[girl]What does it take to change the world? Veterans of Wall Street with millions of dollars sitting comfortably in their bank accounts can write a check to various charities. Celebrities can put their faces on a billboard towering over Times Square to raise awareness for world poverty. World diplomats can vouch for the well being of their respective countries and create a secure standard of living for those residents. Physicians can help control the spread of preventable diseases while providing potentially life-saving health care.
But what about MSU students? Although there are countless college students that are interested in making a difference and feel as if the world is at their fingertips, it is highly unlikely that those students have the means to make a similar impact as celebrities or Wall Street veterans, let alone having millions of dollars crowding their bank accounts. It would be a rarity to see the face of an MSU student decorating Times Square billboards, and most have yet to negotiate with other world diplomats to improve life in their hometown. And while some may be studying to cope with the spread of preventable diseases, most do not spend their days treating patients. So, what can we do?
While money and prominence sometimes seem key to making an impact on the world, MSU students are still capable of changing the course of issues, such as poverty and lack of adequate health care that affect both the U.S. and the entire world – without breaking the bank. Looking for their own means of having an impact on the world, MSU students can find definite possibilities through the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, two programs that have been right under their nose all along.
The Peace Corps and AmeriCorps are two modes of change tailored to students, both abroad and within the United States. AmeriCorps is a domestic program focused on improving problems afflicting America through a volunteer force that does hands-on work throughout communities in the U.S. Both programs provide benefits that cater directly to college students or recent graduates as well as providing a direct way to better the world by gaining first-hand experience with issues such as poverty, hunger, education and health care – problems that at times are only seen through statistics in newspapers and broad news reports.
Since former president John F. Kennedy announced his plan to establish the Peace Corps on the steps of the student union at the University of Michigan in March of 1961, more than 182,000 Americans have passed through the program, serving in 138 countries. The program offers a two-year international experience during which volunteers are placed in developing countries and their specific communities in need of specialized skills to improve the area’s quality of life. Peace Corps volunteers, currently numbering at 7,810 volunteers and trainees, work in the areas of education, health and HIV/AIDS, business, environment, and agriculture. Thirty two years after the Peace Corps was established, former president Bill Clinton signed the National and Community Service Trust Act, which established AmeriCorps as a way to improve education, public safety, health, and the environment within U.S. borders. To this day, AmeriCorps works as a nationwide network linking 70,000 American citizens a year to service projects in the areas mentioned above while Peace Corps volunteers are working to further its mission in helping developing countries to meet the need for trained men and women and to promote a better understanding of each country’s culture as well as their relations with the United States. [corpsquote1]
According to Lisa Korte, MSU Peace Corps recruiter and former Peace Corps volunteer, projects are determined by need and change accordingly. “The Peace Corps’ mission is basically to offer trained assistance to developing countries and to help meet the needs of other countries,” said Korte, who returned from her service in Zaire in 1991. In order for countries to receive aid from the Peace Corps, they must contact the program with their desired specialized expertise. It is from there that the Peace Corps matches outstanding needs with the skills of its applicants and places volunteers. The role of a Peace Corps volunteer is not only to provide technical assistance, but also to be a representative of the U.S. “By you being a part of that community, you’re helping to promote a better understanding to people who have sometimes never met Americans,” Korte said.
Within Lansing, the three types of projects the supervisor of the City of Lansing AmeriCorps Rick Kibbey oversees include after-school and summer enrichment programs, family connections programs and health outreach programs. According to Kibbey, the after-school and summer enrichment programs run at community centers in the Lansing area and focus on providing kids with wholesome recreational activities while the family connections programs work with families of underprivileged children and provide support for young households. Health outreach programs are typically run through Lansing community centers as well and work to provide prenatal care, treatment for health issues such as diabetes and also provide information about insurance.
[walk1]While it is true that some aspects of the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps programs have changed since their birth, others have remained in order to build a strong foundation and maintain the life of both programs. “The education, community development and agriculture programs have been long-standing,” Korte said. “Certainly health and HIV/AIDS have become more prominent. When the Peace Corps started, the epidemic was not what it is now. Now it’s 20 percent of our program.” Information technology is another area that has become more active in The Peace Corps program and continues to grow in developing countries.
Since 1993, AmeriCorps has grown to incorporate the VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program, a national service project pioneered by Lyndon Johnson in 1964, as well as the NCCC (National Civilian Community Corps). While differences between the three programs center on full or part-time work (being a VISTA or an NCCC member is a full-time position, while volunteering in the AmeriCorps State and National program can be part-time), all three divisions of the AmeriCorps work for a common goal – to address the critical problems in America through specialized community service to strengthen communities.
The Volunteer Experience
Joining the Peace Corps means making a 27-month commitment that consists of three months of training in the country of placement and two years of service, while the AmeriCorps term of service is typically one year and can be renewed for up to two years. Peace Corps volunteers live with a host family during their first three months of training, but lodging during their two years of service depends on the community they’re living in. Some may continue to live with a host family, or some may move into a house with other volunteers. Once a participant is accepted to an AmeriCorps program, orientation and training are required for the various services they will be providing as well as training in neighborhood communication networks, project planning, and budgeting. Lodging, however, is not provided through the AmeriCorps program although a modest living allowance may be provided.
Peace Corps volunteers often find themselves placed in areas of the world they had never thought about spending a minute of their life in, while AmeriCorps participants apply to volunteer in programs or locations of their choosing. The skills of Peace Corps applicants are matched with the requested services of countries at that point in time. Although Korte had never raised fish before spending her Peace Corps years in Zaire, she worked in the area of fisheries and wildlife, and learned how to cultivate a thriving fish pond. “Anything a volunteer wants to do can be integrated into a community,” Korte said.
AmeriCorps offers the same flexibility, according to Michigan’s AmeriCorps program officer Marcy Bishop Kates. “Any interest that anyone has, they could probably find an AmeriCorps program that has something to do with it, maybe not in Michigan, but somewhere,” she said.
Similarly, Peace Corps projects span from bee-keeping, to HIV/AIDS awareness programs, to improving a community garden, to public education. Depending on the country or area of the world, projects may differ as well. Business and information technology is more prevalent in Asia while agriculture and environmental projects are more common in tropical countries.
According to Kates, education is the heaviest area of emphasis in the AmeriCorps program, although typical projects are not limited to tutoring, mentoring or after school programs. Disaster preparedness programs as well as building housing and aiding the homeless are examples of other ways AmeriCorps members work to improve a community. “AmeriCorps provides essential staffing to small community development organizations like ours. We have limited funding for staff, and the VISTAs assume responsibility for major programmatic efforts. They enable us to do much more than we otherwise could,” said Joan Nelson, the director of the Allen Neighborhood Center in Lansing. The center is the site of an after-school program along with other community service and outreach activities, which employ Lansing area AmeriCorps volunteers.
[road]The volunteer experience of both programs proves to be anything but an adjustment made overnight. Besides becoming comfortable in a completely new culture that surrounds a Peace Corps volunteer, creating a new way of life within that culture can be just as challenging. Aspects of everyday life that seem arbitrary — like what kind of bed you sleep on, what your meals consist of, and where you use the bathroom — can all serve as drastic changes upon entering the Peace Corps compared to the American lifestyle. AmeriCorps volunteers discover lifestyles they had previously never been exposed to, learn to cope with these issues on a daily basis and create solutions for those who need one. Moving to a new area, living on a low salary and taking on a new line of work are all obstacles AmeriCorps volunteers cope with. “For me, the most challeging part of being a VISTA was developing a network base and partnerships,” said Rosa Robinson, a third year AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer in Lansing. “I say that because I moved here from another city and was totally unfamiliar with the organizations in town and what they offered.”
Robinson knows what it means to discover the successes of AmeriCorps. By taking over the Youth Service Corps program at the Allen Neighborhood Center in Lansing, Robinson has seen the program grow from two to 15 kids. The Youth Service Corps, a group of Lansing area children who meet Tuesdays and Thursdays after school at the Allen Neighborhood Center, engages in service activities such as raking leaves in neighborhood yards, as well as other safe, educational, and fun after school activities. Robinson’s ambitions for the program has allowed for it to become a group that has developed many areas of the children’s lives. The Youth Service Corps is not your average after-school program. Robinson not only provides kids with the opportunity to engage in community service, but also to enjoy the performing arts, as she is working with the “Seats for Kids” program to provide tickets for the Youth Service Corps to see Broadway performances. Also, Robinson has arranged for transportation to and from the YMCA to engage members of the Youth Service Corps in physical fitness.
The desire to lead more than an ordinary life was what motivated journalism and international relations junior Alex Cash to join The Peace Corps. “I hope to learn more about myself as well as all of humanity from seeing how people completely different from me live,” Cash said. A postcard in her mailbox about a Peace Corps informational meeting introduced Cash to the idea of becoming a volunteer and although the thought of being separated from her family for 27 months makes Cash nervous, somewhere in Africa would be her placement of choice. “Most of my friends think [The Peace Corps] is very cool and interesting. My family however, especially my mom, is actually pretty concerned with my safety, Cash said. “She’s just afraid of not being able to see me for so long.”
Volunteers for both programs originate from all over the U.S., and have varying levels of education as well as a wide range of ages. “A fair amount of people sign up for the Peace Corps after college and some during mid-career change,” Korte said. “However it isn’t unusual to have older people. Although many are just finishing college, you might have people from 22 to 65.” No matter the participant’s personal profile, the Peace Corps provides extensive international experience as well as training for any career a participant wishes to enter, according to Korte. While most AmeriCorps volunteers are recent high school or college graduates, there has been a recent push to recruit more baby boomers. “With both half-time and part-time positions available, students can participate along with their parents,” Kates said.
The two most common types of AmeriCorps volunteers that Kibbey sees are recent college graduates before they enter graduate school and community volunteers who already live in the area of the project. By just being a college graduate, an AmeriCorps volunteer has developed skills such as organization, time management and proficiency with technology that are vital to many community projects, Kibbey explained. For instance, Nelson described VISTAs as people who, \”tend to be progressive, idealistic, committed to ‘thinking globally and acting locally,’ and come with a fairly well-developed skill set.”
[leaves]Robinson’s reach through AmeriCorps and the Allen Neighborhood Center goes beyond healthy and stimulating everyday activities. The Youth Service Corps, under Robinson’s direction, was able to fund a trip to Denver to meet the Dalai Lama as well as Desmond Tutu at Peace Jam, a conference centered on Nobel Laureates to promote peacekeeping and inspire youth. Although her term of service with AmeriCorps will expire after this year, Robinson’s work has left her with career options and ways to further the progress she has already made. Robinson will either accept an offer to work full-time at the Allen Neighborhood Center or she will become an AmeriCorps VISTA leader.
Just as there is a variety of Peace Corps or AmeriCorps volunteers, there are also different career paths after a volunteer experience as well. Participants go into education, non-profits, diplomatic work, development, international relations and graduate school, as well as a wide array of other fields in their post-service life.
\”The international experience is seen as a plus by many,” former Peace Corps volunteer and agricultural economics professor Richard Bernstein said. “It’s helpful in going into graduate school or into the job market.” Bernsten described his Peace Corps experience in Sierra Leon as empowering. “You start thinking you can do everything with nothing,” he said. During his three-year term of service in Sierra Leone, located in Western Africa between Liberia and Guinea, Bernsten worked in agricultural extension programs demonstrating rice farming and planting practices to farmers in his community, as well as helping them raise pigs and chickens. The opportunities to live in a different culture, experience community development, and foster relationships with people in villages are major benefits of the Peace Corps, Bernsten said. “You learn what you can live without and you realize the degree of inequity in the world – how rich we are and how much consumption we have in the U.S.” Bernsten said. “It makes you appreciate what America has to offer.” [corpsquote2]
AmeriCorps and The Peace Corps experiences can also ease the burden of being absent from the normal job market for a term of service, and in turn make it easier for students to join directly out of college. While in the Peace Corps, student loans are deferred during a volunteer’s service. Both programs offer a small but sufficient income paid to volunteers that vary upon the cost of living in the country of placement. Upon finishing the Peace Corps term of service, a volunteer receives $6,000 in order to fund the beginnings of their post-Peace Corps life. When an AmeriCorps term of service expires, The AmeriCorps Education Award, given by The National Service Trust, becomes available to volunteers upon finishing one year of service and amounts to $4,725, which can be used to pay for college, any other educational training, or to pay off student loans. AmeriCorps VISTA participants are eligible for either the AmeriCorps Education Award or a $1,200 stipend depending on amounts available for The National Service Trust to grant.
By doing what Kibbey referred to as “the hands in the dirt work,” AmeriCorps volunteers become able to form intelligent opinions on community issues, and are able to see improvements their work is making. “You really get a sense of working for a non-profit,” Kibbey said. “There is a hell of a difference between working for the Red Cross and the Allen Neighborhood Center. The breadth of contact with the neighborhood is different because, at a neighborhood center, you deal with whoever walks in the door.” Depending on the success of the volunteer, AmeriCorps sites sometimes offer jobs to participants when their term of service has expired. “We often keep VISTAs on, if we have funding for a staff position in the area that they have been working. Committment, skills, initiative and the neighborhood are all considerations,” Nelson said. The benefits of both programs center upon using long-term fieldwork to gain real experience. Kibbey said, “You don’t just get your feet wet, if you’re lucky you’re just up to your knees.”
[kids]Whether serving overseas or on domestic land, The Peace Corps and AmeriCorps volunteers unite under their common missions and their common impacts. Both programs adopt overwhelming problems that plague our entire world and shrink them down to sizes that make it possible for American volunteers to fathom bettering the world, give the volunteers resources and tools to do this and in turn create a force of dedicated human beings from around the globe. According to Korte, 76 nominations to participate in the Peace Corps were granted by the MSU Peace Corps Office last year. The imprint the Peace Corps has on MSU can also be seen by the more than 50 faculty members who are returning Peace Corps volunteers. The Peace Corps and AmeriCorps attack poverty, famine, the HIV/AIDS crisis, inequity of public education – crises that stretch across borders and do not affect South Africans, Japanese, Israelis and Americans alike. The organizations implement forces of dedicated volunteers willing to get their hands dirty with world issues.
At times it may seem that the world outside of MSU is forgettable – including the overwhelming, intangible worldly issues. The insulated world of MSU can be reduced to a job, class, homework and a social life all contained within East Lansing’s city limits. After four years of college, there seems to be either a fast track to success in place or no track at all, leaving a recent graduate wondering what will happen next. The Peace Corps and the AmeriCorps offer opportunities to veer students from the fast track or ease the pondering of what to do by allowing a volunteer to gain a completely different perspective on the world.
Professor Bernsten described his years spent in the Peace Corps as, “the four most useful years of [his] life.” The average MSU student is young and therefore constantly reminded of the myriad experiences and opportunities that lie ahead. The Peace Corps and AmeriCorps are reminders that, despite the lack of funds or fame, productivity really is possible.