Want more than a day of service? Consider a public-service fellowship

Each year on Martin Luther King Jr Day, people across the country volunteer in their communities to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy of service. But what do you do after the day is over?

 There are tons of fellowships and programs to help you get more involved in your community while pursuing a social-impact career, but how do you find these opportunities?  What challenges might you face in your journey? To get a better sense of what it looks like to cultivate a public-service career, we asked Ryan Wilcox, an AmeriCorps Alum and Mentoring Specialist for Whetstone Boys Ranch, to share his experiences.

By Ryan Wilcox


Photo via Ryan Wilcox

My desire to serve others has always been driven by my faith. In high school, I went on several mission trips with my church, including to Rio, Bravo, Mexico—where I was part of a work team that built a cinder block house for a family. These mission trips were my first experience with true poverty. Later, in college, I served as camp counselor at a camp for teenagers with epilepsy. I credit these initial experiences with shaping my passion for missions and service I hold today.

After graduation, I was looking for a job in the non-profit industry. Like many recent graduates, I struggled to find a job right away. After an extended search, I investigated public service programs, and AmeriCorps stood out to me. AmeriCorps offered much of what I was looking for: a 9-month to 12-month commitment; an opportunity to leverage my Advertising/Public Relations degree; and potential placement in my community. I chose to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA, a program that requires a 12-month commitment, and focuses on fighting poverty by building the capacity of the host non-profits.


Gaining life-long skills

During my 12 months as a VISTA, I served with Cornerstone Assistance Network, a non-profit that works with people below the poverty line, in danger of becoming homeless. As a VISTA, my primary focus was communications and outreach: I helped establish and manage Cornerstone’s social media presence, and was a key member of Cornerstone’s website development team. In addition, I worked to manage and recruit volunteers, attending recruitment fairs at local colleges. These responsibilities helped me develop skills in managing people, building relationships and establishing goals. As a mentor, I use these skills to encourage the boys at Whetstone to grow.

I also learned, inevitably, how to live on a tight budget. I received a small stipend, at the time about $800/month. My VISTA position did not offer housing, but it was close enough to my home that I was able to live with my parents during my service year. I deferred my student loans and elected to receive the Eli Segal Education Award at the end of my term, instead of a cash payment. As a recent graduate, I had student loans, so I appreciated the help!


Coping with challenges

While I learned a great deal in AmeriCorps, some challenges did arise, primarily with transitioning out of the program. I wasn’t prepared for the end of my term, and did a poor job of planning my exit. I didn’t begin job searching seriously until it was too late. As a result, the end of my service arrived, and I didn’t have any prospects for full-time employment.

After leaving AmeriCorps, I took a series of part-time and contract based jobs. The experience was a lesson in perseverance, and a chance to seek guidance on my career direction. I accepted a part-time position with an after-school program. This job gave me the skills I needed to be effective in my current role. It also showed me that I have a heart for mentorship.


Tips for you

Dr. King once said, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.” I wouldn’t trade my service year for anything. I gained pride in serving my country and community. It also changed my perceptions on poverty, a big social problem facing the United States.

Are you ready to serve? Here are a few things to keep in mind, if you want to pursue AmeriCorps, or any public-service program.

  1. Figure out what matters most: Do you want to travel outside of the country? Do you need to make a certain amount of money? Are there skills you want to develop? The answers to these questions will determine what public service program is right for you. For example, while I chose AmeriCorps, I also looked at the Peace Corps. I knew I wanted to stay close to home and commit for one year, instead traveling abroad for two years.
  2. Do your research: It becomes easier to find programs to get involved in once you know what you need. I attended a Peace Corps information session before deciding that AmeriCorps was the better choice for me.
  3. Plan ahead: AmeriCorps provides resources to help with your transition. However, I’d advise you to begin to plan for life after AmeriCorps early in the service year. This applies to both graduate school research and job searching. If the end of your service year arrives, and you don’t have a job or graduate school offer, consider serving another term.

Good luck!

Connect with Ryan on twitter and on his blog.

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How your AmeriCorps experience can help you in graduate school

This is the last post in our series about finding, applying, and paying for graduate school. Read all of the posts in the series.  Be sure to visit our Graduate School Resource Center and attend a free Grad School Fair near you!

In this piece, Adam Donaldson, Member Services Director at the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, reflects on how his AmeriCorps experience helped him graduate school.  Adam graduated in 2006 with a Masters in Public Policy and Nonprofit Management from Johns Hopkins University.  Prior to graduate school, Adam committed five years to volunteer service, including AmeriCorps with City Year Columbus ’99-’00, Peace Corps Uzbekistan ’01, AmeriCorps with City Year Rhode Island ’02, and Peace Corps Jamaica ’02-’04. 

By Adam Donaldson

In 2004, I began a graduate degree program in Public Policy at Johns Hopkins University by attending the prototype university-cafeteria hamburger cook-out. While dodging bees and balancing my paper plate and slippery soda can, I was introduced to faculty and my new classmates. As I went through the jitters of meeting all the new people, I discovered that not one, not two, but several students were AmeriCorps alums – myself included.

Photo credit: St. Bernard Project, Creative Commons/Flickr


Looking back, my academic experience was enriched by the presence of service alumni.  The AmeriCorps alums were uniquely prepared for graduate school because 1) they could apply research and theory readily to real-world situations and 2) they had more academic focus triggered by their service experience.  During graduate school you learn as much from your peers as the research faculty at the front of the class. In addition to the ubiquitous group exercises, your peers will share independent research and challenge you with their thinking.

I have been lucky enough to complete two terms of service in both City Year, an AmeriCorps program, and Peace Corps.  While attending graduate school, I was a Shriver Peaceworker Fellow, a service-learning program that integrates study, community service, and ethical reflection. While studying education and social policy, I was learning in real time how policies effected the high-poverty youth in the mentoring program I lead at my service placement.  I was putting new evaluation skills to work on my own program.

Meanwhile, while studying welfare reform I could learn from an AmeriCorps VISTA alum about the challenges of families with no bank or credit history.  While studying the difference between direct and block grants, I could learn from an AmeriCorps NCCC alum about the utilization of Homeland Security grants for disaster response.  You can claim that my peers’ experiences are particular to the Public Policy degree, but I would invite MBAs, engineers, and poets to share how service alumni enriched their academic program.

More and more colleges and graduate schools are looking to match the Education Award in order to attract applicants with service history. Look for these opportunities and other service programs at universities.  You will not regret it.

AmeriCorps Alums is the only national network convening the alumni of all AmeriCorps national service programs. Since 2005, AmeriCorps Alums has been an enterprise of Points of Light dedicated to building a community of experienced volunteer leaders committed to a lifetime of service.  To hear more about how fellow AmeriCorps Alums’ service experiences affected their grad school decisions, please join AmeriCorps Alums today at noon ET for their webinar on Choosing a Grad School Concentration by registering here. Learn more about AmeriCorps Alum at www.AmeriCorpsAlums.org

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Can we create one million new jobs by expanding national service?

City Year is an example of a national service program (Photo Credit: City Year, Creative Commons/Flickr)

Recently, I stumbled across the One Million Jobs petition, launched by Our Time and ServeNext, to tackle high rates of unemployment among young people (which is currently at 46%, the highest since World War II). They are asking the presidential candidates to, “Pledge to create one million new national service positions by expanding programs such as AmeriCorps, VISTA, City Year, Habitat for Humanity, Teach for America, and others so we can serve and rebuild our country now.” The thinking is that by increase these opportunities, we can provide employment, develop important skills among young people, while improving our communities.

This made me wonder: Can we create one million new jobs by expanding national service?

I asked this question in the Opportunity: What’s Working Group on LinkedIn, a special partnership between the Huffington Post and LinkedIn to spotlight how people across the country are tackling what they call a dual crisis: that 20 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed and that 3.5 million jobs are currently unfilled due to talent shortage. Here are a few of the responses:

“I am currently serving at a position through Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS), a faith-based volunteer program similar to AmeriCorps. I have found the experience helpful in defining and uncovering transferable skills, developing a list of accomplishments, and building a network.

I will also note that for 15 years up until June 2011 some BVS placements were eligible for a $5,350 education award AmeriCorps through the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). Federal budget cuts passed at that time meant CNCS could not pay the award to all affiliated community service programs. These awards often helped pay student loans or continue education once the volunteer completed their term…”

“Creating a national service would create jobs in the short term. Everyone can agree there’s a lot to do. But these would be paid for by the gov’t (read: taxes). If creating a national service would help stimulate the economy and create job IN THE LONG TERM, then it might be worth it. But I don’t see how that would happen. We need a long-term, structural change.”

“When I first saw this discussion the first thing that came to my mind was, where does the funding come from? But the more I thought about it, the more I thought given a clear, detailed plan, this could be a viable option. If this was to be a true “National Service” program, then everyone would need to buy in. That would mean major corporations sponsoring the program, (a program like this would provide them with a higher quality employee candidate pool in the future) as well as local, state and federal government buy in, (they would have the same benefit). Scholarships for outstanding service would also be a possible part of this program…”

So what do you think? An important step to reducing unemployment or do we need something else?

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From The Service to nonprofit service: Career resources for vets

By Amy Potthast.


U.S. Army 1st Lt. Anthony Buchanan gets a hug after reading to children on "Read with a Hero Day." (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Russell Kilka, Creative Commons)

In 2010, Daniel Finan separated from the Navy. He told us recently, “I was sure I was going to get stuck doing some kind of intelligence work or defense contracting because of my military background. Not what I wanted to do, at all.”

For veterans, the task of searching for a rewarding job—something in the civilian world that is as satisfying and selfless as service-to-country—has its complications.

  • Military service is more than a job — it’s a mission, it’s a challenge, it’s an identity, and it involves caring for the people you serve with. You can’t leave that kind of high-stakes job and be satisfied with just anything that pays the bills.
  • Over a million vets are unemployed, and their spouses (who move around frequently) are facing unemployment rates of 25 percent.
  • As sector switchers, vets entering the nonprofit sector must learn to translate their experiences and skills so that civilian employers get it.

After four months of searching and applying for positions he found on Idealist, Daniel landed a job at the Institute of International Education, as program manager of the International Visitor Leadership Program sponsored by the Department of State’s Educational and Cultural Affairs Division.

If you are like Daniel, hoping to transition from military missions to nonprofit missions, you may benefit from these insights:

1) Network. Your path to a satisfying public service career at home is paved with relationships. Relationships will help you figure out your new career niche, learn where to look for jobs, and familiarize yourself with the lingo and philosophies of the sector.

Resources to check out:

2) Volunteer. A great way to build relationships in the nonprofit sector is to volunteer with organizations that mean something to you. You should list your volunteer position and job duties on your resume — in line with paid positions. Search volunteer listings here on Idealist or refer to these other resources.

Resources to check out:

  • Mission Serve, a program of ServiceNation, connects vets and civilians through volunteering — often an entry point to careers in the nonprofit sector. Its blog is filled with stories of vets who have found meaning in service here at home.
  • AmeriCorps isn’t technically volunteering, but it is full-time, stipended service here at home. Opportunities exist throughout the States and Territories and service comes with an education award of about $5,000 to put towards school.

3) Lead with issue. Many sector switchers wonder, “what employer needs my skill set?” Coming from military training and service, it’s clear you have a strong set of unique skills that a nonprofit will put to good use.

But in the nonprofit sector, more important questions to ask are, what am I passionate about? What change do I want to see in the world? Consider the social or environmental issues that you are most concerned with, and find ways to work on them professionally.

Resources to check out:

Your turn to weigh in! Are you transitioning out of the Service? What secrets or success stories can you share?

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at amypotthast.com.

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Three financial aid resources for people in public service

By Amy Potthast.

If you are in a public service career and carrying—or considering—student debt, your life just got a little easier.


You'll make it through these piles! (Photo from troismarteaux on Flickr/Creative Commons

Here are three resources to help you navigate your repayment options:

1. AskHeatherJarvis.com

Heather Jarvis is a national expert on public service loan forgiveness who contributed to student debt relief policy for the House Education Committee and others in Congress. Her new site is a clearinghouse of information about managing your debt while working in a mission-based career.


2. IBRinfo.org

IBRinfo is an independent information hub about income-based student loan repayment and public service loan forgiveness – two relatively new federal programs that help student borrowers afford an education.


3. EdAward.org

For former AmeriCorps, VISTA, and NCCC members out there, check out the official CNCS website on the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award. The Education Award—around $5,000—can be used to pay back student loans and/or to pay tuition at qualifying schools.


If you’re thinking ahead about financial aid for grad school, consider these additional resources from Idealist:

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at amypotthast.com.

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Podcast: Shirley Sagawa, volunteerism visionary


Shirley Sagawa, left, spoke with Amy Potthast, right.

Want to hear insight from the “founding mother of the modern service movement”? You’re in luck: our newest podcast is up now!

For National Volunteer Week, Amy Potthast interviewed Shirley Sagawa, author of The American Way to Change: How National Service and Volunteers and Transforming America. During the first Clinton administration, Shirley drafted the legislation that created AmeriCorps and the Corporation for National Service.

In his 1995 book, How a Bill Becomes a Law, Steve Waldman compared national service—full-time stipended volunteering like AmeriCorps and VISTA—to a Swiss Army Knife, “performing numerous useful functions in one affordable package.” In today’s show, Shirley revisits the Swiss Army Knife analogy with some timely new insights that she also shares in her book.

Click here to learn more and listen to the podcast.

Kudos to our host, Amy Potthast, and to our intern Tim Johnson for his help with podcast production!

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AmeriCorps is getting things done – but for how long?

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at amypotthast.com.

As of today, it sounds like legislation that allows the U.S. federal government to fund all programs at 2010 levels will expire in a couple of weeks.


In order to continue funding programs like AmeriCorps and HeadStart, Congress must come together to pass a new budget. Soon the Senate will look to pass a budget, which must be reconciled with the one that the House of Representatives passed Feb. 18th—H.R. 1—which cut $100 billion from President Obama’s proposed budget, and effectively eliminated funding for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) among other programs.

CNCS, one target of defunding in H.R. 1, is an independent federal agency that oversees several national service programs that allow people over 18 to serve part- or full-time in their local communities.

AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps VISTA, AmeriCorps NCCC, and Senior Corps members and Foster Grandparents roll up their sleeves every day to:

  • tutor and read with our children,
  • create healthy schools and build affordable housing in our neighborhoods,
  • take care of our forests and rivers,
  • help us access health care when we find ourselves under-insured,
  • assist recent immigrants on the path to U.S. citizenship,
  • help returning Veterans transition to new careers,
  • establish volunteer programs that recruit even more people to help out in local communities,
  • and build the capacity of our organizations that are working to end poverty.

Tens of thousands of people participate in national service programs every year, earning an education award and in some cases a very modest stipend.

The point of the stipend isn’t so much to offer service corps members a wage; national service is different from employment. The point is that in most cases, full-time corps members can support themselves on their stipend. This frees up their time to devote to their communities, and keeps them from competing against unemployed people for scarce jobs.


Americorps Members, via the Grace Hill St. Louis Flickr feed

National service programs are a network of partnerships between the government and nonprofits, schools, and agencies which receive—and match—funds that put corps members to work.

Because of the partnership model, national service programs are cost effective; offer host organizations valuable, focused, energetic staffing power to start new projects and serve clients at an affordable cost; and create opportunities for people to serve in critical-needs areas in their communities.

Actions to save service

In an effort to rally support for and defend funding for national service, several pro-service organizations have formed a new coalition called Save Service. Last week Save Service, AmeriCorps Alums, and other groups organized thousands of people to participate in District Day visits. People across the country showed up in 441 local House and Senate offices to share stories of the impact of national service programs with 295 Representatives and 83 Senators (and/or their staff). Save Service is offering web tools to help service fans talk with their leaders about the importance of national service and social innovation to their communities. And news media is covering national service like it’s 2008.

Rumor has it that AmeriCorps Week will be moved a week later this year (to May 14-21). As it happens, that is a district work week for Representatives, so as people across the country are celebrating AmeriCorps they can reach out to their Representatives and invite them to see first-hand member impact.

To be fair

We are in debt nationally. Yesterday my colleague Put Barber wrote about the need to make painful changes in order to create a financially sustainable future. We need to make sacrifices.

But surely we can do that without abolishing a valuable, cost-effective, successful, and popular program that involves thousands of communities across the United States and tens of thousands of citizens.

What do you think? Are you speaking up on behalf of service programs?

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