July 2, 2002 - Seattle Times: PCVs going where work is for the good

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By Admin1 (admin) on Thursday, July 04, 2002 - 6:59 pm: Edit Post

PCVs going where work is for the good

Read and comment on this story from the Seattle Times prospective PCV Dee Dee Marshall shown in the photo above with her husband and how a slow economy for the rest of the country is boom time for the Peace Corps, whose enrollment charts practically mirror the stock market in economy-tied peaks and valleys at:

Going where work is for the good *

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Going where work is for the good

By Lisa Heyamoto Seattle Times staff reporter

Some workers leave Microsoft as young millionaires. Anne Baker left the software company out-of-luck and unemployed.

Seven months later, classifieds-scouring and networking weren't getting the former content developer anywhere, so she decided to change course with the speed only a recession can induce.

Baker, 26, has nearly completed the 12-page application for the Peace Corps. And if her plans for the next two years pan out, computers may be the farthest thing from her mind.

French-speaking Africa is one of the fastest-growing areas in need of Peace Corps volunteers, and Baker is thinking about becoming one. She would get a chance to put both her altruism and her language skills to the test, and besides, the options weren't exactly beating down her door.

If recent college grads are held in the undertow of a declining market, the Peace Corps is plenty willing to fish them out. A slow economy for the rest of the country is boom time for the government agency, whose enrollment charts practically mirror the stock market in economy-tied peaks and valleys.

"The job market is not as good as it had been, and the Peace Corps is certainly a more viable option for them and a great way to get actual working experience in a field," said Jim Aguirre, regional Peace Corps director in Seattle. "When the economy goes down, our applications tend to go up."

The Peace Corps was born on the steps of the University of Michigan in 1960, when then presidential candidate John. F. Kennedy asked if Americans would be willing to live and serve in developing countries.

A year later the organization reached fruition, and has since sent more than 165,000 volunteers to 135 countries. Volunteers must go through a lengthy application process, interview period and health examinations to qualify for placement. After that, they are nominated to a particular country.

Volunteers receive a "living wage" and 24 vacation days once they begin work in a country. The pay varies depending on the country and whether the area is rural or urban.

When volunteers finish their service, they get $6,075 and may be eligible for health benefits for up to 18 months. Volunteers can also get their student loans deferred while serving.

Peace Corps national headquarters in Washington, D.C., reports record highs in application requests and Web-site hits this year.

From January through April, requests were up 40 percent over 2001 figures, with April alone logging nearly 10,000. Web site visits totaled 117.5 million hits in the same three-month period, up more than 100 percent from last year.

The Seattle regional office has also seen strong interest. Dubbed "Peace Corps country" for the high number of past volunteers who live here, it represents the smallest of the 11 regions in terms of population, but ranks fourth in sending volunteers abroad.

The University of Washington is the third-biggest producer among colleges nationwide, having sent 2,166 volunteers from its fold since 1961, when the Peace Corps began.

This year, Seattle University and Seattle Pacific University are tied for 10th place in the small college and university category, with 13 volunteers sent each.

"We hold our own out here," Aguirre said. "We have the kind of people countries ask for."

Pacific Northwesterners have always shown a strong spirit of service, Aguirre said. Moreover, they tend to have educational backgrounds that countries find useful, such as agriculture, forestry and environmental sciences.

With numbers already high, Aguirre's office has seen a 24 percent increase in applicants over the past year to 815.

Aguirre attributed the spike to several things: The slow economy, a renewed sense of patriotism brought about by the Sept. 11 attacks and a recent push from President Bush to double Peace Corps ranks.

"It's very hard to pin specifically this 24 percent increase on any one item," he said. "All the pieces are so intertwined."

Andy Marshall of Seattle can pick a reason why. He can pick six. He and his wife, Dee Dee Marshall, are leaving for an assignment in Mali, Africa, at the end of the summer and are busy prepping themselves to volunteer in water sanitation and health education.

She had just finished college and his job opportunities were spinning down to nil. There's just not much call for a member of a vocal group that caters to corporate parties when the parties fall victim to budget cuts.

Marshall counts this among his reasons for boarding the plane. He and Dee Dee, both 27, also wanted to take advantage of a flexible time in their lives, learn a new language, respond to their heightened awareness of international events after Sept. 11, have an incredible experience to pass on to the kids they might someday have and most importantly do something they've both always wanted to do.

"This is kind of the natural evolution of all that," he said. "It's a free chance for a good opportunity."

Upon arrival in a country, volunteers go through a three-month training period to learn the culture and language, acclimate and get trained in their particular field. After that, the two-year service begins. The Peace Corps offers field work in education, business, environment, agriculture, health and community service.

Reports about what's been called "the toughest job you'll ever love" are easy to find. At least 80 books have been written on the Peace Corps experience, and its Web site harbors hundreds of stories of satisfied return volunteers.

About a third of the volunteers leave early, mostly due to dissatisfaction or wanting to come home before the two years is up, according to UW on-campus recruiter Gretchen Muller. Like Aguirre, she said she sees more interest in the Peace Corps when times are tough and options are few.

A 1997-99 volunteer herself, Muller spends hours on the phone telling interested students about her experience in Nicaragua, hoping that they, too, might take advantage of an altruistic experience abroad.

"I think people think of it as a worthwhile experience abroad," she said. "As opposed to being a waiter."

Lisa Heyamoto: 206-464-2149 or lheyamoto@seattletimes.com.

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