November 16, 2009 in City

Peace Corps’ popularity still strong, recruiters say

By The Spokesman-Review
Colin Mulvany photo

Elysia Slakie, regional recruiter for the Peace Corps, speaks Thursday to Gonzaga University students about opportunities in the organization.
(Full-size photo)

Even in tough economic times, there is no shortage of people willing to volunteer to build dams or educate children in impoverished countries.

In fact, the number of applicants for volunteer assignments with the U.S. Peace Corps has risen 18 percent nationwide this year, according to officials.

“People are interested in serving their communities, and that includes the global communities as well, and the desire to experience other cultures,” said Melanie Forthun, a public affairs specialist for the Peace Corps Northwest Region recruiting office based in Seattle.

Last week, the Peace Corps hosted several recruiting events at universities and community venues across the Spokane area. On Tuesday, more than 30 people crammed into a room at the Spokane Public Library to learn more about volunteering from Peace Corps recruiter Elysia Slakie.

The attendees ranged in age from teens to over 50.

“There is no upper age limit,” Forthun said. Currently, the oldest serving volunteer is 85, she said.

While the Peace Corps doesn’t track the reasons people apply to serve, anecdotal evidence suggests that there was an uptick in applications after President Barack Obama’s inaugural speech in January. Obama called on all Americans to serve and engage in international outreach, the same message given by President John F. Kennedy when he founded the Peace Corps in 1961.

As a result, volunteer service organizations like the Peace Corps and Teach for America – which puts volunteers in classrooms of hard-to-staff public schools – rose significantly, statistics show.

The recession may have also contributed to the rise in applications for volunteer service, especially as college graduates encounter a volatile job market. Young graduates are seizing the opportunity to gain leadership skills and global experience before joining the ranks of the working world.

Others are hoping to cash in on the financial assistance the Peace Corps offers for graduate school, or to gain hands-on experience before setting out to work.

Elle Sweeney, a 21-year-old Gonzaga University student studying international relations, attended a recruiting event Thursday night on campus. She won’t graduate for another two years, but she said she wants to have a plan when she does.

“There are opportunities throughout the Peace Corps for scholarships” or fellowships to help pay for graduate study, Sweeney said – something she learned at the meeting. While applicants have traditionally come from the pool of recent college graduates, current applications also represent more and more individuals making a career change, or those over 50 years old.

“A few years ago we did an outreach campaign targeting those folks; we are just continuing to see the momentum with that,” Forthun said. “They bring such wonderful depth in their professional experience and life experience; it’s really inspirational.”

Washington state residents have a history of above-average service in the Peace Corps. Right now, about 336 Washington volunteers serve among about 7,600 total volunteers in 75 countries, Forthun said. Washington is currently ranked No. 6 among the 50 states for volunteers, she added.

Volunteers make two-year commitments and are paid modest stipends and monthly salaries similar to the residents of their host country.

Even with the rise in applications, there is no shortage of available positions, Forthun said. However, there are more opportunities for agricultural, environmental and educational jobs. Volunteers need not have experience in those categories, but to be competitive in the application process, applicants should have some foreign language or volunteer service in their background.

“We are always poised and ready for growth,” said Forthun, who was a volunteer in Bulgaria.

“It’s definitely one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done; it’s also one of the most wonderful,” Forthun said. “I feel like my life would be empty without my Peace Corps experience.”

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