Erin Anderson is living just above King County's poverty level while working 40 hours a week. It's not the ideal financial situation for a recent college graduate, but Anderson...
Erin Anderson is living just above King County’s poverty level while working 40 hours a week.
It’s not the ideal financial situation for a recent college graduate, but Anderson is less concerned about money and more concerned about contributing her time to an organization she is passionate about.
As an Americorps volunteer, the 21-year-old works for Real Change, a publication sold on city streets by low-income and homeless people. Like many college students, she was unsure what career she wanted to pursue as commencement loomed. Instead of plunging into the traditional work force, she took an alternate route.
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“It’s been really cool for me because it’s a way for me to devote a year of my life to something I’ve cared about for a really long time,” she said.
Such programs provide alternative opportunities that allow people to be productive, explore options and gain experience through jobs ranging in length from 10 months to two years.
“I think the primary benefit is the exposure to community service,” said Susan Terry, career-services director at the University of Washington. “The opportunity to do that is at a younger age. Once you get into a career, it’s hard to set aside and do something.”
The start of the year is when many soon-to-be college graduates come close to deciding what to do next and people already working consider taking a break or switching careers.
Application deadlines are nearing for popular programs such as Americorps, Teach for America and the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.
A good experience
Hundreds of students from the UW choose service work or travel programs each year.
Terry said students are drawn to them to gain more life experience through activities like backpacking through Europe, or because they want to contribute to a cause such as mending social problems, the environment or education.
For many college graduates, having a diploma in hand is not the same as having a career plan.
“It’s difficult for a 22-year-old to decide on a career path,” Terry said. “Going out and having an experience like the Peace Corps or Teach for America can help them mature, and once they return from that experience, they are better prepared to make a clear career decision.”
Americorps and the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, for example, offer students a chance to work in a variety of settings such as homeless shelters, employment offices, after-school programs or health clinics.
Lessons from the homeless
Anderson, of Kent, majored in comparative history of ideas and had volunteered with Real Change as part of a service-learning project during college.
Real Change is produced by a homeless-services agency of the same name. The agency sells its biweekly newspapers to homeless and low-income people for 30 cents a copy. The newspaper sells for $1, and vendors keep the profits. The Seattle area has about 230 venders per month and some sell up to 2,000 copies per week.
Anderson serves as a vendor coordinator for Real Change. She organizes literary seminars for the homeless at libraries, coordinates a homeless speakers bureau and helps homeless people find services such as free meals and shelter.
“Really, I have no idea what it’s like to be homeless,” Anderson said. “That’s been a big part of my learning experience, is realizing the limits of my job and the limits of my knowledge.”
Payoffs aren’t financial
The programs expect participants to make some sacrifices, especially financially.
“It can be exhausting to work a 40-hour workweek and not get that financial payoff,” Anderson said.
Americorps, for example, provides a stipend for living costs that is 105 percent of the poverty level where a volunteer resides.
The Jesuit program covers housing, meals, transportation and health insurance along with a $75-a-month personal stipend.
But that may not be a difficult transition for people straight out of college.
“Up until now I’ve been a student,” Anderson said. “I’ve paid my rent and worked 20 hours a week while in college, so it’s not as different as before.”
Her stipend is about $950 a month. She shares an apartment, and goes shopping mostly at thrift stores and yard sales.
“All three of my roommates work at law firms, they can afford to go out and do things, so I have had to watch it,” she said. “I’ve always been kind of frugal. I really enjoy traveling, and this is the first time I will be solidly in Seattle for a year.”
That doesn’t keep her from having fun; she just has limits.
“I tend to be the designated driver on weekends, for financial reasons,” Anderson said.
At bars with friends, she gets her fill with free water or Sprite.
Anderson said she has loved her experience so far and anticipates the hardest part will be when it comes time to leave. Her immediate plan is to study cultural reporting and criticism, or continue her work with street newspapers, possibly internationally.
“This is helping me see things in the big picture and helping me see what I want to do in the future,” she said.
“It would be nice to be making money right now, but I’m concerned with figuring out what I want to do in the future, as opposed to building up a big bank account.”