It seems like an ideal solution to the tough economy – complete a volunteer year in a program such as AmeriCorps, City Year, Teach for America or one of the many others that offer positions, usually working at nonprofit organizations.
The truth is that a year of volunteerism after college has many benefits, but a few drawbacks, too.
Looking back on my own experiences and the experiences of friends, here’s what you can expect from a volunteer year.
Advantages of a Volunteer Year
You’ll be working — not for much money, of course, but most volunteer programs provide a stipend to cover living expenses and a little extra cash besides. Smaller nonprofits may give you more responsibility or encourage you to branch out into new areas. This is the kind of hard-won experience that looks great on a resume.
Most likely, you’ll be plugged into a network of other volunteers — many of whom will be recent graduates. This is a good way to get to know others without the built-in friendships of college. I lived with five housemates during my volunteer year, some of whom are still my good friends. We were able to connect with volunteers in other programs and explore the city together.
If you’re looking to move to a new city, your program may cover or assist with the costs of relocation. Our program provided housing; other programs help you find your own. Keep in mind that you’ll be learning this new city from the ground up — transit schedules and grocery stores before tourist spots — but you’ll have a support network and a purpose, which make navigating a new city much easier. A program like the Peace Corps that moves you to a new country adds an extra layer of challenges, with the extra orientation and support.
In addition, you can work toward something you believe in. Whether you’re in a direct service position or a job behind the scenes, your job will have a positive impact on people. My administrative work introduced me to people who shared my interests and ideals, and my friends in other volunteer positions said they learned things about the world they never would have otherwise.
Things to Think About
Obviously, your volunteer year needs to fit into your long-term financial plans. You won’t be able to save much money during the year (and many organizations discourage or even prohibit volunteers from taking outside jobs). You may be able to defer payment of your student loans, if you have them.
Several programs have extensive application processes, which can be as time-consuming as college or grad school applications. Although the pay is low, the competition may still be stiff. Line up references and prepare for multiple interviews.
While relocation may be a welcome challenge, it’s probably not a good idea to sign up for a volunteer program just because you want to move to a certain city. You may be ready for New York, for instance, but can you handle New York on $10,000 a year? Are you ready to bike or ride the bus everywhere in a city with less-than-stellar public transportation?
My housemates and I were told by past volunteers that “riding the bus builds character.” We discovered that while we enjoyed learning about our city’s free and low-cost options, we didn’t feel able to fully experience the city due to financial limitations.
Although your work will be rewarding, it will probably be difficult. Combine a physically and emotionally taxing job with the process of learning — quickly — how to live on a budget, and you have an experience well beyond your pay grade. The advantage to this is that you can learn and grow a great deal in a short time.
A volunteer year can be a good bridge between college and the corporate world, and it may introduce you to career possibilities you haven’t considered. If you think a volunteer year is a good choice for you, get ready to learn some of the things they don’t teach you in college!