Mary

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As some of you frequent readers might recall me saying, Drive All Night would not be possible without the support of countless friends and colleagues. Case point – where to sleep each night. About 90% of this trip will involve shacking up with fellow Millennials (and even a few Boomers). Some of us have worked together, others were my classmates during college and high school. Take Mary, for instance. The two of us met in New Hampshire’s high mountain hut system one summer, cooking meals for hikers and schlepping boxes of food up mountainsides. Now, Mary – a 23 year-old Wesleyan graduate – has settled in Seattle. In her little spare time, she managed to give me a full-fledged tour of Capitol Hill and take me hiking up one of the most punishing walks in Seattle’s neighboring wilderness. During the work week, Mary can be found helping local residents access social services like tax assistance and nutritious school lunches as an AmeriCorps VISTA. (That’s the short version: her official job title is Basic Needs Volunteer Capacity Building AmeriCorps VISTA.)

How did you come to finding your current job after packing your bags and shipping out from the east coast?

So, i applied for a ton of jobs. I found this position on Idealist.com and sent in my cover letter. I was hired within a week.And now, I work with the basic needs team for United Way of King County. The organization has three major philanthropic focuses; early learning, ending homelessness, and basic needs. So I work on the basic needs team and I’ve helped out with some financial empowerment stuff. Mainly with our free tax campaign. This provides free tax preparation services for households that make under $51,000 annually. At the moment, I’m working to enhance the summer food program in South King County, matching sites with vendors and sponsors, and conducting lots of outreach.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I have been exposed to some research and data analysis, I’ve gotten to write reports, and that’s what I enjoy the most. I got to create something called a food security survey, which was conducted in four different regions of king county, and that was really interesting because we learned  where people were most food insecure and analyzed the findings by income level and demographic. We also surveyed people on what kind of social services they were most interested in.

Before you came across your current job, how specific was your search? What were you looking for?

Oh my god, anything! I applied to so many jobs. I had three interviews at a taco cart! To give you another example, I applied for a position that was basically one step below a paralegal at this local, pro bono legal clinic that helps folks with all sorts of different legal issues, and I got an email back saying that over 2,000 people had applied for the job.

Oh my god…

It was nuts. Luckily, I was interested in my current job when I read the posting. I thought, “This seems like it would be a great learning opportunity,” and thus far, it’s proven to be.

Has the job changed your perspective on what you’d like to do in the next five or ten years?

Definitely. I’ve gotten really interested in data and statistics. I’ve also gained perspective on the philanthropic world, whichis very hard because you have to make very complex problems seem solvable in order to get grants for them or make people donate money. A lot of nonprofits manage to pull this off while still communicating the integrity of the issues they’re focused on.

Do you feel like the path you’re on would be considered mainstream?

Hmm…good question. I mean, at my pre-service orientation, I think there were over 200 of us assigned to Western Washington who were solely VISTAs. (There are several divisions of AmeriCorps and VISTAs are assigned mostly indirect assignments; management and organizing, rather than direct service.) So I do think the kind of work that AmeriCorps encompasses is becoming increasingly popular.

One could even argue it’s supplanted the Peace Corps for a lot of young Americans.

I think it’s a great program, but I have noticed a negative effect of the trend: now, if an organization is looking to hire someone around my age, they can forego offering a fulltime salary and save a lot of money by simply hiring an AmeriCorps worker. And from there, sustainability becomes an issuebecause AmeriCorps are only at organizations for a year at most. It has created an atmosphere in the nonprofit sector in which some people our age actually have to fundraise for their own jobs.

That’s an unnerving precedent; one that we rarely examine within the nonprofit and education sector. Working in that sector – in America, at least – sometimes requires a degree of personal sacrifice. This actually leads to the question I’ve been asking everyone. Given your experiences, how do you relate to the popular characterization of people your age? The perpetuated image of Millennials as aimless and lacking in work ethic?

I very much resent it. (laughs) Obviously, I think it’s bullshit. I mean, before I found my current job, I had several other gigs just to keep afloat: mostly nannying and tutoring. Altogether, I was unemployed for about two months, and those were two stressful months; I was far more stressed out back then. Again, I just applied and interviewed for so many positions. And of course, it’s not like that for everyone. I’m sure some people take their time looking for work, and some surely send out more applications than I did. But the job market is still tough. A lot of retirement accounts tanked back in 2008, so unsurprisingly, you’ve got a lot of people staying in the workforce much longer than they might have. And in terms of Millennials, we are the generation that grew up being told we can do anything, so naturally, it’s challenging to find your way through an economy with a shortage of work opportunities.

(Check back in a few weeks for a Part 2 with Mary, where we’ll learn about an exciting project in which she currently holds an executive role!)

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