What Next?: Reflections of a Graduating VISTA

“With every door that closes, another falls off its hinges.”

I’ve been watching my VISTA door close slowly for the last couple of months. The other door hasn’t yet fallen off its hinges.

There’s a lot of ‘wait and see’ in my life. My partner in crime and roommate just graduated from an engineering program and has been applying to jobs like crazy. Jobs in faraway and tumultuous places like Arizona. He has had several interviews but no offer.

It’s an anxiety inducing situation for me, the planner, the organizer, the coordinator. In a perfect world, I’d have something lined up. But in this imperfect world, I have 2+ years experience, a network, references, savings, good health, and parents that will take me in if I can’t even get a coffee shop job.

I’ve held back on applying for a lot of positions, partly because there aren’t a ton of jobs that fit Continue reading

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Really? Another year?: Committing to Another Term of Service

This post was contributed by Kate Borman who is currently serving her second AmeriCorps VISTA term with ThreeSixty Journalism, a youth journalism program based at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN.

Most people are shocked to hear that I chose to serve a second term as an AmeriCorps VISTA member. While the decision to serve an additional year may not have been the easiest choice (thoughts of actually receiving an income prodded my mind constantly) it was equally responsible and wise. Sure the dwindling job market and suffering economy played a tremendous role in my decision – especially after several job interviews resulting in a job offered to someone who had three times my experience. But I made my decision based on richer reasons that have little to do with money.

  1. Long-term investment. Serving a second year means an additional education award, which means I can either use it for future school or to pay off loans. A year or two of service partially funds at least four years of school. Not to even mention the loan forbearance and paid interest. Talk about a steady ROI for such a short period of time.
  2. Professional development opportunities. What other job do you know that allots each of its employees at least $150 in training opportunities before they have even established a year at the organization? Very few to none. AmeriCorps VISTA encourages all of its members to seek out professional development opportunities and even pays for us to do so.
  3. Passion for the work. I consider myself lucky to serve with AmeriCorps simply because I love working with social service organizations and intend to stay in this field of work in the future. By committing to a second term with a different nonprofit, I am widening my perspectives about the operational and organizational structure of nonprofits.
  4. Career building and networking. Since I intend to continue working in nonprofits after my term of service, I am seeking out every opportunity to network and build my career. I was just getting my feet wet and establishing my position in my first term. Now I consciously network and build relationships with other professionals as an effort to best position and market myself for the future. Also, if anything, serving two terms with AmeriCorps only increases my chances as being taken seriously as a devoted nonprofit employee.
  5. Proving myself wrong. My first year of service is what many call a character-building year. For the most part, I did not enjoy my year much, and often felt the VISTAs in my office were being used as cheap labor. I figured this could not possibly be the case for all organizations, and was determined to prove myself wrong by making my second term much better than the first.

I understand that most do not choose to serve a second term for many reasons. However, even on my worst days, I am glad I took the plunge again. On those days, I remind myself that a year is a short commitment and, if anything, this is a huge learning experience from which I will walk away as a stronger, more educated and informed citizen.

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For more related articles, see also:

Quitting Early? Some Dos, Don’ts, and To-Dos

You haven’t really participated in a term of service until you one day think to yourself, “You know, I could just quit. I could make more money at Subway, plus get free sandwiches and “burnt” cookies. What am I doing with my life?!”

I can think back to conversations with my dad when I first started. He told me that it’d be smart to keep looking for “real” jobs while in AmeriCorps VISTA and not to worry about ending my term early. He said it’d make sense to take another offer, economically, since anything else would likely pay more than $210/week.

I reminded him that I’d be forfeiting the $4725 education stipend and the forbearance benefit, and that my healthcare at a new place might not be as good as the VISTA benefits. I also reminded him that it doesn’t look good to only have worked at an organization for a few months, not to mention those few months were my only post-degree experience.

So I never applied for jobs while a VISTA with the intention to end my term early.  I’ve certainly been tempted and browsed open positions.  But I know others who have applied for jobs, and still others who have left their term of service early for another situation.

I don’t know how many service corps participants leave early or try to leave early, but I do know there are many reasons given for doing it or trying to end early:

  • The stipend is too little for me and my family.
  • I don’t have enough to do/I don’t feel like I’m making a difference/I don’t agree with my program/I don’t get along with my supervisor.
  • A family member (or self) has a medical emergency/condition that prevents me from working.
  • I was on an acceptance waitlist and just got accepted to grad school.
  • I have no real interest in doing anything related to this in the future, I took the job as a stepping-stone because the market was awful.
  • The way the site the position was presented, there was lots of work to do, but I completed everything within the first (insert period of time).
  • I thought I could have a part-time job or go to school while doing the term of service, but that’s not true according to my program’s guidelines (like AmeriCorps VISTA, or NCCC).

Some can be solved, others are not as flexible; some could’ve been forseen, and others emerge after time.

If you do choose to look for other jobs, please please please be professional (yes, I have seen most of these happen):

  • Don’t apply for open positions at your site or host organization.
  • Don’t use your site’s/organization’s fax/email/phones to communicate with potential future employers, send out resumes, and complete applications.
  • Don’t apply for other jobs while at your site, using your site’s computer, on your site’s time.
  • Don’t talk to other corps members or staff about applying for other jobs.
  • You get 10 sick/10 vacation days if you’re a VISTA (you get them in other programs too). Use these for interviews instead of coming in dressed differently than normal.

 

Thinking of leaving? Applying for other jobs?

See if there are things you can be doing differently to make the current service experience a better one. Meet with your project supervisor or manager. If that doesn’t leave you happy, meet with your site supervisor. Still not happy? Meet with your service corps team leader or a staff member at the organization that placed you (the Corporation for National and Community Service state office, for example, or your specific service corps). Be open to hearing others’ observations about yourself. You may have to face some hard truths about your own work style and readiness for the workplace.

Re-evaluate your plan for what you want out of your term of service. Re-evaluate whether you are taking care of yourself or burning yourself out. Take time off to have a life, re-connect with hobbies, friends, and family. You may just be stressed out.

Most importantly, if you choose to leave don’t do it in a bad way. Don’t burn your bridges. If you choose not to leave, don’t think you’ll stick it out but make everyone else around you as miserable as you are. You may not consciously think to make everyone around you painfully aware of your unhappiness, but that’s how it comes off.   It’s hard to pretend you’re happy. But it’s also hard to make these decisions on your own and without first talking to a trusted non-work friend or adviser, and then your supervisor.

I also found this post from March on the Change.org site, which tries to filter people out to begin with.

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Service Corps to Social Impact Career — a free career transitions guide from Idealist for service corps participants — offers specific career-related advice for people who who have terminated their term of service early, or who are considering it, including how to talk about early termination in a future job application (see Part Two).

The same book also offers basic work-related skills to build during your term, that might save you from needing to terminate early (see Part One).

Lutheran Volunteer Corps: Living and Serving in Community

Colleen O'Connor, Lutheran Volunteer

Colleen O'Connor, Lutheran Volunteer

An interview with Colleen O’Connor, an exiting Lutheran Volunteer in St. Paul, MN.

I wanted to get a perspective from a current service participant who is preparing to move on in life, as the term of service wraps up. And I wanted to get the perspective on a non-AmeriCorps program, since there are so many!

Tell me about your program – Lutheran Volunteer Corps (LVC). How is it different from AmeriCorps or Peace Corps? Why did you choose it?

What makes LVC different from many AmeriCorps programs is that LVC is meant to be a holistic, whole-life program. LVC isn’t just about our job; it encompasses the rest of our lives, as well. I live with other volunteers in an intentional community, participate in retreats and social events, and am asked to explore social justice, community, spirituality, and simplicity. In some ways LVC is definitely more restrictive because I can’t always do whatever I want with my out-of-work life.

I am asked to spend weekly time with my housemates, attend trainings and retreats, and not have an outside job or class for credit. But this is also why I chose LVC, because I wanted to live in community and really get everything possible out of this experience.

There are other similar programs (such as Jesuit Volunteer Corps and Mennonite Volunteer Service), but LVC is one of only two such programs in the Twin Cities, and I knew I wanted to be here. The other (the St. Continue reading

Mistakes I’ve Made, Lessons I’ve Learned…Wisdom from a Second-Year VISTA

Marissa Pherson, AmeriCorps VISTA

Marissa Pherson, AmeriCorps VISTA

A second-year VISTA and new blogger shares her thoughts with new members of her team.

Over-communicate with everyone! In the beginning, I didn’t communicate enough with off-site program staff. They’re super busy and may not be easy to get in touch with, but be persistent and do your part.

Keep track of names, contact info and the type of contact. Another way to think of this is: Imagine on your way home from work one night you get hit by a bus and are in a coma (god forbid). The world continues to go on without you – whoever has to take over for you needs to have something to go on. Can they figure out your mess of notes?

On this note, start with the end in sight. What about the VISTA that replaces you eventually?  Do you want to have to write a procedures handbook to pass on to them during your last week as a VISTA Continue reading