Advice to a Service Member

By Hillary Sward

Today was my last day at Home ReSource, and it seems fitting that my blog was due on the same day.  I went through scores of documents and pages of notes over the last couple of weeks to make sure no loose ends were in need of tying.  I was reminded of how many projects I have been a part of, how many places I’ve volunteered, and how many people I’ve made connections with in this process.  A lot has happened in 11 months.  There were moments where time simultaneously seemed to stand still and yet fly by.  I don’t think I’ve fully registered that I have completed my service.

There won’t be an Energy Corps member next year for me or any other current Energy Corps members to share specific tips and tricks with.  But I think this is advice any service member, or any person for that matter, could use.  These are things I’ve learned along the way, before and during my service, and some of them I wish I had learned sooner.

You are where you are for a reason.  You were selected for your position.  And you are very likely going to doubt yourself at least once before you’ve completed your term, and that’s totally fine.  In fact, that’s pretty normal.  If you’ve never heard of Ken Blanchard and his stages of development, it helps explain a lot of what you might experience.  You should research those a bit.  You’ll be excited (and pretty unaware) about the possibilities and the role you will fill with your host site for a while, but soon shift into disillusionment.  The novelty starts to wear off and you haven’t yet learned enough to independently complete your projects. If (or when) you enter this phase, you will doubt yourself and your service, and that is normal and okay.  If you are aware that this is a totally normal phase, it will help you transition and ultimately become a more active contributor.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and the “why” of a project, offer suggestions and be willing to have the discussion. It’s okay to feel dumb.  Asking questions about a project gets you to a deeper level of understanding, and asking why a project is the way it is, gets you and your supervisor thinking about it together.  Offer suggestions.  You’re a fresh set of eyes and haven’t seen a project through since the beginning, so you don’t have the same attachment to it or hesitancy to make changes because “it’s the way it’s been done.”  Ask a question and have the conversation.  It’s okay to look dumb, even though I’m fairly confident only you will think this.

Reach out to other AmeriCorps members in your area.  Volunteer for and with each other and collaborate whenever possible.  Everyone has their own set of skills and experience, and blending these can have amazing outcomes.  Have dinner together once in a while and help each other build your networks.

Make yourself a budget.  Know the amount of the stipend that gets deposited each month and how that compares to your bills.  It’s totally possible to live on it, but you have to be careful, and in many cases, learn how to budget your money.  Just because you have some money left over after you pay your bills doesn’t mean you have to spend it.  Now, that doesn’t mean you can’t ever have fun or spend money on things that aren’t necessary, just be aware.  As an AmeriCorps Member, you will likely qualify for SNAP benefits and I highly recommend getting AND using those.  Even though it isn’t part of your living allowance, it is another benefit of being a service member and any benefit you can get, you should absolutely use, whether or not you think you “need” it.

One of the many incredible things about being an AmeriCorps member is that you get hours for volunteering places outside of your host site.  I highly recommend volunteering at a wide variety of places.  You will meet a lot of people with different life experience and you get a taste of their expertise.  Not only will you learn about many people’s stories, you now have more connections that will benefit you as you begin your career.

Out of everything I have mentioned, I think this is the most important thing to set yourself up for success.  Talk to your supervisor early on about communication and work styles.  Your relationship with your supervisor can make or break it in terms of how you transition and how much you enjoy your service.  Everyone has different communication/learning/working styles and not all are completely compatible.  Figure these things out about each other as soon as you can so you can find a way that will allow you to both be as successful in this partnership as you can be.  Communication is key during your term, and just everywhere in life.  Let your supervisor know what type of feedback you appreciate the most, and when it is most beneficial for you to hear. Know whether or not the two of you focus on bigger, broader pictures, or if the details are super important.  What decisions can you make without having your supervisor sign off first?   Don’t wait for there to be a problem, but if one arises, address it.

Most importantly, keep making progress.  Don’t compare your journey to others and don’t dismiss your first steps just because someone is already sprinting.  You are making a difference, sometimes you’re just the last one to see it.

Exploring Past Interests through Service

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