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Fired up: Professor In a time of war, the Peace Corps launches full artillery to attract soon-to-be jobless graduates
Fired up: Professor In a time of war, the Peace Corps launches full artillery to attract soon-to-be jobless graduates
Professor In a time of war, the Peace Corps launches full artillery to attract soon-to-be jobless graduates
BY NINA WILLDORF
Caption: NOW AND THEN: worried about the job market, BC senior Nicole Abbate (above) is considering joining the Peace Corps after graduation. But some former volunteers with the 40-year-old government program have mixed feelings about the Peace Corps serving as a back-up plan.
NICOLE ABBATE SCOOTS into a seat in a classroom at Boston College’s Gasson Hall on a recent evening. She’s dressed in a combination of fleece, faded jeans, and cashmere. She drops her bulging backpack on the floor with a dramatic thud and, peering out from under a blond bob, starts to talk dejectedly about her prospects after graduation: "I’ve always been like, ‘Okay, I’m sure I’ll get a job somewhere. A job will magically appear some way.’ " She gestures theatrically, shaking her head and laughing in awkward spurts.
But Abbate’s nervous giggles and attempts at optimism don’t mask her mounting anxiety. For the first time in her life, the 21-year-old marketing major is faced with the possibility that all may not go according to plan. That her internship with Reebok’s worldwide-advertising division may not yield a high-paying job in corporate advertising, accompanied by plush accouterments. That she may have to join the ranks of her liberal-arts-major friends, who expect to be jobless in June. So the Connecticut native, graduating into a swiftly downward-spiraling economy, is looking for a back-up plan. The Peace Corps, she declares, is among the alternatives she’s considering — along with Reebok. "I like to keep my options open," she says.
BUILDING GRASS huts in Mozambique, working on agricultural development in Nicaragua, and teaching English as a second language in Uzbekistan — all possibilities in the 40-year-old government program — don’t seem like appealing choices for jobless marketing majors adorned in sparkly eye shadow and polar fleece. After all, having to decide between getting an MBA and teaching AIDS education in Africa hasn’t exactly been routine on college campuses. But that choice is becoming increasingly common as the recession deepens, the country stumbles through complex international affairs, and many graduating seniors find themselves decidedly unswamped with alternatives. Last spring, laid-off dot-commers flocked to the Peace Corps in lieu of the unemployment line; now college students are turning to the program both as an opportunity to ride out the current recession and as a way to help, to do something in the face of war.
Sure enough, for many eager-to-work students, it comes down to the bottom line: the Peace Corps is hiring. For that primary reason, among others less pressing, the agency has seen increased interest over the past three months. In September, the PC’s Web site fielded 1600 more inquiries for applications and information than it did last year during the same month. In October, the comparative increase stood at 2000. And the Corps’ Washington, DC, headquarters has already received 50 more applications over the past few months than it had last year at the same time.
Though there’s always been a stable of young folk for whom volunteering is a heartfelt mission, these days they’re being joined by students for whom community service was, until recently, merely something you did to get into college. And the Peace Corps is attracting many of these refugees from the widening economic and existential hole. Five recruiters in the Boston office set up information sessions at local colleges and interview interested students; recently, they’ve become accustomed to working 14-hour days, racing all over town to field questions, concerns, and application drop-offs.
At the semiannual Peace Corps–sponsored Welcome Back/Sendoff mixer for returned and soon-to-depart volunteers one recent Friday evening, James Arena, the regional manager of Boston’s PC recruitment office, took the podium before 200 or so happily buzzing attendees. "Peace Corps must seize this moment," he intoned soberly, reading a prepared speech. "In this time of great national importance, Peace Corps is part of the solution."
FROM ITS inception in 1961, when John F. Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the agency, the Peace Corps has met Kennedy’s challenge to "ask what you can do for your country." Throughout its 40-year history, the organization has upheld its original goals: to provide trained workers to countries seeking assistance; to promote a better understanding of America abroad; and to restore cultural pluralism to this country. Primarily, the PC bills itself as promoting cultural exchange; community service is a byproduct of its mission. Ideally, PC volunteers initiate educational programs, teaching agriculture, community development, forestry, information technology, engineering, and other fields that can be sustained once they leave. They’re paid a monthly stipend that varies depending on the country in which they’re based, one that’s intended to support them without throwing the local economy off-balance. And, after completing two years of service, volunteers are awarded a "readjustment allowance" of around $6000 when they return home.
The program was an immediate hit. Its ranks swelled from 51 volunteers in Ghana and Tanzania in 1961 to 7300-plus in 44 countries, from Afghanistan to Uruguay, just two years later. In 1966, the Peace Corps reached its highest enrollment, when it had charge of more than 15,000 people serving in various fields. "[Peace Corps] was formed at a time when Americans had tremendous confidence in their own culture and political system," explains Fritz Fischer, an associate professor of history at the University of Northern Colorado and author of Making Them Like Us: Peace Corps Volunteers in the 1960s (Smithsonian, 1998).
But over the next decade, as the country entered the Vietnam War and the civil-rights movement lost its most prominent champions, the once-booming organization saw much of its support wane — especially among the nation’s more idealistic citizens. Add to that President Nixon’s neglect of the program, notes Fischer, and the ’70s saw the group struggling to redefine itself, with some success. The Peace Corps "was revived somewhat in the ’80s," says Fischer, "but never to the same point."
So over the past 20 years, the Peace Corps has worked to refashion itself in order to remain relevant, calibrating its message to appeal to the cultural Zeitgeist. Last spring in San Francisco, as dot-coms laid off workers en masse, the Peace Corps ran a targeted ad campaign: "Dot-Com, Dot-Gone?" it asked. "Now it’s time to network with the real world." "[The campaign] targeted folks coming out of the high-tech industry," explains Ellen Field, national press officer for the PC. "The disillusionment of those companies was just starting to occur, and we had a significant increase both in interest and applications." In other words, bad times — on these shores or abroad — are good for the Peace Corps.
The Peace Corps’ intensive recruitment efforts are due in part to the support of former president Clinton, who increased the agency’s funding by $21 million in 1998 and established an initiative to expand the Peace Corps’ ranks to 10,000 volunteers by the year 2000. Despite falling short of that goal, the program has seen its numbers grow: today’s Peace Corps supports almost 7300 volunteers in 70 countries, operating with a budget of $265 million. "It’s never been an incredibly large organization," notes Fischer, "but the very fact that everyone’s heard of the Peace Corps speaks for its ideological power."
The Peace Corps also paved the way for other volunteer programs, such as AmeriCorps, a 10-month program launched in the ’90s that is often called the "domestic Peace Corps." But, like the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) — which is also enjoying renewed support on college campuses — AmeriCorps appeals to a different kind of student than does the Peace Corps, if only because AmeriCorps operates solely within the United States. The Peace Corps speaks to those for whom international relations is more than a one-semester college requirement.
For many, these days, the Peace Corps seems more relevant than AmeriCorps or ROTC. "A lot of people are searching for ways to serve their country," Fischer notes. "People want to find a way to help, and Peace Corps is especially attractive for those who don’t want to become involved militarily, who are idealistic about the world in general, people who want to be patriotic, but [who are] still uncomfortable with American foreign policy."
ACROSS THE board, volunteerism has come into vogue since September 11. "We have these information-request sign-up sheets. I had 200 people request additional information in a day, between 11 and five o’clock," says Joshua Tootoo, a recruiter for the Peace Corps’ Boston office who works primarily at Harvard University. "People are fevering about wanting to volunteer," says Krista Bascis, another recruiter, who works mostly at Boston University. She regularly fields calls from people who don’t know much about the Peace Corps and who want to donate their skills. "We have had a lot of people calling to inquire about Peace Corps, people with very unusual backgrounds," she says. "I had a helicopter pilot call. He was like, ‘What can I do? I just want to do something.’ "
Indeed, an upsurge in the volunteer spirit is hardly confined to college campuses. Richard Denby, a 47-year-old owner of a sled company in Vermont and a contributing editor to Food Arts magazine, also saw September 11 as his cue to join the Corps. "Volunteerism has come to the floor," he says with resolve. This summer, he’s leaving his wife, his 20-year-old son, and his business to head off to wherever the organization chooses to send him. "[Joining the Peace Corps] was one way that I can do something besides sitting around at dinner parties and talking. As well thought-out and vehement as dinner chatter is, it’s not enough."
Still, a lack of competition for students’ attention is fueling PC recruitment at colleges and universities. "When I was at the MIT job fair in late October, there were some booths where the companies didn’t even show up," marvels Bascis. Marie McCool, assistant director of career counseling at Tufts, says she’s had a difficult time getting businesses to man tables at career fairs. "The number of companies who are recruiting in finance is down significantly," she says. "They’re not hiring the same number of students as before. Their recruiting budgets have been cut, and it’s more financially feasible to just collect rŽsumŽs." Conversely, she notes, "we had Peace Corps come recently and they had a full schedule of interviews and they were doing a lot on-site." Doreen Sabina, a press officer in the Peace Corps’ Boston recruitment office, puts it bluntly: "The economy is working in our favor."
National statistics support the anecdotes. "More people are getting involved in volunteering and giving," says Patricia Nash Workman, a spokesperson for Independent Sector, a coalition of 700 nonprofit organizations that conducts studies on issues in the nonprofit sector. A recent Independent Sector study found that 70 percent of Americans donated time, money, or blood in response to the terrorist attacks. Young people, Workman adds, are especially quick to get involved. "College-age students are extremely active in nonprofit groups. Anecdotally what we’ve seen is that when people don’t have as much money to give, sometimes they overcompensate by giving more of their time."
Or it could just be that they don’t have anything better to do. Richie Moriarty, vice-president of the student body at Boston College, notes that friends who had been plowing full steam ahead toward business careers have quickly shifted gears. "One of my roommates is in the school of management. He was looking at the top five firms — you know, Goldman Sachs, Accenture," Moriarty says. "Now he’s looking at volunteering or grad school. He’s kind of re-evaluating. So many of my friends are looking at volunteering after school."
Tufts senior Karina Weinstein concurs. "My friend’s boyfriend is Business Finance Guy — and he’s thinking about the Peace Corps," she giggles. Then she grows reflective. "That’s good, I guess. That’s a good thing." Krista Bascis is certainly seeing a different kind of recruit in her tours of area universities. "I’ve seen more people who are in IT or business coming up and saying, ‘I’m a business major and I’m concerned about what there is for me after I graduate.’ " And, Bascis notes, the new volunteers are great for the Peace Corps, because they bring needed skill sets with them, including business acumen helpful in building community centers, and technology skills, good for setting up computer resources. "Anyone who’s in IT or in a business field," she says, "I think [their skills] might be beneficial to us."
For students who have always been interested in volunteering, the events of September 11 and the troubled economy are simply additional reasons to serve. Weinstein, who hopes to go to Nicaragua, says that given other circumstances, she still would have applied for the Peace Corps. But she probably would also have pursued a position at a non-governmental agency. "And maybe I’d get an offer," she muses, "and I’d be like, ‘Well, should I take this job or should I join the Peace Corps?’ Now it’s easy," she says definitively. "Peace Corps."
Fellow Tufts senior Beth Thompson is in a similar situation. "I was actually thinking about applying before September 11, but definitely thought after September 11 there was no better reason to go," she says. "I’m about to jump into a world that I know nothing about, and I want to learn about how people relate to each other and parts of different cultures. There’s no better way for me to learn than to teach others, too."
Richie Moriarty is sifting through several options, from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps to Appalachia Volunteers. Over the course of his four years at BC, he’s already done extensive volunteering and community service. Now many of his friends are joining him. "Everyone’s talking about how this is one of the hardest times to get a job," says Moriarty. "It’s the perfect time to do something else and wait for the economy to turn."
RECRUITERS AND volunteers alike welcome the surge in interest in the Peace Corps. "We need [volunteers] now more than ever," says recruiter Chris Lins, who works primarily at Boston College. He adds, only half-joking, "Where’s your application? I’ll bring you one. Are you ready?"
Of course, being interested, picking up an application, and watching a video don’t automatically mean getting accepted and shipping off. The application process can take six months to a year, and many say it’s constructed to separate the wheat from the chaff: it requires two essays, three references, extensive medical exams, and an in-depth, 90-minute interview. Last year, about 10,000 people applied; just under half actually got on a plane.
At the Welcome Back/Sendoff event, folks gather in a downstairs room at a church in Harvard Square, munching on chips and salsa, candy, and unrecognizable ethnic treats. Some returned volunteers are initially enthusiastic to hear about the increased interest in the Peace Corps. "That’s great," enthuses Maria Royston, who served in Cameroon in the mid 1990s. "We need ’em." But on second thought, she grows wary of the idea of volunteering as a back-up plan for some of today’s soon-to-be-unemployed business majors. "I’d hate to think the trend is that people are joining because they can’t get a job," says Royston. "When people drop out in the middle, it really sucks," adds Eric Studer, who served in Mauritania from 1997 to 1999. "Some of those villages have been waiting years for a volunteer, and [the dropout] took a spot that someone else could have occupied."
Tufts senior Beth Thompson feels conflicted, too. "Any good help is good help," she says. "It’s wonderful for the Peace Corps to have increased numbers, but as a second option, I don’t know. I don’t see PC as a back burner. I see it as a priority."
Still, Royston feels confident that the application process is rigorous enough to weed out those for whom the Peace Corps is only a fleeting interest in the absence of more lucrative offers. "The process is so strenuous you really have to stick with it," she says.
Studer agrees, launching into a tirade about the reasons people dropped out of his group in Africa: malaria, colon illness, broken bones, lovesickness for a faraway significant other. He pauses, grinning conspiratorially, and takes a swig of beer. "I’ll definitely be interested to see how many of them actually go," he says.
Nina Willdorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org