Mac ranks seventh nationally for Peace Corps volunteers

By Matea Wasend

Nineteen Macalester alumni volunteered for the Peace Corps in 2009, upping the total number of Macalester grads who have been employed by the organization since its inception in 1961 to 326. These numbers placed Macalester on the Peace Corps’ “Top Colleges 2010” list, where the school ranked seventh among small colleges and universities for production of volunteers. This marks Macalester’s fifth consecutive appearance on the Peace Corps list. It has increased its rank each year since it first appeared at twentieth in the country in 2006.

“It really is an outstanding example of how grads go on to fulfill the learning they had at Mac,” said Associate Dean for Student Services Denise Ward. “It’s definitely a very positive reflection on Macalester.”

The Peace Corps has sent nearly 200,000 volunteers to 139 countries since it was founded in 1961. Peace Corps volunteers work in a variety of areas such as education, health services and youth community and development.

Kate Lechner ’07 volunteered for the Peace Corps straight out of college, working to combat preventable diseases in rural west Africa. For two years Lechner lived in a small village on the edge of the Sahara desert, working with mothers and children in the local health clinic and presenting workshops on sanitation, nutrition and HIV/AIDS.

“Since high school I’ve known that Peace Corps was in my future,” Lechner said in an e-mail. She shadowed a Peace Corps volunteer while studying abroad in Madagascar, and applied for the position within a month of her return to Macalester.

Lechner’s successful experience is typical for most Macalester students who go into the Peace Corps, according to Ward. In her 22 years as a career advisor at Macalester, Ward can remember only two alumni who reported having negative experiences.

“For those two, there are countless positive ones,” Ward said.

Lechner said she was not surprised by Macalester’s appearance on the Peace Corps’ list.

“Working in Mac admissions this fall, many interviewees spoke of their interest in international volunteerism, and the Peace Corps in particular,” Lechner said. “The students drawn to Macalester are likely self-selected for service and international awareness. Macalester is a school that attracts global citizens, and . grooms global citizens.”

The Peace Corps not only offers students an opportunity to give back to a community and immerse themselves in a foreign culture, but also provides noncompetitive eligibility for federal employment. Volunteers can also incorporate service into a graduate degree program, and defer or cancel payment of student loans.

Ward said these kind of opportunities make Peace Corps a very attractive option for graduating Macalester students.

“It goes beyond just digging trenches for fresh water in a foreign country,” Ward said. “There are other worthwhile benefits to be aware of.”

News of Macalester’s appearance on the Peace Corps’ list was posted on Macalester’s Facebook page soon after, eliciting 31 “likes” and three comments. One of the admirers was Anna Gizzi ’07, who worked for Americorps just after her graduation. While Americorps and the Peace Corps are separate programs, Americorps refers to itself as the “domestic Peace Corps” on its Web site.

“To be honest there were two things that motivated me to join Americorps,” Grizzi said in an e-mail. “My desire to contribute to something I believed in . and the lack of job opportunities right after graduation.”

Economic instability has driven Peace Corps applications up substantially in the past few years. In 2009 the organization reported a 16 percent increase in applications from the previous year. Although the Career Development Center has no way of tracking the exact numbers of students who apply for Peace Corps positions unless they work directly with the department, Ward said she has detected a similar increase in interest.

The increase in applications from Macalester students has prompted to the Peace Corps to conduct on-campus interviews for the first time, which will take place on March 23. This year’s application deadline is Feb. 25.

Ward credits both the long application and the Peace Corps’ sophisticated selection process for weeding out applicants who are not right for the program. Even after successfully completing the application, which requires an essay, resume, reference letters and interview, it can take up to a year after acceptance into the program for a volunteer to be notified of where they will be working.

“It asks for some patience, and some interim plans,” Ward said. “If a process is going to take a year . you will probably work through any second thoughts.