JFF Staff Respond to the Skinny Budget: How National Service Programs Make Our Communities Stronger

Published apr. 04, 2017

Rachel McDonnell, JFF Associate Director, AmeriCorps

Fostering Social Change Careers


Rachel McDonnell: Fostering Social Change Careers

As an AmeriCorps alum, I’ve seen firsthand the impact that these programs have on communities. In my AmeriCorps program, we provided afterschool enrichment in underserved areas, painted murals on community playgrounds, used art as a storytelling tool with recent immigrants, and taught music classes for the elderly. Through AmeriCorps, I met immigrants who had left behind families and careers so that their children would have greater opportunities, creative children who worried about violence in their neighborhoods, and teenagers whose high school internships had helped shape their career goals. My AmeriCorps experience led me to study education policy, which in turn led me to JFF. In particular, my experiences working with underserved communities illustrated the connections between education, workforce development, economic development, and social policy—issues that I continue to address on a larger scale through my work at JFF. 

One of the powerful aspects of programs like AmeriCorps is that they can and do attract a wide variety of people into public service. My own program included volunteers of all ages, all education levels, all races and ethnicities, and all income levels. To use JFF terms, they provide a valuable on-ramp to mission-driven careers. Rather than cutting funding for CNCS, I’d love to see the U.S. expand these programs and provide more opportunities to engage the next generation of people dedicated to social change. 


Joe Deegan: Restoring Faith in Communities

Through my work with AmeriCorps VISTA, I helped higher education institutions build high-quality partnerships with local nonprofits. The projects I created not only enhanced learning for undergraduate students, but helped these universities produce more social goods to justify their tax-exempt status. My peers and I regularly generated in-kind value worth multiple times the small investment in our AmeriCorps stipends. 

The interpersonal benefits of AmeriCorps programs are even more important. I witnessed how highly visible programs like VISTA, CityYear, and others restored the faith of New Orleanians in their government after the failures of Katrina. Energetic and skilled AmeriCorps volunteers believed in that city. Many of them stayed, putting down roots and founding nonprofit agencies of their own.  

As a VISTA volunteer, I learned about the struggles of low-income Americans firsthand. Many of them were my colleagues and friends. I lived on a small stipend myself, sometimes facing difficult decisions about where my next dollars would go. My own path was changed by my service as a VISTA volunteer. It is no coincidence that I went on to earn an MPA and work for an organization like JFF that helps higher education partners increase their social impact. VISTA and its peer programs under CNCS create a talent pipeline for public service by exposing young people and emerging professionals to the institutions that the most vulnerable Americans rely on, and putting them to work right away to make those institutions better. 


Allysha Roth: Finding Service as a Career

When I applied for AmeriCorps, I had been in Kiwanis clubs for five years between high school and college. I totally lived, and still try to live, the motto of Kiwanis "Live to serve. Love to serve." But, I didn’t really think of community service as being a career track. It was isolated to volunteering and fundraising. When I was finishing my bachelor's degree in psychology, I knew I wanted to go to graduate school, but really wasn't sure for exactly what. And it was important to me that I got that right, because I knew from experience how painful it is—a loss of precious time, money, and energy—to go down a path and realize it's not the one you really want to be on. I asked myself what I really loved doing and the answer was service. So I applied for AmeriCorps.  

I spent the next two years of my life immersed in the field of affordable housing, learning how to build houses from the ground up and communicate how affordable homeownership can be a steppingstone toward financial stability and economic opportunity. I realized that I could do much, much more than volunteer my time and money. It could be my life's work. My AmeriCorps experience continues to illuminate my personal path to this day. I'm really grateful that I had the opportunity to truly "live to serve".  


Jessica Toglia: Gaining a New Perspective

My AmeriCorps VISTA service experience was invaluable and has provided me knowledge that I bring to my JFF work.  I was a part of the Ohio Campus Compact, a network of colleges and universities throughout the state that hosted VISTA volunteers working on creating educational opportunities.  My responsibilities included increasing community partnerships and student volunteerism.  Specifically, I was located at a regional campus, Miami University-Hamilton, in the Center for Civic Engagement. Having attended the main campus, Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, which touts itself as a “Public Ivy” for grad school, moving to the regional campus was an eye-opener.  It was here that my definition of “college student” broadened to include nontraditional students and particularly those who faced significant barriers to achieving their education.  Thus, AmeriCorps VISTA definitely influenced my career path in terms of social justice and education.  It also gave me firsthand knowledge of the issues that JFF works on and that I care about so deeply. 


Tyler Nakatsu: It’s Everyone’s Responsibility

Alex sat across from me in a windowless conference room at the Hilton in Crystal City, Virginia. I had rearranged the furniture, unplugged the mini-fridge, and prepped my popup set for us to film. Alex had lived in public housing with his grandmother in Denver. When his grandma could no longer travel to renew their SNAP benefits he turned to what was available, got into trouble, and left school. I filmed Alex for three days, in meetings on the Hill, talking late into the night about his journey to postsecondary education as a young low-income “dropout” man of color. 

Just a few months prior, I had traded in my marketing job in Seattle for a year as an AmeriCorps VISTA with YouthBuild USA. I graduated from college at the height of the recession. Finding a job was difficult, but figuring out what drove me was oddly crushing. This was when I discovered that telling my unique story was what enabled me to connect the vision of my future self with where I was stuck. 

Now that vision is to work with leaders who are addressing issues related career advancement like I experienced, but also the systemic problems of educational access and economic growth that Alex faced. However, my national service story shouldn't be about how much service has changed the trajectory of my life. This can lead to framing service as a savior practice. While it's true that I'm privileged to the extent that I was able to dedicate myself to national service, I didn't sign up because of me. I signed up because too many communities have been subject to systemic racism, oppression, and disenfranchisement that has led to intergenerational poverty that everyone has a responsibility to work both within and outside of systems of power to undo and improve. 

I still text with Alex. He sends me snapchat messages of his son as he says goodbye to them on their way to school. I respond usually with affirmations and support, as I work at my desk thankful that I had shared moments of service with him.  


Daniel West: Other Programs Have Unexpected Consequences

The McNair Scholars program is a federal TRIO program that provides overachieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds an opportunity to gain research experience during the summer semester, paving the way for college access. McNair removes the financial barriers associated with being an undergraduate research assistant. While most labs will take on undergraduate students as lab assistants, they often don’t have the budgets to pay these students. Understanding that research experience is vital to a graduate school application, most students would jump at the opportunity to volunteer in a federally funded research lab. However, extended unpaid work assignments aren’t a reality for low-income students.

An unpaid summer experience was definitely not an option for me. The TRIO programs, especially McNair, hold a special significance to me. The Morehouse College McNair Scholars Program shepherded my transition in to grad school from inception through acceptance. Through the program I was able to attend out-of-state graduate school tours in addition to targeted graduate school recruitment events as a means of connecting with key admissions personnel. Additionally, I received professional assistance with preparing applications, free GRE prep, vouchers for discounted testing as well as application fee waivers. If it were not for the financial assistance offered by the McNair program, through the TRIO grant, I would have had to postpone or even forego my graduate education plans. Thanks to McNair, I am proud to say that I am an award-winning educational researcher with a graduate degree from an Ivy League university; possibilities I had never considered as a low-income kid from DC. As a McNair scholar I was introduced to a whole new world of opportunity, accelerating my pathway to graduate education and further; securing a great job post-graduation. Millions of low- to middle- income students like myself certainly see the value of programs like these, and need them to work toward our dreams.


See comments from our President and CEO Maria Flynn in the news: