless of your position description, your host organization can really make or break your term of service. During the government shutdown last October, many VISTAs were put in an extremely stressful situation because our stipends were disbursed through the federal government. My supervisor gave me a giftcard to Fred Meyer to tide me over -- that display of support was so incredibly important to me.

When you’re going through an especially stressful period, self-care is even more important than usual. For me, paying for a gym membership is necessary to maintain some semblance of mental health. Once I discovered that plodding along on the elliptical for 45 minutes a day has a positive impact on my mood, I was more than willing to sacrifice in other areas of my budget.

Your quality of life as an AmeriCorps member will depend on your existing resources more than you’d think. If you have a partner who can take on a bigger share of the bills during your term of service, stretching your stipend will be a whole lot easier. If you have a hand-me-down car from your parents, or if you live in a city with great public transportation, your day-to-day existence will be much easier than if you have to make a hefty car payment or rely on crappy bus service.

Most people I know in AmeriCorps get some form of financial support from their parents or from their partners. I am lucky enough to have access to a reliable car, plus I don’t have to worry about making rent. My boyfriend has taken on the rent for our apartment so that I can afford to make my private student loan payments every month.

This brings me to the practical reason that many young people are interested in AmeriCorps. Once you complete a term of service, you receive about $6,000 to use for school or to put toward existing federal loans. For federal loans, forbearance is an option so that you don't have to make loan payments during your term of service. And after you’ve finished your term, AmeriCorps will pay all of your accrued interest.

For those of us with private student loans, it's not as simple. We still have to make payments on private loans during service, and as an added kick in the gut, the education award cannot be used on these private loans. This goes without saying, but do your best to understand the fine print before you make any commitments. I wasn’t aware of these facts until I had already begun my first term of service, and it was a huge source of stress at first.

The anti-poverty focus of AmeriCorps VISTA is well-intentioned, but in practice, it can be quite problematic. Especially at pre-service orientation, VISTAs hear a lot of inflated rhetoric about the value of their work. Picture a bunch of mostly white, mostly middle-class, mostly college-educated kids being told that they can “solve poverty” with minimal training. Notice a resemblance to Teach for America here? Both programs can easily be interpreted as condescending to the people who've been pouring their lives into anti-poverty work for their entire careers.

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, the purpose behind the small AmeriCorps stipend is to help members better identify with those living in poverty. I take issue with this idea because it vastly oversimplifies the experience of being poor. The vast majority of my AmeriCorps acquaintances grew up in upper-middle-class families and attended college. We grew up with access to resources that were not available to people who experience generational poverty.

In the end, this is what bothers me the most about AmeriCorps -- most members are young and privileged, and we often neglect to think about the implications of this. When you’re stuck living in poverty, you don’t have well-off parents to fall back on. Taking care of basic necessities is a huge part of being poor, and most AmeriCorps members don’t have to worry about that.

Are you considering an AmeriCorps position? Are you an alum? I want to hear your stories.