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?