In Volunteer Work, Different Pathways

By Rachelle Douillard-Proulx
Special to
Thursday, April 19, 2007 11:00 AM

Starting this fall, Phil Turner will teach high school English for two years while Rachel Centariczki will jet off to the Pacific Islands.

Sound different? Maybe -- but both will be following up their studies by joining others in community service ventures around the world.

Turner, a graduate student at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, has been accepted to Teach for America; after five weeks of training he will head to Baltimore to teach high school students.

Centariczki, a senior at American University scheduled to graduate in May with degrees in political science and sociology, will work as a Peace Corps volunteer alongside local residents in community development.

Turner and Centariczki illustrate the different types of motivations and goals that drive many graduates -- and others -- into national and international service programs such as the Peace Corps.

There are considerable options for service-minded grads, also including such organizations as AmeriCorps, the National Park Service's Volunteers-In-Parks program, and the globally focused Amizade. Opportunities vary and touch on education, conservation, health, community development and more.

Whatever their choice, some sign up for professional experience; others feel a commitment to service; still others see it as a way of exploring career options. All seek something non-traditional to do once their formal education is over -- a way to find out what the world has to offer beyond the standard career track.

"This is an opportunity to serve," says Turner of Teach for America. "You're serving your country and I think it's kind of a cool thing to do. It's a rare opportunity. In the same way, it's a transition into the real world and it's very attractive."

Centariczki concurs: "I was given the opportunity to receive this incredible education at American University and I think it's a waste to head straight into the working world. I have so much to offer the world and so much to learn. The Peace Corps is a way to do both of those -- give back, yet learn and grow at the same time."

Teach for America was founded in 1990 by Wendy Kopp, then a Princeton University senior who, according to the program's Web site, was "searching for a way to assume a significant responsibility that would make a real difference in the world."

Since 1990, Teach for America has grown to include 4,400 current volunteers serving across the United States and 12,000 alumni. Many of those current and past volunteers came straight from college; an undergraduate degree is required.

Though college graduates make up a good portion of Peace Corps volunteers, the average age of volunteers is 28 -- 93 percent of volunteers having at least an undergraduate degree and 13 percent have graduate degrees, according to the Peace Corps Web site. The Peace Corps has sent 187,000 volunteers to 139 countries since its inception in 1961.

Despite the benefits participants receive from Teach for America -- monetary support for graduate school from Teach for America, for example, and two vacation days per month from the Peace Corps -- it's likely that you'll need to demonstrate other motivations.

"This isn't about my personal glory, and I think you're doing it for the wrong reason if you're doing it for your resume," Turner says of Teach for America. "You can make changes, and this is an opportunity to put your money where your mouth is."

Indeed, says Peace Corps recruiter and alumni D. Allen Renquist II, a true commitment to service is crucial to success with his organization. "The best Peace Corps volunteers have that drive already and have done their own research. I try to put it into perspective for them," says Renquist, who served the Corps in Belize.

The biggest hurdle for Peace Corps volunteers tends to be the two-year commitment, says recruiter Lisa Poley, who volunteered in Ecuador. (Teach for America also has a two-year commitment.) "I often hear hesitation from applicants when I mention the two year commitment," she says. "But it is important to realize that for most volunteers, it is in that second year that they really blossom and gain the full rewards."

When their service comes to an end, volunteers must plan their next moves -- and they will be as varied as their experiences were. Some continue teaching or working abroad; others head to work or graduate school. Whatever they choose, says Peace Corps veteran Renquist, they'll bring something unique with them.

"The real benefit is the experience and personal growth you have," he says. "You go to this country trying to make a difference, and you're the one who gains everything."

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