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A round trip flight from Miami to Detroit for spring break: $341.

A semester studying abroad in Quito, Ecuador: $7,674.

A year abroad with the Peace Corps: Priceless.

Well actually. . .they pay you.

Peace Corps volunteers have stereotypically been categorized as dreadlocked, hemp-wearing hippies wanting to save the world, but today more and more college students are looking to the Peace Corps and other long-term service organizations to help pay the bills, or at least keep them from piling up. Whereas a student on spring break may spend only a week traveling, or a study-abroad student a semester, come college-aged volunteers often decide to spend years away from home, learning and working. These are the lives of the participants in three of the nation’s largest long-term service programs: the Peace Corps, Teach for America, and AmeriCorps.

Each of these organizations have the same overall goal of making the world a better place. However, each group goes about achieving that same goal in a different way. The Peace Corps trains and sends Americans abroad to 72 different countries, where they take on projects in an entirely foreign environment. People accepted to Teach for America get trained on the job. They earn their teaching certificate while working in some of America’s neediest public school systems. AmeriCorps participants spend time working with issues ranging from disaster relief to the environment in the U.S.

Perhaps, the most well known of these three organizations is the Peace Corps. This program was officially established on March 1, 1961. It originated from a challenge that Senator John F. Kennedy issued to University of Michigan students in 1960. In his speech he asked, “How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?”

Lexine Hansen, a MSU campus representative for the Peace Corps, responded to Kennedy’s challenge when she joined the Peace Corps in 1997. Hansen described the organization’s mission as threefold. Their goals are to bring talented individuals to fill the needs of developing nations and to become cultural ambassadors who promote understanding of Americans abroad. “That was particularly important in the 1960s when there wasn’t global television, so people really didn’t know anything about Americans. It continues to be incredibly relevant now,” Hansen said. She described the third component of the Peace Corps mission as helping to bring understanding of other cultures back to America.

In order to fulfill these goals, Peace Corps volunteers spend 27 months in their country of service. Three of those months are devoted to intensive training in both language and technical skills. The next two years entail the service itself. During those two years, the Peace Corps provides many tangible benefits to its members. Peace Corps volunteers receive a stipend during their time of service that covers food and housing, and “enables them to live in a manner similar to the local people in their community,” according to the Peace Corps Web site. Hansen said that some volunteers are better at budgeting than others, but she managed and travel around Africa for 18 days entirely on money that she had saved from her stipend.

In addition, transportation to and from a country of service is paid for, and each volunteer gets 48 days of vacation during their term of service. There are Peace Corps doctors if any volunteer should get sick during his service.

 

“You get full medical and dental coverage,” Hansen said. “And I don’t mean insurance, I mean you get coverage. If you have a problem, you go to a Peace Corps doctor, they take care of you. Period.”

Benefits continue when Peace Corps members return home. There is a resettlement bonus of more than $6,000 to help someone get that first apartment or just to ease his transition back to the U.S. There are also opportunities both professionally and in education. Some graduate schools have money set aside for Peace Corps volunteers, or even programs where students can do research for a master’s degree while serving abroad. The organization also provides job placement support and preference in receiving certain federal jobs.

Peace Corps volunteers participate in a wide-ranging set of service projects in order to earn these benefits. Projects may consist of improving water sanitation in Zambia, teaching computer and technological skills in Thailand or working to protect the environment in the Ukraine.

Hansen was a volunteer in Morocco from 1997 to 1999. Her area of work was in health and sanitation. She was given a primary assignment with a non-governmental association to promote women’s health education in rural communities. “I was trying to teach women things like wash with soap before you eat, how to brush your teeth, really basic things like that,” she said. Hansen added that though volunteers start out with one goal, that goal can adapt and change based on the needs of the community. “Even though it was technically my mission to do this health education, what I really ending up recognizing was that women didn’t have the economic opportunities to take care of their health. They couldn’t brush their teeth because they didn’t have the money to buy a toothbrush,” she said.

With that realization, Hansen said she ended up doing a lot of work with women’s income-generating projects and training the staff at her non-governmental association in adult education.

The project grew, and by her second year in the Peace Corps Hansen was organizing a trilingual, national conference for women in Jordan. “There’s no organization in the world that would hire a 23-year-old to do that kind of work,” Hansen said. “It [the Peace Corps] offers you an incredible opportunity for personal and professional growth.”

All in all, it sounds like a good deal. So, in these rough economic times, are more people turning to the Peace Corps as a source of employment?

Hansen said that they have seen a significant rise in applications, but they don’t believe it has anything to do with economics. The trend showed the rise in applications starting many years ago.

“I mean, if you’re afraid that you can’t get a job, you’re not gonna make a 27-month commitment, you know? It’s just not something that you do,” she said.

Instead, Hansen said she believes the rise in applications has to do with two things: A shift in the U.S. toward an understanding of the importance of volunteering and service, and a growing understanding of the value of global connections.

“People really want the experience of living and working in a foreign country,” she said.

Whether their motivation is altruistic or purely financial, MSU students are taking full advantage of the opportunities that the Peace Corps provides. MSU’s impressive ranking in number of alumni volunteers has been steadily rising for years. In 2006, MSU was ranked ninth in number of alumni volunteers. Today, it is ranked an impressive No. 3.

The Peace Corps is a popular organization and many MSU students and alumni have participated in it, but it isn’t for everybody. For those whose volunteer goals have more of a domestic focus, there is Teach for America and AmeriCorps.

Teach for America was founded in 1990 and, according to its Web site, the organization has grown to become the largest provider of teachers for low-income communities in the nation. The requirements upon entrance into the program are more demanding than those of the Peace Corps. A person must have a bachelor’s degree and a minimum GPA of 2.5 to be considered for a spot in the program, but there are rewards for those admitted.

Financially, teachers can make between $27,000 and $47,000 a year, depen
ding on their location. Most earn their teacher’s certification by the end of their time with Teach for America, which can save money on schooling.

Other benefits of joining Teach for America include deferment for student loans as well as an education award of almost $5,000 at the end of each year, which goes toward future educational expenses or paying off student loans.

During tough economic times, it’s a paying job. Suzanne Wilson, the chairperson of the teacher education program at MSU, attributed that theory as one of the reasons people want to join Teach for America recently. “Other ways of getting into teacher education, you know, you postpone getting a paycheck,” Wilson said. “This way you go for the summer and then you start getting a paycheck in the fall even though you’re not a certified teacher yet.”

To get that paycheck, Teach for America volunteers spend five weeks during the summer completing a training program. They are then placed in one of 32 regions across the country for a two-year term.

The main goal of Teach for America is to solve educational inequity. Specifically, the goal is to solve unequal distribution of educational resources between urban and rural, high-income and low-income areas. Wilson said that contrary to popular belief, Teach for America is not about making people into lifelong teachers, but rather “making them lifelong advocates for children and for equity and for social justice in the United States.”

But not all Teach for America participants stick around for their entire term of service. Wilson said that the drop-out rate for the teachers from the organization is high. “At least 50 percent are gone after their core experience is done,” Wilson said. “And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Among teachers, generally new teachers, about half of the people who go into teaching in one year are gone.”

This drop-out rate is generally attributed to the tough conditions in many of America’s schools. On the Teach for America blog, a blogger identified as annainmemphis said, “The week after Thanksgiving was MISERABLE. I mean, the absolute worst week I’ve had all year. The door to my classroom was vandalized–the window was broken and the frame ripped out–while I was in the room. Of course the kids ran, so we have no idea who did it. That was Monday.”

Blogger hotmath added, “One of the teachers next door to me is failing 80% of his students…Today I passed out progress reports and EVERY student in my 10th period had a 50, F in his class. I couldn’t believe it. EVERY student.”

With such challenging conditions and high drop-out rates, Wilson said one of the fundamental issues with Teach for America is that people question whether it is worth the time and money it takes to run. Teachers generally improve at teaching in their first several years, as shown by higher standardized test scores and increasing student achievement. But if the teachers are only there for two years, it is a considerable amount of time and money put into a system that may not be necessarily reaping the rewards. If Teach for America can’t keep teachers in the classroom, why is it a worthwhile program?

“It’s a social movement that has attracted quite a lot of attention, quite a lot of resources,” Wilson said. “Almost all of the members that I’ve met are very bright, very committed people, and I think their lives are changed because of their experience in those schools.”

Wilson also has been impressed by the ability of Teach for America to raise society’s opinion of the role of the teacher. “I come from the upper middle class, and my dad has a Ph.D. in physics,” Wilson said. “He had a very typical reaction. ‘Why would you want to be a teacher? You’re too smart to be a teacher.'”

She said that Teach for America has managed to make teaching an admirable profession.

“That’s quite a remarkable social thing to have done,” Wilson said. “To have made teaching prestigious.”

In the end, Wilson said, it’s not about what other people think. It’s about making a difference. “Capture a population that has energy and enthusiasm and intelligence but is vaguely directed somewhere, and get it directed at the social good,” Wilson said. “Get it directed at equity. And I think that’s really how they’ve oriented their mission.”

It is a similar population that AmeriCorps hopes to capture in doing their part toward the social good. Like Teach for America, AmeriCorps consists mainly of young college students and recent graduates. The organization, established in 1993 through legislation drafted by the Clinton administration, is a national network composed of hundreds of programs. The programs deal with issues including public safety, health, homelessness, ex-offender re-entry and the environment.

Often called the “domestic Peace Corps,” AmeriCorps logged 74,689 members and 62.4 million hours served in 2005. AmeriCorps volunteers generally spend 10 months to a year in service, depending on the program, and work in all 50 states.

In terms of finances, the benefits of being an AmeriCorps member are less clear-cut than those of the Peace Corps or Teach for America due to the diverse nature of the organization and the many programs it encompasses. All AmeriCorps members receive a living allowance during their time of service that prevents them from having to pay out-of-pocket expenses. As the AmeriCorps Web site states, “You may not save much money during your year of service, but most members find the living allowance to be adequate to cover their needs.”

In addition, volunteers receive either $4,725 in an education award or a $1,200 end-of-service stipend after one year of full-time service. AmeriCorps members may also qualify for deferment, or even repayment, of student loans during their service.

There are three main components of AmeriCorps: AmeriCorps State and National, AmeriCorps VISTA and AmeriCorps NCCC. AmeriCorps State and National provides funding to both local and national organizations that, in turn, use those funds to recruit and supervise volunteers. AmeriCorps VISTA is designed specifically to fight poverty. Members work full-time for a year at a non-profit organization or local government agency. AmeriCorps NCCC, which stands for National Civilian Community Corps, is dedicated to strengthening communities and developing leaders. NCCC volunteers live on one of five campuses across the country for 10 months. They serve on 10 to 12 person teams, working on projects in the region served by their specific campus.

The prerequisites for joining AmeriCorps depend on which of these three programs is chosen, in addition to the particular organization within that program. Whereas some organizations may require a bachelor’s degree or experience in the field, others require only a willingness to serve.

AmeriCorps NCCC has the most demanding age requirement of the three – volunteers must be between ages 18 and 24. Other requirements are less specific, but include the ability to communicate in English, perform physical labor and serve long hours beyond the eight-hour workday.

Neither AmeriCorps State and National or VISTA has an maximum age limit, but volunteers must be at least 17. Because both programs encompass many smaller organizations, there are no other universal requirements. One program may look for a volunteer with professional experience in organizing fundraisers, while another may seek someone with a degree in computer science, and another simply an enthusiastic volunteer who is ready to work. These requirements depend entirely on the particular group that a volunteer is working with.

AmeriCorps may seem like just a broad title for an unconnected group of organizations, and it is extremely wide-ranging. However, each program and each individual member is united under the AmeriCorps pledge, the first line of which promises: I will get things done for America – to ma
ke our people safer, smarter, and healthier.

That pledge embodies the spirit of AmeriCorps, Teach for America and the Peace Corps. Each organization seeks, in some way, to make the world a better place. In that light, it may seem callous to ask: Which will make me the most money? But when times are hard, that’s what people want to know. Here’s a summary of the benefits:

Peace Corps

• Stipend, with possibility to save a portion.

• Medical and dental coverage.

• Resettlement bonus of $6,000.

• Educational award, almost $5,000.

Teach for America

• Annual salary of $27,000 to $47,000.

• Education award of almost $5,000 each year.

• Teaching certification.

Americorps

• Living allowance.

• Education award of $4,725 or $1,200 end-of-service stipend.

• Deferment of student loans with potential to repay.

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