College is a time of unbridled enthusiasm—whether you’re learning how to identify themes of magical realism in Salman Rushdie’s novels, developing the ability to create a maze using algorithms in Java, or combatting the injustices of sweatshop labor, it can be hard to turn the volume down on your passion. And really, you shouldn’t. This phase of your life is all about developing your ideals and figuring out a way to pursue what means the most to you.
So why should that stop as soon as you graduate? It turns out that it doesn’t have to. There are an increasing number of programs for idealistic graduates who are looking for ways to make a difference. AmeriCorps is one option that’s worth considering if you’re interested in working for a non-profit, school, faith-based, or community group.
There are a number of AmeriCorps opportunities throughout the country and each of them meets critical community needs in areas like education, public safety, health, and the environment. Most placements last ten months to a year, and the experience will vary depending on your hosting organization. We caught up with Lauren Hudgins who served as a Parent and Community Engagement Specialist in the SUN Program in Portland, Oregon to learn more about her year of service and what you might expect from an AmeriCorps experience.
Where and when did you participate in the AmeriCorps?
I was a Parent and Community Engagement Specialist for Marshall Campus (a federation of underserved high schools) SUN Program in outer Southeast Portland, Oregon, for the school year of 2008–2009.
What was the AmeriCorps application process like?
Since it was over five years ago, I don’t quite remember what the application process was like. I believe I heard about the position on the CNRG mailing list. I sent in a résumé and cover letter, as is typical. Maybe there was some kind of web portal I had to go to… I think there was. The first interview was over the phone. Then I interviewed at potential schools directly with the SUN coordinators. [Editor’s note: It sounds like many AmeriCorps opportunities are posted through job boards, so your best bet for finding out about them may just be to check sites like CNRG and Idealist and look up the locations and fields you’re interested in. The application process will probably vary, but you can expect online components, a phone interview, an in-person interview, and you may need to apply to the listed job first and then through AmeriCorps separately.]
What were the details of your assignment?
My job varied a lot. The consistent activity would be that I would help hand out snacks provided by the school system and help after school program teachers find their students and get them signed in. Then I would hang out with whatever teens wanted to just be in the SUN program room. The early part of my day was the variable part. I did a lot of event coordination, so that would involve sending and answering emails and calling donors.
How do you think working with AmeriCorps differs from the other options for recent grads (e.g. temping, grad school, part-time work)?
I never did temping. Grad school involved making up my mind about what I wanted as a career choice. AmeriCorps was a one-year commitment in a city I already loved and was familiar with.
How did you handle logistics like housing and transportation?
I had already lived in Portland before and was planning on moving back, so I looked for jobs there. I stayed with friends until I found housing. I biked to and from work, although we were provided with free bus passes if we wanted them.
What were your favorite aspects of your AmeriCorps experience? What were some challenges you faced?
It’s difficult to make any generalizations about AmeriCorps, since so much depends on your individual placement. In my experience, our positions working with children at underserved schools could at times be very emotionally challenging. I think it was less problematic for me since I was working with teens who had some control over their lives rather than children who were completely helpless to their circumstances. AmeriCorps in some ways seemed very separate from the position I had. This had a lot to do with being the only AmeriCorps person at my school. I fulfilled a function that was assigned to me by AmeriCorps and did receive useful training and support from my AmeriCorps team, but most every day was dependent on what my particular school needed.
Being able to commiserate with other AmeriCorps workers who were dealing with similar stresses was great for bonding, but my job was at a different school, so I didn’t see them every day. The other AmeriCorps members were not part of my daily responsibilities. We had different jobs and did them separately.
Also, most of the AmeriCorps were working with elementary or K–8 students, while I was working with high school students, so our experiences were different. High school students have very different needs than K–8 students. I think the K–8 AmeriCorps team members experienced more stress and sadder situations. We met once a month (or maybe it was more frequent than that. I can’t remember…) and talked about what we had been experiencing at work. I think it really helped the people who would otherwise be on the verge of burnout to process the sadness of working with children who were experiencing hunger, eviction, or abuse. My challenges were more along the lines of trying to convince kids to stay in school.
What advice would you give to students who are thinking about applying for AmeriCorps?
Why not? The commitment isn’t very long and unlike the Peace Corps you get to choose what you’re doing and where you’re going.
Homework time! If you’re interested in participating in AmeriCorps, you’ll want to spend a significant amount of time researching the local organization that will be hosting you. Try to speak with a few people there to learn about the working environment and challenges you might expect to encounter there.
Portrait of Lauren by Sarah Giffrow of Upswept Creative