Hopes dashed: the downside of AmeriCorps’ VISTA program

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Ox Fotheringham

For many recent college graduates like me, the endless cycle of job applications and lack of experience can engulf you in an overwhelming state of depression.

You can feel desperate to crawl out of an underpaid black hole. At a certain point, any opportunity sounds promising. An option you’re likely to encounter is AmeriCorps. This program touts itself as an opportunity to serve your community.

I chose AmeriCorps, moved by its outreach. But instead of serving my community, I experienced one of the hardest, most infuriating, and simply awful years of my life — and an experience that no human being should have to endure. I found it to be a program that seeks to provide benefits at the expense of its recruits.

My experience is not an anomaly. If you search online about the AmeriCorps program I was part of, VISTA, you will see numerous posts along these lines: “Should I quit before I even get started?” or “I’m almost done with service but I just can’t take it” or “Leaving AmeriCorps 7 weeks early without notice.”

These posts, among many others on the internet, are riddled with stories about over- or under-worked members, exploitative job duties, and abusive bosses.

VISTA was the part of AmeriCorps I joined. The acronym stands for Volunteers in Service to America, and the program is focused on behind-the-scenes work for nonprofit organizations.

VISTA is specifically designed to employ conscientious people to work on the “War on Poverty,” within their respective communities. Its ads describe VISTA as an effort “to strengthen and supplement efforts in low-income communities to eliminate and alleviate poverty by engaging volunteers from all walks of life, all geographical areas, and all age groups.”

You know what you’re getting into when you take a position with AmeriCorps: one with little pay and a focus on service. The program intentionally avoids the word “employ” and calls its workers “volunteers,” promising substantial benefits that seemingly outweigh AmeriCorps’ known lack of a livable wage. Among those are the promise of an education award, or a stipend, at the end of your service. To help its “volunteers” survive, the program began a few years ago allowing its “volunteers” to take on second jobs to survive.

My wariness started almost as soon as the job began. For starters, I was thrown into a position that I had no experience for: I was hired to be an accountant after receiving an English and Spanish degree.

As time passed, my outlook grew darker. I was confused, lost, and alone most days at my desk. My mental capacity grew thin as I had difficult requirements to obtain these promised benefits. I had obligations that were never communicated to me, but I was supposed to put everything on the line for AmeriCorps with a smiling face.

I tried to accomplish the tasks that were asked of me, but without basic accounting knowledge, I was frequently overwhelmed. Everything I did was wrong, and I heard about it.

My role was not communicated to me from the beginning. The job description that I was provided had no mention of accounting. Not only that, but VISTAs are not allowed to take on positions of full-time staff.

I confided in my supervisors, including the director of the organization and my direct support at the organization that oversaw the VISTA program at Brown University. At the nonprofit organization, I was met with backlash. They said I wasn’t trying hard enough and that I wasn’t listening. I communicated the details of my position and that I felt overwhelmed with my supervisor at Brown University countless times. They simply noted that I needed more training, which I never received.

Eventually, I became frustrated. Angry and fed up, I started snapping back, instead of silently sitting through the criticisms of my work. One day, the director yelled at me, and I began to cry. My co-workers could hear it all from an entirely separate room. The “conversation” was that loud.

I switched sites after hours of reliving this trauma and exruciating conversations between the director and myself. Somehow, I made it through the year. I had to wait until my service ended to write this, because you can’t criticize AmeriCorps while in service. The past 365 days felt like 365 years.

Now, I’m employed full-time doing something I love, and AmeriCorps on my resume helped me earn this job. But I think it’s important to critique my experience, and the AmeriCorps program overall.

The temporary volunteer contract and lack of accountability for nonprofit administrators leaves skilled workers at risk of being exploited.

The online grievances show the similarities between our stories: no effective system exists to supervise the nonprofits. The “volunteer” ends up contractually stuck within a complicated bureaucracy.

Most VISTA members travel significant distances to work for these nonprofits. AmeriCorps even offers a travel and “settling-in” stipend for these instances. So there is little sense of connection between the “volunteer” and the nonprofit they’re serving.

There are simply too many VISTAs, too many nonprofits, and too many flaws, which bars an easy fix for this program.

Recruiting VISTA members within the respective communities may help establish the personal connection that is lacking from the traveling VISTA member. Then, maybe nonprofit administrators will treat VISTA members better. They’d have a higher stake in upholding their reputation among hometowners.

Ultimately, I got what I came for at AmeriCorps, which was a good-paying job after my service doing something that I love. But I am still in therapy for the trauma I experienced during my year with the program. And I am still climbing out of the debt.

What is the real cost of AmeriCorps?

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