Third from left, UCSC alumna Juliet Carpenter participates in a monthly creek clean-up in Kansas City, Miss. Courtesy of Juliet Carpenter.
Third from left, UCSC alumna Juliet Carpenter participates in a monthly creek clean-up in Kansas City, Miss. Courtesy of Juliet Carpenter.

When First Lady Michelle Obama gave her commencement speech at UC Merced earlier this month, she urged the 430 graduating seniors to give back to their community.

“Dream big, think broadly about your life and please make giving back to your community a part of that vision,” she said to the university’s first graduating class. 

Americorps is a federally funded program that allows students to do just that. It provides recent graduates with an opportunity to give back to their community by essentially working as free employees for nonprofit organizations.

Due to the downturn in the U.S. economy, Americorps is becoming a popular option for college graduates who may not be able to get a job immediately.

 Juliet Carpenter, who graduated from UC Santa Cruz in winter quarter as a history major, is currently working as an Americorps volunteer at Harvesters’ Community Food Network, a food bank in Kansas City, Miss. 

Carpenter decided to join Americorps because she did not feel like she could get a job that paid a salary straight out of college in the poor economy.

 “I did not want to go straight to grad school, so I thought that Americorps would be a good opportunity to get some real-life work experience,” Carpenter said.

Volunteers receive a modest compensation from the federal government for their year of service — a living allowance of $700 to $1,100 per month, depending on the location. In addition, they receive healthcare and a $4,752 education award or a $1,200 stipend. Even though Americorps positions do not promise a large income, they do allow students an opportunity to grow and build resumés in a tough economy.

“Right now I am learning more about data entry and maintaining a donor database, and I enjoy my department and truly feel how important this work is,” Carpenter said.

She eventually wants to earn a degree in public history so she can work for a historical museum, national park or nonprofit. She believes that her experience as an Americorps volunteer will give her the experience necessary to reach these goals. 

The program has grown drastically since President Obama passed the Recovery Act on Feb. 17, which gave Americorps $89 million in grants, enough to expand its volunteer base by 10,000 members. 

Christine Loewe, organizing and marketing coordinator at the Volunteer Center of Santa Cruz County, says the Recovery Act allowed the organization to hire five new Americorps volunteers instead of just one.

“Essentially, we were told that we could have as many Americorps as we could afford taking on, because there has been a flood of new positions opening and money going towards Americorps,” Loewe said. 

Katrina Cope, an adviser at the UCSC Career Center, participated in an Americorps program in New London, Conn. after she graduated from UCSC in the mid-1970s with a B.A. in psychology. 

Cope felt that Americorps had a positive influence on her life and recommends it to graduating seniors.

“It is like doing a year-long internship — you get paid, you get health insurance, you are working like a professional and they do not have you doing grunt work,” Cope said. “They have you doing some real service for the community and you get to test your wings.”