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

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How to find and land a scholarship for graduate school

It’s back-to-school time! To help you prepare, each Tuesday over the next few weeks, we’re featuring advice on finding, applying, and paying for graduate school. You can read all of our posts in this series here. Want more information? Be sure to visit our Graduate School Resource Center and attend a free Grad School Fair near you!

In this piece, Ines Sucre, Reference/Outreach Librarian at the Foundation Center provides resources and tips for finding and landing scholarships for graduate school.

by Ines Sucre, Reference/Outreach Librarian, Foundation Center

At the Foundation Center, we tell people who are researching and applying for scholarships to think about the process as a part-time job; one they will have throughout the two, four, six, or more years of graduate education. Starting the process early, setting up a well-organized system to process scholarship search results, prepare applications or essays, and handle follow-up with funders will help make this job easier and more fruitful.

Scholarship process over your head? Follow these tips to stay organized and find great opportunities (Photo credit: JuditK, Creative Commons/Flickr)

Searching for the Right Opportunity

According to the College Board (Trends in Student Aid 2011), total graduate student aid for the 2010-2011 school year was $49.6 billion. You can find scholarship opportunities by digging into the following resources:

Government Grants and Student Loans

U.S. citizens and residents are eligible for federal and state financial aid in the form of grants and subsidized loans. The Free Application for Student Aid–or FAFSA–is required (annually) your eligibility for the following: Federal Pell Grant, Teach Grant, Military Service aid, Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, and Federal student loans. Learn more about FAFSA and government grants at: Federal Student Aid

Institutional Financial Aid

In 2010, foundations gave over $835 million to institutions of higher education and other nonprofits for scholarship funds, fellowships, and other education grants.

Colleges and universities have the means to provide financial aid packets to entering students. Find out what might be available to you by visiting the financial aid web sites of the schools you are researching and planning to apply to. Request an appointment, by phone or in person, with the financial aid office.

In addition, different departments, faculty associations, or alumni groups within a college or university may offer scholarships of their own. It isn’t always easy to find out about these, as they may not be well publicized. Start by asking a professor in the department that offers your course of study whether there is a scholarship for students in your major and, of course, the financial aid office.

Foundation and Employer Scholarships

For finding foundation scholarships, The Foundation Center’s training, databases, podcasts, and online resources can help you to streamline the work:

Getting Started

With so many opportunities, it’s important to make yourself a competitive candidate and stay organized. When you’re ready to apply, keep the following tips in mind:


  • Perseverance is key: if you don’t succeed the first application, you have a much higher chance of succeeding the next time you apply so don’t miss deadlines or don’t apply at all
  • Small scholarships are easier to obtain and are useful in attracting other funders and adding prestige to your resume.
  • Don’t ignore scholarships that are by nomination only. Ask professors, or supervisors to nominate you.
  • Create separate electronic or paper files for each scholarship, organized by deadlines.
  • Tailor each application to each funder’s specifications. To improve the focus of your responses, carefully read directory profiles and web sites (when available) to learn about the aims and goals of each funder.
  • When writing, be specific and give examples. Tell a real story related to funder’s questions. Make your writing engaging.

Following Up

  • Send a thank-you letter immediately upon receiving news of the award.
  • During the semester, write your funders, telling them how your studies and extracurricular activities are going. This will help when trying to get a renewal of the grant.
  • If you receive a rejection, send a thank-you letter anyway, thanking readers for their time. Request comments from reviewers; you may get some useful feedback.

Have questions about the process or have some resources or tips you want to share? Leave them in the comments!

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Heading to graduate school? Here are 5 tips on managing student loans

It’s back-to-school time! To help you prepare, each Tuesday over the next few weeks, we’re featuring advice on finding, applying, and paying for graduate school. Read our first post on three good reasons (and one bad reason) to go to grad school and our second post on finding the perfect graduate degree program. Want more information? Be sure to visit our Graduate School Resource Center and attend a free Grad School Fair near you!

In this piece,  student loan expert Heather Jarvis shares tips on how to manage your undergrad loans and make sense of your graduate school loans. You can also learn more by listening to our podcasts on the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program and Income Based Repayment Plan.

by Heather Jarvis

Get the help you need to understand your student loans (Photo credit: Phillip Taylor PT, Creative Commons/Flickr)

If you’re thinking of grad school, here’s what you need to know to get a grip on those student loans.

1.  Start by pulling together your student loan information.

Many of us borrowed to finance undergraduate school.  It makes sense to take an inventory of what you’ve got before starting graduate school.  That will help you decide what you can afford.  You’ll find all your federal student loans listed in the National Student Loan Data System and you can check for those pesky private student loans by pulling a free copy of your credit report from

2.  Understand when your first payment is due.

Most student loans have a six-month grace period before you have to start making payments.  In most cases, Class of 2012 grads will start paying around November or December.  If you enroll in graduate school, you can postpone your payments while you are taking at least a half-time course load using an “in-school deferment”.

Student loans only ever have one grace period.  If the six-month grace period on your undergrad loans expires before you go to grad school, payment will be expected on those loans right after you’re done with your grad program (although borrowers can typically secure a forbearance to postpone payment if necessary).  Your new grad school loans will have their own grace period.

Some undergraduate loans include an interest subsidy so that the government pays the interest during in-school deferment (for example while you are in your graduate program).  But many of us also have unsubsidized loans, and interest on those loans will keep adding up whether or not you’re in school.

Sadly, nobody can get subsidized loans for grad school anymore and interest starts to accrue straight away.  Unless you make payments as you go, your debt will be increasing the whole time you are in school.  Yikes.  Borrow as little as you can, and consider whether you can afford to pay some of all of the interest that accrues while you are in school–you’ll save yourself some big bucks!

3.  Decide whether consolidation makes sense for you.

Heads up Idealists!  Consolidation allows you to group your loans together into the Federal Direct Loan program.  That’s important because only Federal Direct loans are eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. But be careful deciding whether to consolidate Perkins loans, because they have their own cancellation provisions that would be lost upon consolidation.

Student loan borrowers can consolidate either before or after grad school, but not while you are enrolled.  The decision depends on your particular situation.  Get a sense about how consolidation might work in your circumstances using the free personalized assessment offered on GLAdvisor’s site.

4.  Choose your own repayment plan.

If you’ll be out of school beyond your grace period, you’ll need to start making payments (although you can postpone repayment while in grad school).

Choosing a repayment plan can be confusing, but if you don’t choose a repayment plan within 45 days of being notified, your loan servicer will automatically put you into a “standard” repayment plan, and that might or might not be the best plan for you.

If you need reduced monthly payments (for example during a job search), consider the income driven repayment options.  Income-Based Repayment is available now and is a good option for people with low income compared to student loan debt.  Monthly payments are based on a percentage of income so that when you don’t earn a lot, your payments are low.  You’ll need to determine which repayment options are available to you, and evaluate which of the available options provides the most benefits.

Use the Department of Education’s calculators to estimate how much you’ll pay under the different repayment plans.

5.  Know where to go with questions.

Your loan “servicer” handles the billing and administration for your loan (find out your servicer on the National Student Loan Data System).  You can get in touch with your school’s financial aid office.  Some of my favorite sites include:

  • (terrific site especially for borrowers struggling financially)
  • (comprehensive information and some really spiffy calculators)
  • GLAdvisor (student loan management and financial advice for hire; I do some consulting for them)
  • (My site!  Loads of info on Public Service Loan Forgiveness and more)


About the Author

Heather Jarvis

Former capital defense attorney and long-time public service advocate Heather Jarvis dedicates herself to helping students make informed decisions about their student loans.

Since 2005, Heather has helped more than an estimated 25,000 students understand and overcome college debt through in-person and online trainings and resources.

Want to learn more about Public Service Loan Forgiveness?  Heather provides free tools and information for student loan borrowers and the people who love them at

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How to find the perfect graduate program

It’s back-to-school time! To help you prepare, each Tuesday over the next few weeks, we’re featuring advice on finding, applying, and paying for graduate school. Read our first post on three good reasons (and one bad reason) to go to grad school. Want more information? Be sure to visit our Graduate School Resource Center and attend a free Grad School Fair near you!

In this piece, writer, program officer, and member of the Young Nonprofit Professionals of NYC Eleanor Whitney shares her experiences finding the right graduate degree program.

by Eleanor Whitney

I’ll admit it: I dreaded the process of finding a graduate program. I knew that graduate school would be an important investment in my career and myself, but the finding the right program felt like a chore. I’ve built my career working in museums and nonprofit arts organizations and saw that universities were rapidly expanding their graduate program offerings in specializations related to my field, but was unsure if that was the kind of program I wanted.

Starting my research

I began my research process informally by talking to the people I worked with about their graduate school experiences. I took careful note about their career path before, during and after they completed their degree. I asked them about their classes, classmates, opportunities and, as politely as I could, the price. From these conversations I started asking myself what I wanted out of graduate school.

I had gotten my bachelor’s degree from a small, private liberal arts college and wanted to go to a large, diverse public university as a contrast; Because I worked in the arts I did not need a specialized program that introduced me to the art world, but a program to teach me quantitative skills I could not learn on my own; I was not sure I wanted to stay working in arts nonprofits, so I wanted a degree that could apply to a wide range of fields; Finally, I could not go into debt to go to graduate school or stop working full time, because I met many people who had done so found it difficult to find another job upon completing their program and felt stifled by the loans they had taken out.

Talking with people, including friends, colleagues, and school representatives can help you make the right decision about grad school (Photo Credit: Julia S./Staff Photo)

Selecting the right program

With these criteria, choosing a program became simple. When I found Baruch College’s Master’s in Public Administration program that was designed for working students I knew I had found the program for me. It enabled me to go to school part-time and work full-time, had a focus on quantitative skills like statistics, budgeting and economics, and a diverse student population working in all types of public, nonprofit and corporate agencies.

(Want to learn more about this program? Visit Baruch and other schools at our upcoming Grad Fairs.)

It took me four years between completing my bachelor’s degree and beginning my master’s, but taking that time helped me hone in on the right program. From my experience, I wanted to offer advice about how to find a program that is the best fit for your interests and needs. Instead of pouring through overwhelming options, spend time to clarify what you want to get out of graduate school. Knowing the end result that you want can help you focus on the program that is right for you.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when you begin to research graduate programs:

  • What is your end goal? Think big and dare to imagine yourself in your dream job. What is it? What did you need to know to get there? You want to make sure that the program you choose will serve as a stepping-stone to realizing your career vision.
  • What specific skills do you want to learn? Are there skills your profession requires you to know or that you feel you need to further develop? Does the program offer classes and opportunities to learn and hone those skills? Are the classes and methods up-to-date with the latest thinking and technology? You want to make sure you invest in developing skills you will actually use.
  • What connections do you want to build? Are the professors respected experts in the field you are interested in? Will the program give you access to internship and professional networking opportunities with high-level professionals in your field of interest?
  • What specific degree does the program grant? Some graduate degrees, such as a Masters of Social Work or a Master’s in Education, prepare you to work in a specific field. Other degrees, such as a Master’s of Public Administration, are more general and give a wide range of skills that could be applicable across professions. If you decide to change jobs will your degree still be relevant? Idealist produced a series of podcasts explaining different master’s degrees to help you decide which one is right for you.
  • How much does the program cost? Graduate school is a smart long-term investment, but it can be a pricey one. When considering how much you can pay for graduate school think carefully about the cost of a program versus the benefits you will receive. Research average salaries for your field and consider how much can you reasonably expect to make once you have your degree. Will that offset the cost of paying for graduate school, especially if you need to take out loans? Also consider the cost of living where the program is located and whether you will be able to have a full or part time job while you are in school.

Spend some time reflecting on these questions and make a note of your answers. When you are clear on the skills you need to learn, the professionals you want to work with, the type of degree you want and your price range you will have a great list of criteria by which you can evaluate graduate programs and find the right fit for you.

Eleanor C. Whitney is a writer, arts administrator and musician living in Brooklyn, New York. She currently is a Program Officer at the New York Foundation for the Arts and is the author of the forthcoming book Grow: How to Take Your Do It Yourself Project and Passion to the Next Level and Quit Your Job, which will be released in the spring of 2013 on Cantankerous Titles.

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Three good reasons to go to graduate school (and one very bad reason)

It’s back-to-school time! To help you prepare, each Tuesday over the next few weeks, we’re featuring advice on finding, applying, and paying for graduate school. Want more information? Be sure to visit our Graduate School Resource Center and attend a free Grad School Fair near you!

Eager to go back to school? Be sure to think it through! (Photo Credit: Blue Square Thing, Creative Commons/Flickr)

With a new school year starting, many people are wondering if it’s time to consider an advanced degree. However, before you begin searching or applying, it’s important to assess your reasons for wanting to go to graduate school, as pursuing a graduate degree requires a significant investment of time and resources.

Among the best reasons to go to graduate school are:

  • It is necessary for your desired professional field such as healthcare, law, teaching, and social work to name a few
  • It can improve your career by increasing your responsibility and/or income earning potential
  • It can enhance your professional prospects, whether you are switching careers or simply want greater flexibility and options

Because of the investment required, we also want to highlight a potentially bad reason to go to graduate school: you’re avoiding a problem. Whether the problem is professional (you can’t find a job or don’t like the one you have) or personal (you don’t know what to do with your life or are facing financial difficulties), the amount of money and time required to finish graduate school will likely exacerbate these problems or lead you to make hasty decisions.

Are you considering grad school? Tell us what you think!

Still wondering if grad school is for you? Attend a free Idealist Grad Fair! We’re visiting 17 cities across the U.S. this fall.

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