Joining a national service program after graduation? Here’s how to make the most of it

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If your plan is to participate in a national service program after you graduate, here are some tips on how to make the most of your experience from Stephanie Petrilli, Communications Director at the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits in Phoenix, where she started as an AmeriCorps*VISTA member in 2009.

Photo credit: ginnerobot, Creative Commons/Flickr
Photo credit: ginnerobot, Creative Commons/Flickr

by Stephanie Petrilli

I started as an AmeriCorps*VISTA member in 2009 with no clue of what I was doing. I spent much of my first week sneaking away to my computer to Google terms like “grant” and “webinar” because I had no idea what people were talking about. I have since spent several years in the program with a full circle view – as an AmeriCorps*VISTA member, leader, and program staff. I have seen a wide variety of projects succeed and struggle, working with dozens of members and supervisors. Below are some of my observations of why some long-term service projects flourish and others flounder.

Attitude matters

How would you want your supervisor to describe you? I sometimes hear a supervisor describe a volunteer—who I know is extremely smart and motivated—as, “Okay, but not great…kind of unmotivated…doesn’t seem like they really want to be here.”  Don’t be scared to show your supervisor that you are having fun or happy to be there. Ask questions that show you are interested in the organization and its work. For some people this isn’t natural, so make a point of actually practicing this.

Have a good sense of what you want to do

I read an article the other day that said 70% of our development is through job assignments. However, in order to make the most of your time at work, you need to be clear about what you want to learn and accomplish. Do you want to strengthen your writing skills? Manage projects better? Grow your network? Set your sights on what you can realistically gain from your program and keep track of your progress.

Be OK with indirect service

It’s great to volunteer and connect with a “real person” you have helped, but hopefully, you’re comfortable with the other side of social change: indirect service. Social change takes more than addressing direct needs, so if you are working in capacity building—for example, fundraising, volunteer recruitment, or communications—know that you are making a difference.

Learn how to navigate the ups-and-downs of a workplace

Every workplace (and small, understaffed nonprofits are certainly no exception) has its dysfunction. There was drama before you got there, and there will be drama after you leave. You might have to deal with difficult people, burnt out supervisors, incompetency, egos, depressing realities of poverty, lack of resources…and much more. I am convinced that learning how to communicate and deal with others is one of the greatest skills you will need in virtually any job. Recognize opportunities to practice this skill.

Take care of yourself

There are going to be bad days (hopefully just sprinkled throughout many good ones), and it’s important to find a way to keep your sanity. Find ways outside of work to release your stress, so that it doesn’t consume you.

Embrace your personal growth as well as your professional growth

You might move to a new city where you don’t know anyone, subsist on a lower-than-minimum wage income, live in a creative environment that involves an air mattress or couch cushions, endure confused looks by basically anybody who asks what you do, and face the judging glances when you use food stamps. And you will be smarter and stronger because of it.

There’s no doubt that national service programs like AmeriCorps can have their challenges. But choosing to stick with it can reap enumerable benefits not only for the community and nonprofit, but for your own career.

Petrilli Photo

Stephanie Petrilli is the Communications Director at the Alliance of Arizona Nonprofits in Phoenix, where she started as an AmeriCorps*VISTA member in 2009. She enjoys writing about her own experiences navigating a career in the nonprofit sector. Follow her on Twitter at @spetril1.



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    • Asia Ali
    • June 3, 2013

    Thanks for this article! I’m a 2013-14 College Completion Coach for College Bound and I’m relocating from Alabama to St. Louis to do something I Love to do, serve and help others. Wish Me Luck!!!

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