[hewitt] Yvonne Wood fears working 9-to-5 every day in corporate America more than squat toilets in Latin America.
Next January, the environmental studies and applications senior and her fiancée, international relations senior Andrew Hewitt, will be heading off through the Peace Corps to a rural Latin American community where they will help with agricultural development.
Although the two agreed they would have gotten married this summer regardless of their plans for the Peace Corps, they explained that the opportunity the Peace Corps provides in placing married couples together made it a much more “rational decision” for them to plan their wedding this June. “It’s easier to explain it to other people,” said Wood, adding that it is also “easier to justify to your parents.” Hewitt agreed, joking that while he thought his dad might be hesitant, he was the one who started filling out the applications. While they met during an MSU study abroad program in Thailand, the couple said their two-year assignment with the Peace Corps will not only provide Wood with the opportunity to reconnect with her Latin American heritage (her mother is Colombian), but also for the two of them to try something new, travel with one another, give back to rural communities and gain new perspectives. [quotess1]
So what do students find appealing about giving up luxuries and giving back? Why are many graduating students at MSU, like Wood and Hewitt, opting for alternative paths as opposed to entering the corporate world of cubicles and expense reports? Is there a method to this post-graduation madness, or are kids simply avoiding adulthood altogether? MSU seniors are continuously faced with these questions as graduation rolls around and the real world stares them in the face.
Dr. Phil Gardner, director of the MSU Collegiate Employment Research Institute, explains that this phenomenon of students opting for alternative post-graduation experiences is not that uncommon given the current economic situation, but there are other pressing concerns for students as well. While Gardner explains that there has been evidence to suggest a recent surge in numbers for Peace Corps and related volunteer/work opportunities, such as Teach For America, Americorps or teaching English abroad, as a result of the lack of job opportunities in a stagnant economy, he also believes there is a generational difference in the amount of responsibilities they have and the priorities they consider when looking for a job. Gardner said he recognizes a marked difference in post-graduation attitude with the recent generation of college students. Speaking about his generation, Gardner says, “We were expected to grow up a lot earlier and accept more responsibilities…[now] once you defer to college, you don’t have to grow up as fast.”
Gardner says students are now trying to figure out why they’re in college. “They graduate, get out there; they haven’t really found out who they are and they’re willing to take on different things,” said Gardner. “They think, ‘OK, I’ve got my degree, now I’m going to take some time to myself.’” Although there is a large variety of graduating students, the type of kids that look toward these experiences, according to Gardner, are those who look for interesting work and a way to make a difference. When asked whether he feels service-learning experiences are beneficial to students, Gardner says, “I think they’re great experiences if they [students] do the reflection along with them.”
The lack of opportunity in the labor market is another main reason for college graduates not jumping into their careers. According to the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth, as of January, the unemployment rate was at a staggering 6.2 percent, compared with that of the national economy, which was 4.8 percent as of February. This has severely affected job availability for recent graduates, but that isn’t the only reason that students are choosing not to jump onto the rungs of the corporate ladder.
Lexi Hansen, MSU Peace Corps representative and Peace Corps alum, also believes it is the goal to make some significant change somewhere in the world that motivates many students to take advantage of alternative opportunities. Although the type of students she encounters who are interested in the Peace Corps run the full spectrum, Hansen has found that one important priority to many is that they want to make the world a better place. Along with the chance to make a difference, Hansen has found that independence and the opportunity for growth have been important to students as well.
For international relations senior Lauren Germaine, her interest in the Chinese language and Southeast Asian culture has prompted her to look down other avenues, rather than the oft-followed law school path. Although Germaine has applied for a number of programs, including law school, the Peace Corps and consulting and public relations jobs in the U.S., she is seriously considering a move to China to pursue work and develop a mastery of the language. Germaine, who has been taking Chinese since the sixth grade and is only one class short of having a double major in Chinese, has studied abroad in China with MSU and plans to go back this summer, if not semi-permanently. Besides her interest in the Chinese people and culture, Germaine is wary of forking out tons of money to enter into law school or graduate school without a definite idea of what she wants to do, and she sees working in China as a possible financial advantage. She explains the willingness of many companies to finance further education and how this could help her down the line.
When asked what she hopes to gain from the experience she said, “more insight as to what I want to do in the long run…more opportunities financially and educationally.” Germaine figures this is a popular rationale for her peers who face graduation with less than a perfectly clear vision of what they want in the future. “I think a lot of people choose alternatives because they aren’t sure what they want to do…it gives them more time and also a break from school.”
However, Gardner also concedes that not all companies are in favor of this time off. Hansen also has experience with this concern that “giving up” time to do more off-the-beaten-path activities will set a student back in the career search. In response, she tells students about how she was competing with people that had 5-10 years of experience and advanced degrees when she got back from her service. Similarly, when a student comes to Gardner for advice or guidance about alternative post-graduation plans, Gardner helps to put things in perspective about what they hope to accomplish by asking students what they really value; what their strengths, weaknesses and interests are; and helps to provide direction from there. [fromthere]
Ayanna Wheeler, an MSU alumna, has been taking a break from college, but not school completely. Wheeler has been substitute teaching since graduating with a degree in journalism and will be entering a classroom again in the fall as a teacher. Her decision to enter the Teach For America 2006 Corps was made in an MSU history class where a recruiter came and spoke. After attending the CNN screening, she fell in love with the program and, after submitting an application, was accepted as a Campus Campaign Manager for MSU. Wheeler said holding the position has not only made her realize how many kids have been left behind in the education system, but has also equipped her with improved time management and the organizational skills necessary to prepare for her future position as an elementary teacher in Chicago.
Although Wheeler said people join Teach for America for many different reasons, she has noticed one common thread of passion. Wheeler, who plans on covering education as a reporter in the future, said once people learn about the program, they are angry because of what she thinks is a sense of heightened awareness students experience in college. “Coming to college you begin to learn different issues,” Wheeler said, adding that people “want to become part of the program so they can change things. They want to give back.” Wheeler herself, although she admits she might be nervous at first, is excited to shape the minds of young students and change kids’ lives by getting into the classrooms. Her goal? “To help kids enjoy learning and to believe in themselves. I’m looking forward to kids saying ‘I can’ and not only ‘I can,’ but ‘I will.’”
So with a stagnant economy and labor force compounded with more and more graduating students’ search for identity, passion for social justice and sense of adventure, maybe fewer and fewer will contemplate signing bonuses and trendy urban lofts, and instead begin thinking of living in straw huts or teaching underprivileged kids as an option when asked, “What’s next?” [woodhewitt]
For Wood and Hewitt, who plan on attending graduate school and law school, respectively, the path ahead is filled with adventure and opportunity. While the pair does have some trivial concerns (Wood admits she is scared of spiders, and Hewitt muses that he will miss filling out a bracket for two years of March Madness) they are both confident that they will return with a fresh perspective about the world and experience under their belt for their future endeavors.
And although some are in awe that they would willingly “give up” two years of their lives, Hewitt said he is hardly giving up anything. He said if there was anything he could choose to do, it would be to travel with Wood, which the Peace Corps allows him to do.
Regardless of material things the pair will be forced to give up during their stay, Wood says the compromise will be worthwhile and that she sees this as an opportunity to “share a life experience and have the support that, going into it as an individual, you just don’t have. It will give us a great perspective for the rest of our lives. What you get from it will outweigh any sacrifice.”

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