According to a national survey that interviewed 752 college graduates (aged 24-27) across the country, twenty-somethings nowadays transition into adulthood in one of three ways—they’re either Sprinters, Wanderers, or Stragglers:
Note: the survey did not take family wealth or income into account, so some of these “Sprinters” could arguably have other advantages.
While we expect most graduates to find their way in life after college, Sprinters make up only about one-third of today’s graduates. And despite our current low unemployment rate, only a third of college graduates believe they will leave college with the skills they need to succeed in the workplace. As for me, I left college more unclear about my future than ever, and majoring in Economics, Sustainability & Society—a subject with no direct career path—didn’t help me narrow my focus one bit.
So, I was one of those two-thirds of graduates. But what I’ve found out so far in my career journey, is that regardless of the stigma that young professionals should follow the herd, and rush off into the professional world—there is more than one pathway to success after college. And for that reason, I decided to take a gap year before I went full-steam-ahead into my professional career.
Why I Chose AmeriCorps VISTA
AmeriCorps is often thought of as the internal Peace Corps for the US, where volunteers work in a broad spectrum of public service sectors including community development, children and youth, education, environment, health, homelessness, housing, hunger, and eldercare. Since the AmeriCorps VISTA program offers a temporary position within nonprofit and public sector spaces, this opportunity was very appealing to me during my post-college transition.
For VISTA, service terms are only 1 year, and during that year your student loans can be deferred. Once you've completed your year of service, you receive 1 year of non-competitive eligibility for employment in the federal government, as well as an education award that can go towards a graduate degree or help repay a decent-sized chunk of your student loans.
The only catch for me was, like the Peace Corps, your Americorps VISTA living allowance is based on the poverty rates for a single individual living in your geographic area. So, as someone who has had the privilege to live above the poverty level my entire life, I knew that if I was going to follow through with completing the entire year of service, it would have to be somewhere in the US that had many free activities to do outside of work. For me, that meant living in the Rocky Mountain West. More specifically, in the state of Colorado.
I was very strategic about where I wanted to serve. And luckily, Community Builders (CB) nonprofit presented the perfect opportunity for me to get my feet wet in strategic communications and digital media. But, before I decided to move across the country, I did what most people do when making big life decisions - I made a pros and cons list.
Moving to Glenwood Springs, CO & doing VISTA: Pros and Cons
- Loans deferred/education award
- Get to work in sustainable development AND communications/PR
- Location. Close to outdoor activities, National parks, etc.
- Non Competitive Eligibility (NCE)
- Only 1 year
- Networking in that part of the country
- Job opportunities afterwards
- No more living at home
- Own space
- Personal development/maturity
- Living below poverty level
- Few minorities in the small town
- Cold and long winters
- Being financially responsible
- 3 day drive to get there
- Have to get snow/winter tires or just invest in a new car
Clearly the pros outweighed the cons, and a year later, these benefits don’t even begin to scratch the surface of what I actually gained from this experience. For starters, I obtained valuable professional experience in digital media and strategic communications—and ended up thriving in it.
When I first joined Community Builders, there was no one doing social media, or strategic communications work, except for me and our Communications Director (who was hired 2 months before)—so, we were both extremely new to the organization. Since then, I have engaged in a wide array of communications capacity building activities. VISTA life is, for the most part, very cohesive to typical #nonprofitlife, so I have worn many hats and was tasked with a wide array of priorities over the past year.
For example, I managed and crafted social media content, pitched, interviewed and wrote stories for our website’s Insights page, and contributed to a comprehensive brand and website redesign. I also interviewed nationally-renowned leaders, such as Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler (to name a few). From collaborating on all aspects of CB’s digital content and social media planning, to facilitating and documenting their Brownfields redevelopment workshop in Silverton, Colorado. The thing that I am most proud of after working for CB, is being able to learn, grow and connect with a progressive team of professionals, while contributing my voice and perspective to a robust nonprofit organization.
My advice for future VISTA’s
VISTA is not for everybody—and it’s built that way. Being able to resource, make and sustain connections with people in your community is vital—not only for completing your year of service, but thriving in your professional career after. I have benefitted so much from knowing that I wanted to gain digital media experience while also working within nonprofit spaces. Now, going forward into my next job, I have a larger range of both hard and soft skills, quantitative ways to talk about my achievements, and confidence in client-facing roles.
Overall, this year has opened doors for me in ways that I had never thought were possible. I have been able to grow and develop my skills in such a way, that following my year of service, I am working as an independent contractor, with a client list that is growing by the day. This goes to show that for Wanderers and Stragglers like me, taking your time to figure things out, can benefit your career journey in monumental ways. Even the Harvard Business Review, found that college graduates who took a gap year through a rapidly expanding programs, including AmeriCorps, BridgeEDU, and Global Citizen Year, reported that they were more comfortable with risk and more resilient in their professional journey.
With that being the case, if it’s right for you, slow down the conveyor belt from college into the professional world, and take the time to figure out what is best for you. I can happily say that by doing a year of service as an AmeriCorps VISTA, I was able to more fully consider my career options, brush up on my skills, and pinpoint what truly interests me. At the end of the day, if it’s a good match for you, a gap year can be one of your best years yet.