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Peace Corps benefits from desire to serve, escape job market
Peace Corps benefits from desire to serve, escape job market
Resurgence in campus idealism Peace Corps benefits from desire to serve, escape job market
Tanya Schevitz, Chronicle Staff Writer
Monday, March 25, 2002
With a multitude of high-paying jobs available during the dot-com boom, college students lost interest in the Peace Corps, and its recruitment slumped. But with the boom gone bust, the organization is seeing renewed interest among students.
Applications to the Peace Corps are up 23 percent nationwide over the same period last year; most applicants are college students, who make up the bulk of Peace Corps volunteers.
The Peace Corps, which sends volunteers to about 70 countries to do everything from business development and health education to teaching and building sustainable agriculture programs, saw its numbers drop in the 1990s, as the new economy peaked. But now, graduates don't have their pick of high- paying jobs, and they are thinking more about the meaning of what they do -- especially in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
Driven by a desire to reach out to people in other cultures -- and to avoid the frigid job market -- they are signing up in droves for the Peace Corps.
"I was considering working, but in light of the difficulty in finding a job,
I opted to volunteer," said Stanford University senior Eugene Liu, 22, who is awaiting a health education assignment in Central Asia.
Liu hopes the experience will make him a more attractive candidate for medical school, but the events of Sept. 11 also buttressed his decision.
"A lot of violence comes out of not understanding other cultures and not knowing what other people are thinking," he said. "By developing some sort of understanding, you can eliminate some of that."
CALL TO SERVICE
President Bush urged the American public to serve the nation in his Jan. 29 address, specifically calling for an expansion of the Peace Corps and declaring, "Through the gathering momentum of millions of acts of service and decency and kindness, I know: We can overcome evil with greater good."
In the two hours following his speech, the Peace Corps Web site was swamped with 1,211 hits.
Although many Bay Area students said they weren't listening, Dennis McMahon,
a Bay Area spokesman for the Peace Corps, said there has been an undeniable spike in interest since Bush's focus on service.
"A lot of people have had this inclination (to sign up) for a long time, and that was a spark," he said.
Many students who are interested in the Peace Corps have already studied abroad or have traveled.
Santa Clara University senior Lisanna Stamos, 22, who spent a summer working at the Center for Central American Development in Nicaragua, wants to be a nurse practitioner and is hoping that experience doing health education in Latin America for the Peace Corps will help her gain an even better understanding of other people's needs.
"I'm really excited about learning outside an institution," she said.
Many students also see the experience as a way of rounding out their applications for graduate school or jobs.
"I heard it is a very good stepping-stone to international jobs," said San Francisco State University student Nat Pope, 22, a Spanish major who is interested in teaching English as a second language in Latin America. "I know it is hard to get a job now. It is definitely an influence."
Although some believe that volunteering for two years means putting life on hold, students can earn academic credit in various disciplines for their volunteer work abroad, developing a master's thesis through their work.
Volunteers can also cancel a portion of student loans and earn scholarships for graduate school.
The federally funded Peace Corps was established in 1961 with college students as its foundation after President John F. Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor "to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in the developing world."
K.C. Bly, 25, was skeptical when he attended a Peace Corps recruiting session at San Francisco State University. He challenged the concept of the Peace Corps going into undeveloped countries and imposing the American way.
But recruiter Laura McClure said Peace Corps volunteers go only into countries that want them and to communities and organizations that invite their help.
"I wanted to know more," Bly said. "I do a lot of community organizing, and I do manual labor. It might be a chance to combine those things."
While the Peace Corps has some positions that are harder to get and require some academic specialization or minimal experience, such as agriculture, McMahon said a position can be found for most applicants who have a bachelor's degree in any discipline and have some demonstrated leadership.
That could be anything from serving as a resident assistant in a college dormitory to doing community service. Those who want to teach English, the largest program in the organization, need only to have tutored for three months, which can be done while the application is being processed. And the health education positions only require a demonstrated interest in health care,
such as taking a CPR course or volunteering at a health organization.
Although the Peace Corps gets about 10,000 applications a year for about 3, 500 slots, many of those who apply choose other options, such as graduate school or a job. Most of those who don't yet have the specific qualifications for a position will be counseled on how to bolster their application so that they qualify.
University of California at Berkeley senior Ben Schaeffer, 23, who stopped by the Peace Corps table on Sproul Plaza recently, said it is an opportunity to help develop sustainable agriculture, which he believes is important to the future.
"I would like to do more work that is beneficial to the world. You get to travel, you learn a language. It is just a great opportunity," said Schaeffer, who plans to travel for a few months after graduation and may join the Peace Corps after that.
Recruiter McClure said many college students are in the perfect position to sign up for the Peace Corps.
When she sits at a recruiting table, there is always someone who stops by and says, "I wanted to do the Peace Corps. Now I have children and I have a mortgage and I have debt. I have obligations." She tells students, "I don't want to see you walking past the tables saying, 'I wish I had done it.' "
McClure, who spent her two years in the Peace Corps doing health education in the West African nation of Togo, also told an audience of college students at San Francisco State that the Peace Corps needs them because of Pamela Anderson.
The pouty-faced, can-tan, buxom girlfriend of Kid Rock is the current unofficial U.S. "ambassador" to the world through "Baywatch," the most watched show in the world, McClure said.
"We have a chance to change some perceptions," she said. . For more information about the Peace Corps, go to www.peacecorps.gov.