When it comes to long term volunteer opportunities, there are two main options for Americans that are organized and run by the federal government: Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. I’m in a somewhat unique position to have served in both programs. I served in the Peace Corps in Madagascar from 2008-2009 and in AmeriCorps in L.A. from 2009-2011. I’m often asked which is better, so here’s my comparison of the two programs.
- Focuses on international volunteer service.
- Terms are 27 months (3 months in-country training, plus 24 months service).
- Most (90%) of programs require a bachelor’s degree.
- There is no upper age limit for service, as long as you are in good health.
- Lengthy application process: At the time I applied it took an average of 1 year from application to departure for service. My turnaround time was about 8 months. However, I’ve known some married couples that took up to 4 years for them to find a program that they both qualified and were accepted for.
- Limited choice in where you go/what you do: When you apply and interview for Peace Corps, you will be asked what type of program (education, health, agriculture, small business, etc.) and what region you are interested in. Based on your responses, you will be nominated for a program. For example, I was nominated for a Health program in Sub-Sahara Africa, as I expressed that I wanted to work with HIV/Aids. After your nomination there are extensive health and dental exams that need to be submitted. Depending on how long it takes to get approval and your history of any medical issues you have may impact your actual placement. For me, the program I was nominated for was full by the time I got my health and dental approval, so I was offered a position in an education program since I had teaching experience.
- Medical history could affect your placement: In Madagascar there are no GYN doctors, so if you have a history of GYN medical issues, you will not be allowed to serve in that country. This doesn’t exclude you from all service: it will simply affect which countries will be offered to you, as they want to make sure you can get appropriate medical care if you have any issues while serving.
- Even when you get your country placement, you still don’t know what town or region you will serve in: We didn’t get our site placement until about halfway through our 3 month training. For us, there were a lot of conversations in the first couple weeks as Peace Corps staff tried to get to know the volunteers. They tried to place people where most appropriate. For example, my site had specifically requested a female volunteer. They will try to match you with the best fit based on your skills, personality and health conditions. I have very well controlled asthma, but I knew because of this I would be somewhat close to a city just in case I experienced any breathing problems.
- Peace Corps helps set up housing for the volunteer.
- Stipend: Peace Corps provides a stipend for volunteers. It varies depending on cost of living in your country of service, but will be enough to cover living expenses. I received a little less than $100 per month, but it was adequate.
- Readjustment Allowance: Peace Corps offers a readjustment allowance to help volunteers adjust into life when returning to the U.S. They have significantly increased this over the past few years. When I served it was a little over $5,000, but it’s now $8,000. The one caveat: this is based on your 27 month service. If you ET (early termination) you only get the prorated amount for the months you served. This includes if you are forced to evacuate.
- We were evacuated a little less than a year into our service. It was financially very difficult to return to the U.S. with limited funds. In addition, Peace Corps only covers the first month of health insurance upon your return, and after that you have to pay for Cobra benefits out of pocket. Based on my personal experience, I always recommend that people have a little extra money in saving before applying for the Peace Corps, just in case things don’t work out.
AmeriCorps: there are several program types for AmeriCorps. The main two are VISTA and State and National. The information below is specifically for State and National as that is the program I served in. There are some differences between the two, especially regarding the monthly stipend, housing and the Education Award.
- Focuses on volunteer service in the U.S.
- Terms are 1 year, but often can be renewed.
- Some programs require specific skills or a bachelor’s degree, but it can vary quite a bit depending on the program.
- Some programs have upper age limits. Make sure you read the individual program requirements.
- Application process: Generally 3-4 months.
- You get to choose where you serve: While some programs are offered in more than one city, you get to apply for the specific program and the specific city that you want to serve. Because applications are program specific, you may want to apply for more than one. I served in a program that had multiple placement sites. Once I applied, I had several interviews with the individual sites to determine acceptance/placement.
- There’s no medical/dental exam or history required for your service.
- Some programs help with housing, while others don’t; varies depending on program.
- Stipend: AmeriCorps provides a monthly stipend. The stipend isn’t considered income for food stamps applications, so if you have no other income and limited assets you may qualify for additional assistance.
- AmeriCorps was the poorest I’ve ever been in my life based on what I was making and the cost of living. I received $850 a month to cover all living expenses in L.A. Fortunately, because I had volunteered for Peace Corps prior to my AmeriCorps service, I had no additional money or assets so I qualified for an additional $200 a month in food stamps. However, I was the only person in my group that did.
- Education Award: AmeriCorps offers an Education Award at the completion of your service. The amount depends on whether you are doing a full or part time position. For full time, you must complete 1700 hours of service in order to receive it. It’s a little over $5,500. You can get a maximum of two awards, so if you renew for an additional year, you would receive additional funds.
- You are required to pay taxes on the Education Award when you use it, which may affect how/when you choose to use your Award.
I think which program is ‘better’ differs for each person. Ultimately you have to think about the above points and decide which is best for you as an individual. Whichever program you choose, there are skills you will learn that will help with future positions. I have an untraditional background as I did a lot of contract work in my 20’s. For the most part, when employers see these two programs on my resume they are impressed. There are certain skills, such as working with people with diverse backgrounds, adaptability and resourcefulness that people don’t acquire in every job, yet you will learn these in both programs. In addition, you’ll have some very ‘out of the box’ answers to routine interview questions, which will definitely help you stand out. For example, whenever I’m asked about my Peace Corps experience and I mention that we were evacuated due to a political coup, I can see the interview panel pause and I’m sure they’re thinking, ‘Wow, she can handle whatever we throw at her.”
If you’re thinking about either of these programs, I suggest you do your research. Read about them online, talk to people that have served and ask questions. Most importantly, ask about the things that make you uncomfortable or that you’re not sure you can handle. I know some people that like the idea of Peace Corps but realistically could never live in a developing country. There are others that can’t handle the idea of choosing to be so poor while living in the U.S. My advice is to know what your limits are and how much you’re willing to struggle. You can’t walk into either of these programs thinking that they will be easy. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to serve in both, but the reality is that they are volunteer based programs. Both will require you to make sacrifices and to step outside your comfort zone. But if you’re up for the challenge, they could also be one of the most rewarding experiences you’ll have in life.
Have you ever thought about either of these programs? Do you have any additional questions that I didn’t address? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!