Peace Corps draws University graduates

Robin Huiras

After graduating with a degree in humanities in 1990, Jason Tidwell floated around the United States looking for adventure. He found it far from home, as a volunteer for the Peace Corps, which landed him in Panama.
He wanted focus and insight into his life, and like many volunteers, realized fortune does not always equate with money.
For Tidwell and thousands of other Peace Corps volunteers, wealth is found through working in underdeveloped countries to improve the lives of the inhabitants without tangible compensation. The Peace Corps gives these individuals the opportunity to explore the world as well as themselves.
In a recent report released by the director of the national organization, the University ranks 17th nationally in colleges sending graduates to the program. The University of Wisconsin-Madison ranks first.
“You can’t put a price tag on the experience,” said 27-year-old Tidwell, who is now a graduate student in forestry resources at the University. “It’s way more valuable than a lot of people can perceive because of the life experience it can give you.”
Deep roots
Since its creation in 1961, the Peace Corps has sent more than 150,000 Americans overseas; 5,223 of these volunteers are Minnesotans and 1,060 of these have been University graduates. Each year about 50 alumni join the organization to live in one of the 80 countries the corps serve. Currently 53 University graduates are serving abroad.
“Most volunteers are people who have recently graduated,” said Matthew Dufresne, regional recruiter for the University and the Twin Cities. Ninety-seven percent of the volunteers hold bachelor’s degrees.
The mean age of volunteers is 29 with 10 percent being over 50. The oldest volunteer is 86. Specialized graduate programs are offered during the stay as part of the curriculum and there is a fellows program for returning volunteers, he added.
There are 25 different oversees programs available to volunteers ranging from environmental education and awareness to English teaching training education. Applicants can articulate which country they would like to serve in, but depending upon the person’s credentials, they will be placed where there is a need. The country itself dictates to the corps their own need.
Fresh faces
A meeting Wednesday for English majors offered current students a chance to voice questions about the organization and the service.
“There was a real strong interest,” said Curt Leitz, a graduate assistant academic adviser in the English department. “It didn’t appear that people were just shopping.”
Most of the people at the meeting seemed near graduation, Leitz added. After a short video, the 21 students in attendance asked questions relating to choosing the country, living expenses and how the corps responds to political instability in a country it is serving.
Several attendees filled out applications right away. Although applicants are eager to get started on their program, the paper trail can be quite extensive.
“Because it is a government agency, the application procedure can be a bureaucratic monster,” Tidwell said. Applicants generally sign up 12 months prior to leaving. After an interview, a medical and dental examination, legal procedures and reference check, the information is sent to Washington, D.C. for review and approval.
Some might question if the tedious application procedure and lack of tangible pay is worth the effort, but former volunteers quickly quiet these doubts.
“I don’t know how anyone can not consider the Peace Corps for what it can give you,” Tidwell said. “You don’t make money but gain so much in personal experience.”
The program itself is a 27-month commitment. Although some specific skills might be required for a certain program, language is not one of them.
“The language training in the Peace Corps is some of the best in the world,” Tidwell said. “You’re totally immersed and the more you learn the language the more comfortable you are — it’s empowering.”
Three months of intensive language, technical and cultural training in the specific country is followed by two years of service. Every program begins at a different time each year with the typical 20-person program groups leaving every month.
Tidwell said because the agency is governmental, the program is entirely paid for. Air fare, health insurance, a monthly stipend and returning readjustment money is given to every volunteer. Money for graduate study is also available upon return.
Tidwell said that while in Panama in 1995 he received $300 per month to live, which was more than enough. His rent was a mere $26 per month.
Learning a language and another culture is just a small part of the program.
“The Peace Corps goes a long way in developing maturity, independence and relying on yourself,” Tidwell said. “It’s a first stage of stepping out and applying yourself to some type of goal.”