I am currently an AmeriCorps member at the American Red Cross (although not a Vista member), and looking back on my half-year of service thus far, I can say that I am very glad that I chose to do this with my year before medical school. I target the underserved community by administering health and safety classes, such as HIV/AIDS, Community Disaster Education, Kid Safety classes, Babysitter's Training, Together We Prepare, and First Aid/CPR certification classes. My experiences have helped me become a more effective public speaker and leader and has opened my eyes to the huge need to improve service in the underserved area. In our program, the "underserved" includes all youth, schools, non-profit organizations, community-based organizations (e.g., churches), people without the financial means to pay for Red Cross classes, and those who do not have access to our services due to geographic constraints. My experiences have had such an impact on me that I am working towards serving the underserved when I become a physician.
Other things that I absolutely love about AmeriCorps is the multitudes of people that I've met. Not only do I work with other service-oriented/driven people (my wonderful AmeriCorps colleagues), but I simply love meeting so many different types of people in the community. I have taught classes at a non-profit organization where people were trying to get jobs, a homeless shelter, Boy and Girl Scout troops, inner-city schools, and even to the non-English-speaking Hispanic/Latino population (with my proficiency in Spanish, I actually had to translate my English scripts to Spanish and conduct the entire class in Spanish because outreach to the Hispanic/Latino community in my area is so low - talk about when my five years of Spanish classes finally became useful!). With AmeriCorps, you really don't know what to expect, but if you enjoy serving others and making a difference, I almost guarantee that you will have a learning experience that will have a huge impact on your life.
Each AmeriCorps member will have different experiences depending on the organization they work with. If you are more interested in people's experiences with Vista, perhaps you can go to the AmeriCorps website, search for the programs that interest you, and e-mail the contact person. I'm sure s/he would be more than happy to give you the contacts for their Vista members so you can communicate with them directly.
I know that in general, Vista members deal more with administrative work (e.g., planning service projects and writing grants), while regular AmeriCorps members do more "hands-on" work and actually go out in the community. I can't really say whether you should or should not sign up for AmeriCorps, though, because your decision depends on your interests and where your goals lie. Do you think you would rather do "hands-on" work or planning/administrative/behind-the-scenes work? How important is community service to you?
I did AmeriCorps, but not Vista. If you're looking for a health-related assignment, they're all over the country--most seem to involve doing things like asthma education or enrolling people in insurance programs. But if you're more interested in doing direct, clinical work with underserved populations, look into the San Francisco Community Clinic Consortium. You'll perform and assist with procedures, and you'll do it on behalf of a population of people that REALLY needs and appreciates your help. The San Francisco program is very special (and thus very competitive). If you think you'd be uncomfortable working with folks who may be homeless, or substance-abusing, or of varying sexual and gender identities, then it may not be for you.
That said, I agree that everyone has a unique experience. Mine happened to be awesome. If you're being offered an assignment, I'd recommend going to check it out in person, look at it with a critical eye, ask them to clearly identify your responsibilities, and decide whether it's a good match for you.
Americorps is a spectacular experience for some people, an okay one for others, and a terrible one for a few. It really depends on what your service site is like. Mine has been spectacular so my experience has been spectacular, but I have some friends who absolutely hated their sites and the ones that weren't able to be placed at new sites have either quit or are thinking about quitting. So definitely, definitely check out where you'll be serving. Make sure you like the city, make sure the program you'll be working with is well organized (this is incredibly important), and make sure you have support from your Americorps supervisor for if things don't go so well.
Lots of non-profits are just plain badly run, so make sure you read about the places you're interested in, and talk to people who have experience working with those organizations. Your experience almost directly correlates to how well-run your site is, so make sure you go somewhere that lets you actually accomplish something.
I'm half way through my VISTA service year and I have to say that I would not trade my experiences thus far for anything. Americorps is a great program, and obviously I'm a little partial to the VISTA program. You should check the Americorps website for a more detailed description, but the main focus of VISTA is on sustainability, so we typically do not do direct service.
The great thing about VISTA (and Americorps in general) is the diversity of opportunities and placements available, even within the medical field if that's what you are looking for. I am stationed at a local health department, and do Medicaid Outreach as part of a program called Access to Care. We work to improve access to free and low-cost insurance to our diverse community. In the past six months, I have learned more about the current state of our health care system than I could have ever wanted to (it's very depressing, as we all know). I also am working on creating a Rural Health Care Coalition in a couple rural communities around my county. This program has been perfect for me because I am considering rural medicine and I want to do an MD/MPH program. Not only will my experiences look great on my application that Im about to begin, but I will be able to use my skills in any area of medicine I choose to enter.
However, I have to warn you that this is not a decision to be made lightly. While Americorps offers amazing opportunities, you must weigh the pros and cons of the program. If you don't feel passionately about doing it, you run a high risk of being miserable for your year trust me, Ive seen it happen. People sometimes end up doing something completely different from what they had planned, and some end up in an unorganized program and do absolutely nothing in their entire year. Also, living in poverty is not fun, as you may expect but at least you qualify for food stamps! Heres my advice: look through the listings on the Americorps website. If there is a program that seems to fit you (description, location, etc), contact THAT PROGRAM for more info about them. If you get a good feeling, go for it. Feel free to PM me if you have any other questions!
Someone mentioned the SFCCC, and I am currently working for them as an Americorps worker before I start medical school this upcoming year.
This has by far been the best experience of my life. I work at a free clinic only serving patients who have no medical insurance. Thus, I have been able to work with a diverse group of clients on a one-on-one basis. My duties have included medical assisting, front desk/administration, phlebotomy/lab technician, HIV test counseling, and soon to be pregnancy test counseling (something I started at the clinic). I have had the opportunity to shadow physicians, assist on procedures, and give injections. When I go on interviews, this is the first thing that I'm asked about and basically talk about for the entire interview. By far, the best clinical experience opportunity available that I can think of. PM me if you have any specific questions...