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Duke ranked top volunteer producer as Peace Corps "joins 21st century"

Alumni are stepping up their service commitments on the government’s dollar.

The University, after sending 18 volunteers in 2013, was recently ranked No.16 on the Peace Corps’ 2014 Top Volunteer-Producing Colleges and Universities List in the category of medium-sized school—defined as having 5,000-15,000 undergraduates. The last time Duke ranked on the list was in 2011 when it came in 25th with 21 volunteers. Fluctuations in the rankings may have roots in national economic factors and the availability of smaller scale immersive experiences to students.

“Duke has always been an important partner with us,” said Peace Corps Acting Director Carrie Hessle-Radelet. “The rankings are a great way for us to recognize the work of our university partners. We love college students, and they are one of our most important demographics.”

There are currently 18 undergraduate alumni volunteers in the field, placing Duke in a tie with University of Notre Dame, Loyola University Chicago, Howard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Chicago. Rankings are based on education information self-reported by Peace Corps volunteers for the fiscal year 2013, as of September.

Since 2006, the University has averaged 17 volunteers with a low of 11 in 2010 and highs of 23 volunteers in 2006 and 22 in 2012. Although Duke hasn’t been in the top 25 list every year, it’s always been close, said Kelly Monterroso, public affairs specialist for the Peace Corps’s Mid-Atlantic Regional Recruiting Office.

The rankings are intended to showcase universities that foster service and the traits Peace Corps values in volunteers, Monterroso said. More than 10,000 applications are submitted nationwide each year, with 1 in 3 applicants making it to the other end of the application process as volunteers. She declined to release information on the number of applications submitted by Duke alumni.

Bear market mentality

A total of 706 Duke undergraduate alumni have served in the Peace Corps which has sent more than 215,000 volunteers abroad since its founding in 1961.

Upon recognizing that changes in the job market have made it more difficult for Peace Corps to be successful in attracting applicants from “a place like Duke,” William Wright-Swadel, executive director of the Career Center, reached out to the Peace Corps and similar organizations with his insights on how students are thinking.

“We wanted to make sure the Peace Corps was an option that students were still considering,” he said. “The legacy of people going to the Peace Corps is very strong here, but there’s some nuanced things that need to happen.“

Many students seek out “convertible internships” during the summer after junior year with the intention of receiving a job offer, Wright-Swadel said. As a result, many juniors are not entering the job market at all.

“The federal government tends not to think that way,” he said.

He explained that the Peace Corps seeks people from many different backgrounds across the nation and that bureaucratic government agencies likely have fewer resources dedicated to recruitment than some private companies that target only selective campuses “in a big flashy way.”

Wright-Swadel added that many students do not develop an interest in or awareness of programs such as Peace Corps and Teach for America—which don’t recruit as far in advance as companies with convertible internships—until senior year when they may already be committed.

“When do you think about whether you want to do Peace Corps? You don’t,” he said.

Given the tough job market since 2008, he added that students and parents across the country tend to be risk-averse, but especially so among Duke students. Opportunities like Peace Corps that do not fit into traditional employment are seen as a distraction from advancing in a career.

“It’s an opportunity not only to serve, but also to gain skills that are useful in today’s difficult and also global environment,” Hessle-Radelet said.

She cited languages, problem-solving, cross-cultural competency and technical skills as some of the takeaways of Peace Corps that are easily translatable to numerous sectors.

I never knew how much I didn't know until I joined the Peace Corps,” wrote current health volunteer Whitney Arey, Trinity ’12, in an email Wednesday. “Companies love to hire returned Peace Corps volunteers, because you can ask them to do a project, give them almost no resources, and they will find a way to do it.”

Joining the 21st century

Hessle-Radelet has spearheaded an agency-wide assessment and reform effort since 2010—the first of its kind since the organization’s founding in 1961.

“We felt it was important to start with the base of really understanding our organization so we started with a comprehensive strategy of reform to bring Peace Corps into the 21st century,” she said.

Efforts have included giving volunteers better training in technical skills and connecting them with experts in international development to maximize the benefits for communities served. In addition, the quality of safety and health support for volunteers in the field has been upgraded, she added.

Marques Anderson, recruiter for Duke and other parts of the state, said potential applicants have access to more information and choice now than in the past.

The Peace Corps website now features an interactive map with current volunteer openings listed by area and departure date.

The Peace Corps has a live map on its website where anyone can see open volunteer assignments and scheduled departure dates. Where in the past individuals could preference regions, recruiters can now discuss specific countries with applicants, Anderson said.

He added that the application process itself, which can take six months to a year, has become more streamlined with applicants being moved into consideration faster.

“It could have taken a matter of months, whereas now it takes weeks,” Anderson said.

Tangibles and intangibles

The 27-month commitment of the Peace Corps impacts different individuals differently, but in most cases, the effects are lasting.

“Every Peace Corps volunteer is going to have a life-changing transformational experience,” said Hessle-Radelet, who herself served in Western Samoa in the '80s.

Wright-Swadel drew parallels between Peace Corps and university programs such as DukeEngage and Bass Connections for their shared emphasis on experiential learning. He noted the importance of fostering “knowledge in the service of society,” and making service a part of how students think, but emphasized that such work does not need to be a direct volunteer experience.

“How many people sign up for the Peace Corps doesn’t matter for me,” Wright-Swadel said. “The question for us is always, ‘Are students finding the opportunities that they need to find, when they need to find them?'”

Duke currently has 18 volunteers with an undergraduate body of 6,655. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which has 35 current volunteers, was ranked 25th in the large colleges category with 18,503 undergraduates. North Carolina State University has 24 volunteers currently with 24,833 undergraduates.

Anderson observed that many of the individuals from Duke he moves forward in the application process enthuse about immersive experiences that they have been afforded in college.

“Whenever somebody comes up to me, they all say that, ‘Well, I was in DukeEngage,’” Anderson said. “These types of offerings that Duke has really gets to people early on and that causes a change in them. It awakens an awareness in them.”

Meredith Casper, assistant director for training and student development at DukeEngage, has heard a number of students express interest in joining Peace Corps.

"Peace Corps is a natural step in the area of immersive service, civic engagement and participatory development," Casper wrote in an email .

Anderson noted that experience abroad is not required, but can play a significant role in igniting interest and shifting individuals to think seriously about civic engagement.

A returned volunteer himself, Anderson recounted how growing up in inner-city Cleveland and attending Miami University of Ohio, he never had a college abroad experience. He only found out about the program that sent him to Nicaragua from a recruiter who captured his imagination at a career fair his senior year.

Although Arey went abroad three times as an undergraduate, she cited her friendships with other students who had vastly different life experiences as her main inspiration for crossing borders.

“One of my best friends from college grew up in a small village in Kenya and went on to study computer science at Duke,” she said. “My friendships with remarkable people like this drove me to explore further and learn more about different parts of the world.”

Arey has appreciated her time so far as a completely new type of learning experience even though she had previously traveled to 15 countries, including Ghana. In the beginning, Arey was unable to do the basics of everyday Ghanaian life such as carrying water on her head or eating scalding hot fufu with her fingers, she said.

“A year later and I conduct all my morning conversations in Fante, I laugh when the market women try to get me to go weed their farms,” she said. “When someone from outside the village calls me ‘Obruni’—the Ghanian word for white person or foreigner—they are immediately corrected: ‘Don’t call her Obruni.’”

Whitney Arey, Trinity '12, is a current Peace Corps health volunteer in Ghana, who was inspired to join by her friendships at Duke.

Still, she said Peace Corps is not for everyone, and volunteers should think critically before participating. She compared the more-than-two-year commitment to redoing half of college, with the added challenges of moving to a different country alone and away from familiar language, people and urban amenities.

She added that the experience can be stressful and even hazardous to health given parasites, poor sanitation and food and water-borne illnesses that may be common.

“When I got here, I was told that 90 percent of Peace Corps volunteers poop their pants during their service, and 10 percent lie about it,” Arey said.

Casper, who completed a 27-month assignment in southern Belize before joining Peace Corps, said the experience abroad has changed her previously ethnocentric perspective and blurred her perception of normal, but that she sometimes wishes she participate in an immersive domestic program first.

"U.S.-based programs like Teach for America, Greencorps and AmeriCorps are of great value to our own country," she said. "It is important to match your skills and goals for service for that of the community and organization you wish to serve. The options we have within our own country are vast and come without some of the challenges of service abroad."

Anderson said that while there are “the intangibles” that accompany “making a difference,” Peace Corps works to make the role attractive to 23-year olds who have other options. Post-volunteering benefits include noncompetitive eligibility for a number of graduate programs and federal jobs as well as an adjustment stipend.

“We had a tagline: ‘This is the toughest job you’ll ever love,'” Hessle-Radelet said.