Recently someone asked me whether doing a term of service for the AmeriCorps VISTA program was worthwhile. That question struck home with me; especially now that I am past the halfway mark in my term and the question of what I am going to do next is looming in front of me. These past months have had their ups and downs and I think my term has and will continue to play out in the following stages:
AmeriCorps VISTA is like the Peace Corps with a specific focus on poverty in the US. As part of being a VISTA, members commit to a year of service with a nonprofit organization and receive a limited living stipend. We work full-time at 40 hours a week, but our living stipend does not even equal minimum wage. The idea is that by living in poverty, VISTAs can better understand the needs and challenges experienced by the individuals we serve. There’s no better way to learn than by doing, and I’ve struggled first-hand with the obstacles faced by our community’s low-income individuals and families. I knew all of these aspects when I became a VISTA last August. But there is a difference between just knowing and actually living it. For example, renting a studio apartment in Minneapolis is about $628 but my monthly income is roughly $800. This leaves very little left for unexpected expenses such as my car breaking down, a trip to the emergency room, or a higher than average utility bill. And yet, despite all of those hardships I am still determined to successfully finish my term of service and here is the reason why.
By serving as a VISTA, I am gaining the invaluable experience of being the marketing specialist for a non-profit organization. In this role, I have been able to produce videos, do social media management and develop marketing campaigns. These are opportunities that I had been previously unable to find after college because of my limited work experience. But most importantly, I enjoy what I do, a statement that I could never truthfully admit to when I was gainfully employed by corporate America. When my term of service ends I am not sure what my next job will be, but I do feel more prepared for whatever does come next because of my VISTA experience. Furthermore, the end-of-term educational award will help to eliminate my nagging student debt. That is one of the other awesome things about being a VISTA; at the conclusion of service, VISTAs receive either the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award or a post-service stipend. Since many of us are recent college graduates, any help with our student loan debt is invaluable.
So is service as a VISTA worth it despite the financial difficulties that come with it? Yes, I do think being a VISTA is worth it. I have made the most of my experience by taking on each challenge as a new opportunity. Not only have I gained valuable insight into the lives of our community’s low-income population, but I’m also gaining important lessons in professional development. Thanks to the Phillips Family Foundation, I’ve learned about grant writing, program evaluation, integrating technology such as Google Analytics, and social media networking. I feel more confident that I can take on the world at large than I did when I first graduated from college. Even if I had to survive on Ramen noodles for a year in order to do it.
Marketing & Communication Specialist