Peace Corps Slots in High Demand

The agency is a popular destination for business majors looking to make a difference in the worldand on their career journeys

Volunteerism is on the rise in the United States, and business majors are taking notice. One such avenue that recent graduates can take is joining the Peace Corps.

In fact, recently named the organization the 38th-best place to launch a career—out of companies in all industries (see, 9/18/06 "The Best Place to Launch a Career").

The Peace Corps—which was established in 1961—recruits in 12 regions across the country. Vinny Wickes is responsible for New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania—a position which he has held for about a year. Wickes, a University of Central Florida graduate, has a varied background. He served as a squad leader in tactical air assault in Vietnam for the U.S. Army. He also spent 25 years in staffing.

Wickes recently spoke to reporter Julie Gordon about business-related opportunities for Peace Corps volunteers, recruiting tactics, and the benefits of joining. Following is an edited portion of their conversation:

What are the most popular types of programs that volunteers participate in?

Forty-three percent are teaching. And 16% are in business advising. There's a strong IT program component that is available today which seems to attract a lot of people. There is the agrarian side, but that only constitutes about 6%.

It has been reported that volunteerism is up in the U.S. Have you seen a rise in applications lately?

Yes, as a matter of fact this past year we've had a 30-year high.

Why are more people than ever looking into the Peace Corps? (See, 8/8/06, "Forget Jell-O Shots. How About a Volunteer Vacation?".)

At this particular point in time they are looking at a career that's much more global and broader. In addition, I think we're seeing a lot more people who are just interested in spreading a peaceful message around the world. Consequently, I think the Peace Corps has a residual component where people have heard of the Peace Corps, know what it is we do, or at least have a general idea of what we do, and therefore that has helped in terms of guiding people to the Peace Corps.

How competitive is it to get in?

It is competitive. We have 7,810 people in the field right now serving in 75 countries. Each year, we turn over half of those positions, approximately 4,000 positions in a year. And for those 4,000 positions we receive approximately 12,000 applications. So it is very competitive. And that's as a result of countries today who have asked us to serve there. Their needs are becoming more technical. They're becoming much more involved than they once were.

So is that the most appropriate place for a business grad?

I think it would be a very, very good place for undergraduate business majors who are interested in a more broad application of their skills. What they come back from the Peace Corps with is measurable skill sets. It's not anything that they would normally get just going in to work for a company and starting at the bottom, so to speak.

An individual who has gotten their undergraduate degree and they're coming back from the Peace Corps, you and I both know that looking at that resume or that person, this is somebody who has a willingness to help others. They've served their country. They believe in volunteering. They take risks. They adapt to other cultures or they have done so successfully for over two years. They sublimate their societal consumption craze. They do without for two years.

What do you think that most volunteers in the business arena do when they return to the United States?

Most of them are very, very marketable with respect to their skills in terms of getting into an international business environment. But these are also people who come back thinking, perhaps the original direction was, "I've got to be a broker on Wall Street," and now they have a different view of the world. It's an enriching experience that transcends just the "Let me see how much I can make in the business field." It's, "Let me see how much I can contribute," and oftentimes that does translate into what you'll make eventually.

What are the main qualities are that you're looking for in a volunteer?

Somebody who wants to help others. Someone who wants to really get involved and be a part of another culture. They like the idea of traveling and are willing to give up some of the comforts that they normally have in front of them. And probably really at the heart of it is that willingness to help other people, and without that I don't think they would make a good volunteer.

The programs that we presently have are ones that we developed in concert with the countries where we serve. They're telling us what their needs are and then they're also telling us how many people they need to accomplish that task. So that is what guides our recruiting and some of the skills that are involved are very scarce. I mean they're not easy to find.

I know that people can express preferences for countries and programs. How often do people get to go where they want?

In actuality what they can do is they can express to us if there's a region in which they would be interested or if a region they do not want to serve in. But there's never a commitment that we can make that says we will have a program exactly where you want to go, exactly when you want to be there. It's really a case of getting back to that primary interest on the person's part of wanting to help others and if the other things that they're interested in can be fulfilled, that's fine, but we can never guarantee that they will be.

What happens if you get placed in a country where you don't speak the language?

In many cases the language requirements are up-front and clear in a program. You might be put into a situation like in Senegal where people speak French. So obviously we're looking for certain levels of French if they're going to be teaching and things of that nature. However, do you know the Senegalese dialect of French? And the answer is no. So consequently when the person for that particular program is qualified, when they are selected, when they are nominated to that program and obviously they've met the criteria and maybe French is a part of it, then when they get to their country they go through an extensive 90-day language-training and cultural-training program.

So it's very, very intense. That never stops, just so you know. It's an ongoing process, and how it's supported is normally they will live with a host family for either their entire time they're there or most of the time they're in that country—which really significantly helps their language capability.

Can you explain the Fellows USA program?

Fellows is a program whereby return Peace Corps volunteers can apply at any one of the 57 universities that are participants. What those universities will do is they will allow the person's Peace Corps service to be applied to their graduate program. I can't come up with a rule of thumb here, but generally they also will provide a preferential tuition rate for the actual in-school part of the program.

But normally the person can look at probably two to three semesters of in-classroom training, and the university will allow their two years of Peace Corps service to be applied to a program which is consistent with what they did. The Fellows Program really provides a return Peace Corps volunteer with the option of utilizing their Peace Corps service for the remainder of their life. They can go to school at any time at any of those schools.

And the Masters International Program?

The Fellows program is on the return side. The Masters International is on the front end. So you say, "I'm a journalist, I want to do something with respect to that. I'm going to apply at NYU to their journalism school." And you then apply to the Peace Corps simultaneously. That would qualify you then for the Masters International Program but you have to do all of that up-front. And then your schooling is then applied with your Peace Corps service.

While serving, living expenses are paid for, correct?

They receive a monthly stipend.

And they get $6,000 when they return to the U.S.?

That's correct.

I guess it's hard to imagine that some recent grads with debt and financial concerns would be able to not work for a year.

First of all, their loans are deferred. And anybody with Perkins loans, 30% of the Perkins loans are forgiven.

But that's just putting off loan repayment for two years, it's not getting rid of them.

It is, and certainly at that point you're going to have to pay it back. But certainly this would enrich you I think much beyond just getting out of school and starting to pay back after five months (see, 1/6/05, "B-School Students with a Cause").

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