Each year on Martin Luther King Jr Day, people across the country volunteer in their communities to celebrate Dr. King’s legacy of service. But what do you do after the day is over?
There are tons of fellowships and programs to help you get more involved in your community while pursuing a social-impact career, but how do you find these opportunities? What challenges might you face in your journey? To get a better sense of what it looks like to cultivate a public-service career, we asked Ryan Wilcox, an AmeriCorps Alum and Mentoring Specialist for Whetstone Boys Ranch, to share his experiences.
By Ryan Wilcox
My desire to serve others has always been driven by my faith. In high school, I went on several mission trips with my church, including to Rio, Bravo, Mexico—where I was part of a work team that built a cinder block house for a family. These mission trips were my first experience with true poverty. Later, in college, I served as camp counselor at a camp for teenagers with epilepsy. I credit these initial experiences with shaping my passion for missions and service I hold today.
After graduation, I was looking for a job in the non-profit industry. Like many recent graduates, I struggled to find a job right away. After an extended search, I investigated public service programs, and AmeriCorps stood out to me. AmeriCorps offered much of what I was looking for: a 9-month to 12-month commitment; an opportunity to leverage my Advertising/Public Relations degree; and potential placement in my community. I chose to serve as an AmeriCorps VISTA, a program that requires a 12-month commitment, and focuses on fighting poverty by building the capacity of the host non-profits.
Gaining life-long skills
During my 12 months as a VISTA, I served with Cornerstone Assistance Network, a non-profit that works with people below the poverty line, in danger of becoming homeless. As a VISTA, my primary focus was communications and outreach: I helped establish and manage Cornerstone’s social media presence, and was a key member of Cornerstone’s website development team. In addition, I worked to manage and recruit volunteers, attending recruitment fairs at local colleges. These responsibilities helped me develop skills in managing people, building relationships and establishing goals. As a mentor, I use these skills to encourage the boys at Whetstone to grow.
I also learned, inevitably, how to live on a tight budget. I received a small stipend, at the time about $800/month. My VISTA position did not offer housing, but it was close enough to my home that I was able to live with my parents during my service year. I deferred my student loans and elected to receive the Eli Segal Education Award at the end of my term, instead of a cash payment. As a recent graduate, I had student loans, so I appreciated the help!
Coping with challenges
While I learned a great deal in AmeriCorps, some challenges did arise, primarily with transitioning out of the program. I wasn’t prepared for the end of my term, and did a poor job of planning my exit. I didn’t begin job searching seriously until it was too late. As a result, the end of my service arrived, and I didn’t have any prospects for full-time employment.
After leaving AmeriCorps, I took a series of part-time and contract based jobs. The experience was a lesson in perseverance, and a chance to seek guidance on my career direction. I accepted a part-time position with an after-school program. This job gave me the skills I needed to be effective in my current role. It also showed me that I have a heart for mentorship.
Tips for you
Dr. King once said, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.” I wouldn’t trade my service year for anything. I gained pride in serving my country and community. It also changed my perceptions on poverty, a big social problem facing the United States.
Are you ready to serve? Here are a few things to keep in mind, if you want to pursue AmeriCorps, or any public-service program.
- Figure out what matters most: Do you want to travel outside of the country? Do you need to make a certain amount of money? Are there skills you want to develop? The answers to these questions will determine what public service program is right for you. For example, while I chose AmeriCorps, I also looked at the Peace Corps. I knew I wanted to stay close to home and commit for one year, instead traveling abroad for two years.
- Do your research: It becomes easier to find programs to get involved in once you know what you need. I attended a Peace Corps information session before deciding that AmeriCorps was the better choice for me.
- Plan ahead: AmeriCorps provides resources to help with your transition. However, I’d advise you to begin to plan for life after AmeriCorps early in the service year. This applies to both graduate school research and job searching. If the end of your service year arrives, and you don’t have a job or graduate school offer, consider serving another term.