Tips for Corps Staff: Beef up Your Own Network

During their term, corps members will look to staff of their service corps for training, coaching and guidance. They may also want to rely on their networks.

This post is for program staff of service corps. (Please send a link to staff in your network if they don’t already read the blog — thanks!)

Your own networks of colleagues, host agency contacts, board of directors, volunteers, funders, and others can play a picture-18valuable role in the lives of your corps members. Your own relationships can be helpful in meeting your program’s objectives, as well as expanding your corps members’s professional networks.

While meeting new professionals will give your corps members a leg up in their career transition post-term, recognize that relationship-building happens all year long. Your active support is necessary throughout the term—not just at the end, when career transition training is inevitable.

When possible, bring in alumni and community leaders to meet your corps members and see them at work. Consider the variety of ways you can connect your corps members with alumni and other community leaders:

  • Early-term gathering introducing current corps members with alumni still in the area
  • Panel discussions on grad school or professional paths featuring your colleagues with relevant experience
  • Informal reception bringing your board together with current and former corps members
  • Skill-building workshops facilitated by the experts in your network
  • Community service projects, led by corps members, bringing together community leaders, alumni, and others
  • Graduation event that allows corps members to mingle with the parents of other corps members and host agency staff
  • Opportunities throughout the term for your corps members to connect with each other, and participants in other corps throughout the region

If your corps does not yet have an organized alumni group, consider establishing one (it can pay off financially, as you probably already know). If you do have a formal or informal alumni network, make sure your corps members know about it throughout the term of service. Some alumni programs have a structured mentoring program that match alums with current members—that is more challenging for smaller programs, but it is something to think about.

Share your knowledge of professional associations that corps members can connect with for the health of their projects and their own professional development, as well as for their career transition. If you have the time to make inroads to any of these groups yourself (i.e. setting up a discounted membership for national service participants), your corps members will thank you.

Continually seek new contacts for yourself, keeping in mind the breadth of needs of your own professional growth, your program, and your current and future corps members.

Develop ties to your local college career centers and look to career staff for support for your corps members seeking specific job search skills.

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Tips for Service Corps Parents

Parents tend to vary in their feelings when their child takes part in a term of service—from excited and supportive to suspicious and concerned. Wherever you fit on the spectrum, here are some words of wisdom to keep in mind during and after your child’s term.

You may feel that by volunteering full-time for a year, your child is floundering. The truth is, if you have raised a thoughtful child who is passionate about making the world a better place, they are going to need some time to figure out how and where to do that. Unlike so many career paths, the path to social change is relatively undefined.

For starters, a term of service experience offers many benefits to the community and to your child—for more on this, read Why Service? If your kid is thinking of signing up for a second term, read Why Service? a second time.

What your child needs from you:

Protect them from the Peer Pressure You May Feel

  • When your peers brag about the material achievements of their kids, don’t panic. Surely you can find other things to brag about—namely, what your child has single-handedly achieved to end poverty, educate youth, build community bridges, etc. Hopefully your child is keeping track, so you can ask them for the details. If you really want to show your kid you support them, brag about them in their presence. Let them blush and protest, but let them hear you.
  • Learn to explain their program in a sentence or two. It may help to say, “It’s similar to Peace Corps but…” because most people have heard of it, have some general understanding that Peace Corps is a legitimate volunteer organization, and that the people who participate are not to be mocked.


After the term ends, be patient and helpful about their career transition

  • First, recognize that when your kid’s term ends, they may be processing what they experienced and what they saw—they may need time to decompress emotionally. You can play an important role by listening to them and reflecting back what they say, non-judgmentally—no use getting in an argument about public policy at this point. They just want to be heard.
  • The first thing you may want to know is when they will get a “real” job. When speaking of their career transition, it’s so important to stay positive and helpful, and keep your own anxiety out of that discussion.
  • That all said, set clear boundaries if you have limits around what kind of financial support you are willing to offer them moving forward. If you are firm, you will be more patient with the choices they make because you know (and they know) that they will not be living off your income longer than you’d like.
  • If your child’s moving back in with you, establish clear rent payment expectations and also the time-frame for when they need to be out on their own again.

The best thing you can do, for yourself, is get educated about your kid’s program and about service in general. Talk to parents of other former corps members and find out how the term affected their lives and careers. Find out what financial and educational benefits your child’s program offers. If your kid has a work plan or position description, it may help to look at it, to realize the responsibilities they have been tackling.

Just like when they learned to tie a shoe or ride a bike, your child must now practice new life and career-transition skills. And just like then, they need you to be there to support them, cheer them on, and get so excited for them when they succeed.

Since my mom is reading this, I will add, thanks, Mom, for always being my cheerleader. I think I mostly turned out all right.

TFA Alum Michelle Rhee Explained, in the WaPo

Teach For America‘s most controversial alum Michelle Rhee has garnered media attention for her iconoclastic, unbureacratic ways as the Washington, DC, chancellor of public schools. The Washington Post published a column by Jay Mathews today tracing Rhee’s basic philosophies about what works and doesn’t work in schools back to her time as a TFA Corps member in Baltimore.

“‘It was a zoo, every day,’ she recalled. Thirty-six children, all poor, suffered under a novice who had no idea what to do. But within months, for Rhee and other influential educators in her age group, the situation changed. She vowed not “to let 8-year-olds run me out of town….

“She found unconventional but effective ways to teach reading and math….Students became calm and engaged. Test scores soared. She kept one group with her for second and third grade. She was convinced that her students, despite their problems, ‘were the most talented kids ever.'”

But Rhee couldn’t teach them forever. According to Mathews, Rhee explained: “‘All of those kids would go on to other teachers and totally lose everything because those teachers were’ lousy. (Rhee used an earthier adjective.)”

The experience of working against convention to get those kids to succeed — and then the crushing disappointment of watching them go on to fail — shaped Rhee’s outlook and mission running DC’s public schools.

Teach For America, the nation’s most famous and elite education service corps, strives to eliminate educational inequities by placing graduates of top universities for two years in critical needs school districts throughout the United States. The program doesn’t aim to develop the teacher work force or address teacher shortages so much as to make it possible for all children to achieve in school, no matter where they are born, or under what circumstances.

It makes sense that Rhee works outside conventions. The two-year program trains its Corps members somewhat differently from a traditional academic program for teacher preparation. Because Corps members receive a couple months of training before becoming full-time teachers for the first time, their training tends to be very concrete, focusing on assessment, planning, and instruction, rather than emphasizing philosophy and content that are detached from the classroom application.

Hired through school district’s alternative certification programs, many Corps members earn certification through credits they earn through out their two years.

Corps members earn a starting salary for teachers in their district; benefits such as student loan deferment and the Eli Segal Education Award come through a partnership with AmeriCorps.

About a third of TFA alums go on to pursue careers in education. Most go on to leadership roles in other fields and sectors, informed by their years in the classroom. (Read about the impact of TFA Corps members and alumni. Read more about TFA’s career transitions support.) TFA has established partnerships with graduate schools who offer scholarships, application fee waivers, admission deferments and other benefits to TFA alums.

In the past year, applications to Teach For America (TFA) soared to over 25,000, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy earlier in the year, while only 6,200 TFA Corps members served last year.

That’s a lot of applicants who are turned away.

Many of these tens of thousands of applicants are drawn to Teach For America’s mission. Other applicants may be drawn to service more generally, and have applied to TFA because it’s hands-down one of the most prestigious, best-known, and best-funded AmeriCorps programs. Other applicants still may be attracted to the honor of serving with such an elite Corps of young people.

This week The New Service blog is going to look at a few other education service corps, including Chicago’s Inner City Teaching Corps and the Mississippi Teacher Corps. While many service corps programs have application due dates in the spring for a fall start date, most education service corps have deadlines throughout the winter and start in the summer.

For graduating college seniors interested in applying to TFA this fall, note that the second for four deadlines is coming up Nov. 7. Read more about TFA admissions.

TFA has been a cosponsor of our Idealist.org graduate admissions fairs for years and this fall financially sponsored two of our grad fairs, including the upcoming event in Atlanta, Nov. 3.

Columnist Jay Mathews hosted a chat online about the column on Michelle Rhee.

Tuesday 10/28, Eli Lilly and Company and Teach For America announced a new networking partnership in Indianapolis that aims to strengthen the TFA Corps members as well as the students they teach.

Career Tip, Document Your Service!

Saving facts and artifacts to share with hiring managers and grad admissions

Among the most important things you can do during your term of service is to keep records of your accomplishments now to share later, during job and admissions applications.

By “records” I mean everything from numbers to writing samples to screen shots of web sites you helped design to photographs of you or your clients in action.

The Facts of Your Service: Numbers

At the very least, keep track of your numbers. What the numbers are will depend on your type of service. Hours of training is a common one.

If you are a teacher, tutor, after-school coordinator, or trainer, keep track of numbers of students or participants; increase in grades and test scores from baseline assessments at the start of year; number of classroom volunteers you recruited and managed, etc.

If you are a project developer, keep track of dollars you raised, community partnerships you developed, clients your program served, meetings you facilitated, volunteers you recruited and managed, etc.

A great way to measure the impact of your service is not only to count your direct clients, but also the indirect clients of your service. Two examples: if you are an AmeriCorps member working with adult learners of English, look at the help you’ve offered the adults, as well as the benefit to their children, and the community. If you are an AmeriCorps*VISTA developing a volunteer program, count your volunteers, as well as the impact of their service.

When you are ready to transition, use at least some of the numbers in your resume and in anecdotes about the impact of your work! Numbers help a hiring manager or admissions committee put your resume into context and understand the impact of your work.

(See these chapters from the Idealist.org Guide to Nonprofit Careers about preparing your resume and for the job interview.)

The Artifacts of Your Service: Portfolios

One way to present the artifacts of your service is to create a portfolio — similar to a professional scrapbook — of your service term, with sections for each skill set you have built or employed.

The portfolio can start off with your position description and/or work plan, your resume, your Description of Service (for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers), constructive performance evaluations, letters of recommendation, workshop evaluations, and thank-you notes or emails that describe the impact of your service from colleagues, community partners, and others.

Skill sets to include may be anything from trail and house building to grant writing, event planning, curricula development and teaching, program development, volunteer management, etc.

Mini-portfolios to leave behind

Rather than taking the whole portfolio to interviews with you, you can photocopy relevant sections and leave them behind at the interview, for the hiring manager or admissions counselor to look at in their own time.

I don’t recommend offering more than a few samples of your work, but I do recommend you wait till you are prompted to offer recommendation letters or reference contacts.

Online portfolios

Alternately, you can create an online portfolio like Beth Kanter — the guru of social media use for nonprofits — has done, through a tool like Wikispaces (public spaces are free). Include the link on your resume and cover letters with the rest of your contact information.

Online portfolios are especially useful if you’ve used multimedia to document your service. Linking to your audio or video podcast on iTunes or Youtube is easier if your portfolio is already online.

And a warning: Keep in mind that if you have designed web pages or developed web content, capturing the image of the web page through a screen shot is still the best route for documentation. Linking to the web pages is too risky. Once you have left your service site, you won’t know if your web pages will be updated, if links will have gone sour, or if your pages will have come down altogether. Because you have no control over the pages after you are gone, it’s best to preserve them visually through a screen shot rather than linking to them.

Writing samples

Writing samples are great to include in your portfolio.  A common question I get is what to use when you are asked for professional writing samples.

Depending on  your position this year, you should have a chance to collect a variety of these. Anything professional you’ve written should work — from grant proposals, brochures and newsletters, formal emails or letters, project descriptions, focus group or survey summary reports, web content, press releases, etc.

If you are in a direct-service role with few opportunities to write, try to create a reason to write tied to your service like a narrative summary of your service or a specific service project.

Hang on to your documentation

The problem many service corps alumni face is that they’ve saved all these documents on the computer at their old service site, and now that they are finished, can’t access them easily to share during the job or school search.

Save yourself the heartache by emailing documents and photographs to your personal email account, or backing them up on a thumb drive. You can also use online tools like Google Docs and Flickr to access documents and photos later on.

Returned Peace Corps Volunteers can request a photocopy of their Document of Service from Peace Corps, to be sent to them directly or to their hiring manager or graduate admissions office. (Peace Corps keeps your DOS for 60 years.)

Other reasons to document

Documenting your service is not just useful for your next steps. Keeping good records helps during your term with grant writing and reporting, monthly reporting for AmeriCorps*VISTAs, communicating with your supervisor, preparing for your mid-term or end-of-service performance evaluations, and creating public relations materials for your program.

This blog post has been adapted from a section of the forthcoming Service Corps Companion to the Idealist.org Guide to Nonprofit Careers, due out this coming spring from Idealist.org.

Building strong ties to local college career centers

Your service corps program and your Corps members can benefit from a good relationship with local college and university career services offices.

This afternoon I have the honor of working with directors of Oregon’s AmeriCorps and AmeriCorps*VISTA programs around the topic of career transitions for Corps members. One message I want to drive home is that developing ties to local career centers can help both with recruitment of new Corps members, and also helping current members with their next steps. Here are some ideas:

Getting Started: Invite career center staff from local colleges and universities for a brown bag lunch in your office to share resources and compare complementary needs. Some schools are part of a consortium that hold regular meetings; you could ask about presenting at one of these meetings. Some career centers have a counselor who focuses on public service; when you make your first call, you might ask for that person.

Be a presence (not just a flyer) on campus when it’s time to recruit: Staff tables at the school’s career fair, and let the career counselors know that you are available to speak at panel and round table discussions. Ask if there is a way to post your general and recruitment information on the career center’s website or resource library, or to staff a general information table on campus. (Idealist.org also organizes nonprofit career fairs hosted by career centers on college campuses throughout the United States.)

Be a resource on national service: Work with the career counselors to put together a panel on national service opportunities for college students. Help find current or former AmeriCorps, AmeriCorps*VISTA, and NCCC members, Jesuit Volunteers, Jewish Coalition for Service program participants, Peace Corps Volunteers, Teach For America, Public Allies, or City Year Corps members (seek people from a variety of service programs) to speak on a panel discussion, to help clarify college students’ options and understanding of the differences among the programs. Students may not understand how to apply to a program, or may be confused about the de-centralized application process for some programs. Be ready to offer guidance at least for your program!

Educate counselors about the benefits of national service: Let career counselors know that for some graduating or even gap-year students, doing a year of national service is a really good way to serve your community in a more concentrated, intense way than you may be able to through traditional, episodic volunteering. It’s also proven to be a  launching point for a public service career. Students looking for a year of work experience before going to graduate school will benefit from serving – often with a high level of autonomy, challenge, and responsibility – for an organization that doesn’t expect a long-term commitment. If they can think of the term-of-service as a fifth and/or sixth college year – during which the students serve the community, learn tuition-free, and may not have to pay student loans – the investment makes more sense. Not to mention the networking and the educational benefits!

Exchange career transitions support: As you develop relationships with career centers in your area, you might:
•    Ask if Corps members can attend resume and other workshops at the career center.
•    Arrange for college students to shadow Corps members for a day; establish a list of members who would be open to informational interviews and share it with career office contacts; invite college students on community service projects.
•    Offer for you and your Corps members to play the “employers” for mock interviews with college students – it is a great exercise for your members to be on the hiring side of an interview process.

Find more career resources for national service members on Encorps‘s Beyond the Service Year and What’s Next, and on Idealist.org through the career center, career guides, and Term-of-Service page.

This blog post has been adapted from a section of the forthcoming Service Corps Companion to the Idealist.org Guide to Nonprofit Careers, due out this coming spring from Idealist.org.