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Peace Corps applications up

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ROCHELLE B. BIRKELO
June 3, 2009
— Caitlin Brien said she needed a break after graduating May 10 from Carroll University in Waukesha.

Someday, the 21-year-old Lake Mills woman will pursue a master's degree.


But not yet.


"I want to travel, see a different culture, learn a different language and interact deeper than the tourist," she said.


So she joined the Peace Corps.


Brien leaves June 16 for two years in Mauritania, Africa.


In addition to an international experience, she'll get a fellowship to support her graduate studies.


"It was one of the first things I looked into," she said of the financial aid.


The Peace Corps partners with universities nationwide to offer Fellows USA graduate programs with financial assistance, said Christine Torres, public affairs specialist with the Peace Corps regional office in Chicago.


The Peace Corps also has graduate opportunities within its Master's International Program in areas such as education, health, environment, agriculture and businesses development. Partner schools give credit for Peace Corps service, and some offer financial aid, Torres said.


Applications up

Peace Corps applications jumped 16 percent last year.


Torres attributed the increase to:


-- A growing emphasis on national service.


"We saw a particular up tick in applications during the inauguration week and just following President Obama's speech, where he called on Americans to serve and engage in international outreach," she said.


-- A younger generation that has grown up in a culture that encourages service.


-- More emphasis at college campuses on international awareness and service.


-- An increase in applications among older Americans because of the Peace Corps' 50-plus outreach campaign.


"Many baby boomers are still affected by JFK's call to service and formation of the Peace Corps in 1961," she said.


Such is the case with Judy Figi of Janesville, who applied to serve in the Peace Corps the day after President John F. Kennedy was shot.


"I think Kennedy's call to service moved us. A lot of us were inspired by Kennedy and said if we really cared about him we'd apply for the Peace Corps," she said.


Torres said she doesn't think the souring economy is the only reason more people are signing up for the Peace Corps.


"Filling out the application takes time and thought. So we feel most applicants have already had some inclination for the Peace Corps, which is a two-year commitment in an international community," she said.


Brien agreed: "I was really interested going into something international-based. I first looked into it my freshman year at Carroll and started the application last summer before the economy was really, really bad."


Networking

Brien hopes the Peace Corps will help her career.


"If I want to do something in the international field, the service itself of working in a foreign country plus access to a large network of former Peace Corps volunteers should help with job networking opportunities." she said.


But it's about helping people, too.


"I know some former Peace Corps volunteers who have traveled back to where they served and saw their projects still affecting the community where they worked," she said.


Such is the case with Figi.


Through Friends of Sierra Leone, where Figi served in the Peace Corps in the 1960s, she has gone back every year since 2004. That's when she learned about Operation Classroom, a project of the United Methodist Church-Rocky Mountain Conference that works with Sierra Leonean teachers.


Figi, a retired teacher, in the last five years has helped establish literacy programs for parents of preschoolers, workshops for primary teachers and health and wellness programs in small villages. She leaves in July for another 2 1/2-week stay.


Economic pinch

Applications are up, but so are costs.


Some Peace Corps applicants are waiting longer to receive program assignments and departure dates because the Peace Corps has been affected by increased fuel and food costs, inflation and fluctuation in the value of the dollar, Torres said.


"Our dollars are stretched because of this economic environment, which has meant scaled-back volunteer programming in some areas for the time being," she said.


That's unfortunate, said Figi, Wisconsin MorePeaceCorps advocacy coordinator.


"My role is working with the national coordinator in trying to get more money for the Peace Corps," she said.


Since 2005, more than 5,224 Peace Corps volunteers from Wisconsin have served in dozens of countries overseas.


Figi shared her concerns with Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin.


"More than 25 countries are being told they can't have Peace Corps," Figi said, "but it's important because they are some of the poorest in the world."



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