AmeriCorps: A Year Off?

A couple of days ago, through the magic of twitter, I had a discussion – one might even call it a debate – about describing AmeriCorps as a “year off.”  A bit of background is needed here.  The person with whom I was having this discussion is an AmeriCorps alumnae and a proud supporter of AmeriCorps.  In no way is she attempting to imply that AmeriCorps is easy or unnecessary.  Her argument for calling it a year off is based in the idea that it is an atypical way to spend a year, that those serving in AmeriCorps put their lives and careers on hold in order to serve, and that calling it a year off may actually convince those who might not serve to consider AmeriCorps as a valid choice other than the traditional school to work path.

These are all interesting points and I enjoyed hearing her perspective.  But I completely disagree.

The AmeriCorps members I’ve known – and there have been many, at all places in their career paths – didn’t consider their service time off.  For many, particularly the younger group who are serving in AmeriCorps after school and before a “typical” job, AmeriCorps is a launching pad to their careers in service.  For others, AmeriCorps provides the opportunity to begin a career in service after years in the private sector.  For others still, becoming an AmeriCorps member means they can use the skills gained throughout their lives by serving in their retirement.  But none are in AmeriCorps because they want some time off.

Time off indicates taking it easy.  As I’ve said before, there’s nothing easy about this work.  Time off indicates that one joins AmeriCorps for selfish reasons.  And, while AmeriCorps members gain a tremendous amount of skills and experience while they serve for a modest living allowance, those benefits aren’t enough to make an individual serve.  Time off says that this is something you do just for a moment, before you get to your real work.  But believe me, there’s nothing about a year of service that is less than real.

Here’s my confession: I think the words we use really matter.  I think that describing AmeriCorps as time off is inaccurate and misleading.  I don’t want individuals to apply to AmeriCorps because they want to take time off; I want them to apply because they want to commit their time, energy, and skills to improving their communities.  I don’t want organizations to think that hosting an AmeriCorps member is akin to hosting a couch surfer.  I want everyone to know that, without committed individuals taking a year on for AmeriCorps, our communities are going to suffer.

I wrapped up this discussion on twitter by stating that part of service is engaging with others of different viewpoints.  So I’m really interested to hear other thoughts on this.  Would you describe AmeriCorps as a year off?  Why or why not?  How do you describe it?

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6 thoughts on “AmeriCorps: A Year Off?

  1. While I can appreciate the thought behind “a year off” I have to disagree as well. Before AmeriCorps, I had worked in both the private and nonprofit sector before and what I am doing now in my service is no less challenging than my prior work. As a VISTA, I am learning, and applying new and untapped skillsets in myself and balancing more than ever as I try to build capacity and assist others in my role. This position actually requires more effort in certain leadership areas than some of my past employment with less “monetary” benefit although the indirect benefits are greater and make it worth serving. Lastly, in my experience, myself and most of my peers are “mission kids” and definately came out to serve for the greater good of thier community, not take time off in our lives.

    1. Maureen

      Thanks for sharing, Heather! You raise a good point about your VISTA position requiring more effort in some areas than previous positions have. I think that’s probably true for many AmeriCorps members; You’re asked to stretch yourself and learn new skills so that you can “serve for the great good.” Serving in AmeriCorps takes real perseverance!

  2. We usually think of it not as a year off, but a year on! I like to think it’s somewhat generational, but many parents don’t see it as something that is a stepping stone or a networking opportunity for career goals. We think of service as vocational discernment. Personally, I learned that I didn’t want to teach pre-school for the rest of my life. I also wouldn’t be working for Catholic Volunteer Network today if I hadn’t had the experience of service. My dad’s famous line is still “I never thought a year of service would lead to a full-time job.” The career development is invaluable!

    1. Maureen

      Thanks for joining the conversation, Nikki! It sounds like serving in AmeriCorps really kick-started your career in service. By learning about your own career preferences and gaining valuable skills, you’re even better able to serve your community (through a full-time job!). Whether generational or not, I think you’re right on that we need to keep educating people about the opportunities available through taking a year on with AmeriCorps.

  3. I also agree – calling AmeriCorps a “year off” implies it’s a year spent “just volunteering” rather than working hard and gaining valuable experience and skills. As someone who quit their job to take an AmeriCorps position, I have found that I took on MORE tasks here than where I previously worked. And, dedicating a year to AmeriCorps has forced me to work extra part-time hours elsewhere to afford my bills and get creative/thrifty about buying things. I’m not complaining at all, I absolutely love it, but calling it a year off just strikes a chord with me. I know many AmeriCorps members who work harder and longer than anyone with a 9 – 5 job!

    1. Maureen

      Hi Alison,

      Thank you for your comment – and your service! I agree that many AmeriCorps members work hard and long and, as some have said, it can be one of the hardest things you’ll ever love. It certainly sounds that way for you!

      In the same light, I think it’s important that we don’t downplay traditional volunteerism. I’ve known full-time volunteer Executive Directors, direct service volunteers that dedicate hundreds of hours of service, and volunteers that help keep doors open and communities served, so let’s be as careful about phrases like “just volunteering” as we are with “a year off.”

      I’m glad you’ve so enjoyed your service, even with taking extra jobs to make it work. We need more of that energy in our communities!

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