Not quite ready to jet-set off into the world on your own? Perhaps you’ve never left the country, or your state, or even your home town. I know a way you can give yourself the confidence to get up and get moving to those far off places — whether just around the US or further away — that you’ve dreamed about visiting. You can do this while simultaneously gaining highly transferable professional skills, building life-long relationships, and making an impact on a local community.
Would you believe me if I told you becoming a member of AmeriCorps could help you gain the confidence to live your travel dreams? I’ll tell you how.
First of all, what is AmeriCorps?
It is a national service program federally funded by the Corporation for National and Community Service. Often dubbed as the domestic Peace Corps, AmeriCorps mobilizes US citizens of all ages to volunteer at one of over 70,000 organizations across the country.
As a member, you get the chance to spend two years carefully traversing river rocks in Northern California while assessing wild salmon spawning habitat (that’s what I did!) or help increase literacy of at-risk youth. AmeriCorps isn’t just for the young, but the young at heart as well. National service is a great choice for people over 25 seeking a chance to get their foot in the door of a certain sector or contemplating a career change, and for retirees interested in mentoring troubled teens or young mothers as Foster Grandparents.
There are several focus areas, and all programs choose to adhere to different combinations of the following: Disaster Services, Economic Opportunity, Education, Environmental Stewardship, Healthy Futures, and Veterans and Military Families.
As a national volunteer, you do not get paid a salary or even hourly wage. The provided living stipend is just enough to live a simple life. Members do qualify for a variety of government programs such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) and no-cost health insurance. Some programs offer free housing for their members, whether it is a shared house, dormitory, or other means, and copious amounts of training and continuous member development opportunities are available. You should expect to be provided uniforms and proper service gear, as well as the opportunity to put qualifying student loans into forbearance during your term of service. AmeriCorps will also pay any accrued interest on your qualifying student loans upon completion of the program. Each program offers a different set of benefits for its members so make sure you find out what is available to you and put them to good use.
How will AmeriCorps help me travel to <INSERT DREAM DESTINATION HERE>?
Start off by traveling around the United States. Programs exist in every state, so you can choose to serve with a program located 3000 miles away from where you live, like I did, or in your home state or even hometown. Or travel in a pod with your fellow corps members around the country when and where AmeriCorps assistance is needed with the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC). For service with a little international flavor there are also programs in the US territories — American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.
Additionally, one major benefit of completing a full term of service (one year, or 1700 hours of service) is the Eli Segal Education Award, currently at $5730 for a full term of service, and it increases almost every year. For instance, in 2008/2009 when I served in California, the education award hovered just over $4000. Members may receive up to two full-time education awards.
The money, allocated upon successful completion of program requirements, can be used in many ways, like to pay existing qualifying student loans and future educational expenses. It can also pay for approved programs through accredited colleges and universities, such as National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and certain study abroad programs. Try to stretch those dollars even further by choosing to attend a matching institution!
Once you complete one or two terms of service and you decide what your next steps in life will be — whatever you choose — I guarantee you will have gained the confidence to successfully meet goals. You will learn how to face adversity and overcome obstacles; be creative and resourceful; be part of a diverse team and grow as a leader. Skills I believe are the building blocks of successful adventurers.
Where can I find more information about AmeriCorps?
Before you decide to join an AmeriCorps program it’s important to research extensively to find the program that fits your ideals and needs. A successful and positive experience relies on it.
- Begin with the Corporation for National and Community Service website. This site seriously has it all! Here you can learn the differences between AmeriCorps State & National, AmeriCorps VISTA, and AmeriCorps NCCC. Hint: the differences are vast!
- Check out the AmeriCorps Alums site too. It helps to think through your post-service opportunities when deciding if national service is a good fit.
- A state commission, such as the Massachusetts Service Alliance or California Volunteers, manages all programs. You will find links to programs listed on these sites — that is, if the programs maintain a website at all. Listed on this webpage of the CNCS site is all state commissions.
- Once you find a program you think you like, cruise Instagram and Twitter to see if they or their members share snippets of service. I like these three Instagram accounts: lehachouse, bournehouse, and acc_firecorps.
- Search hashtags like #americorps, #nationalservice, #cncs. Those will lead to many, many more!
- Follow the official blog of the CNCS.
- One more tip is to do a Google search using “AmeriCorps + State + Your topic of interest” or some combination like that to see what comes up.
Why trust what I have to say on this topic?
After I graduated from Salem State College (now a university – in Salem, MA) — and stuck around as a waitress for a year — I moved to California to take part in the AmeriCorps Watershed Stewards Program. In that program I served as a member, a member leader, and eventually as staff. I gained insight to the program, and the larger AmeriCorps umbrella, spanning almost the entire spectrum of possible roles.
Fast forward a couple of years to when I decided to move back to Massachusetts. I had no plan, no job, and no worries either. I knew something would come up right away that would get me by until I figured out what it was I wanted to do. A side effect of AmeriCorps service! After a little while of helping to run a home daycare I applied for and landed a staff position with Barnstable County AmeriCorps Cape Cod. I’m now close to the end of my second year working for the program — in my second staff position — and I have learned even more than the first go-around.
After almost 8 years of AmeriCorps involvement, I’d say I know the ins-and-outs and can offer some sage advice.
I’d love to hear from other AmeriCorps Alumni or those interested in learning more about national service opportunities.