College Students Consider Peace Corps in Lean Job Market

Volunteering abroad creates leadership skills and job opportunities.

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When Laura Howland graduated from Northwestern University in 2007, the psychology major contemplated joining the Peace Corps. Instead, Howland took a job available to her at graduation, but she kept the Peace Corps in consideration.

"I've always been interested in global aid work," she says. "I had heard a lot of good things about the Peace Corps, and it always was something I wanted to try."

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A year after graduation, Howland began the grueling application process—which can take up to a year to complete—and, in February 2009, joined the Peace Corps. During her commitment, which ended in August 2011, she worked as a sustainable agriculture volunteer in Ecuador, where she taught youth about agriculture, the environment, and leadership, among other things. But, Howland notes, it's the skills that she learned that will positively impact her future.

"I think I've become someone who has learned to think about things in different ways," she says. "I've learned to work on projects given very little direction, [and] I'm more self motivated."

For college students today who are facing an unstable job market, the Peace Corps may be an appealing option as they make post-graduation plans. According to a January report by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, the jobless rate for recent college graduates is 8.9 percent. But students who completed non-technical majors, such as the arts or architecture, may face more difficulties, with jobless rates at 11.1 percent and 13.9 percent, respectively.

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Adding certain skills to a résumé can help with the job search, and the skills gained from experiences in the Peace Corps "look great" to future employers, says Sue Dahlin, assistant director for career advising at the University of Puget Sound.

"After doing this work, [people] have a better understanding of their place in this world, [and] it makes them more resilient and capable to handle challenges [in their careers]," Dahlin notes.

The Peace Corps, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year, currently has 9,095 volunteers serving in 76 countries, which is the organization's highest participation in 40 years. Recently, there has been a growing trend in the number of college students who apply to the Peace Corps after graduation, says Kristina Edmunson, deputy communications director, who credits the job market and a growing interest in public service for the increase.

Students are entering the Peace Corps with a defined set of skills, such as a foreign language background or extensive knowledge in international cultures, notes Edmunson, but they are coming back with skills that can be applied to careers in the United States.

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"Peace Corps service is a life-defining leadership opportunity," Edmunson says. "Our volunteers come back with significant leadership qualities, language skills, and technical skills. They come back with really creative, innovative ideas that take them to that next step in their career."

Beyond providing applicable career skills, the Peace Corps also compensates its active volunteers with a monthly stipend for living and housing expenses, offers student loan deferment and partial cancellation plans to eligible recipients, and provides $7,425, pre-tax, in transition funds upon completion of service.

Volunteers receive another perk: one year of noncompetitive eligibility for federal employment. Essentially, a volunteer will have priority placement in a government agency for 12 months from the day that individual has completed his or her Peace Corps commitments, assuming the individual meets minimum requirements for the position.

"It [virtually] puts you ahead of other job applicants in the United States," Edmunson says.

While service experience can give someone an advantage when applying for jobs, a college student should not consider the Peace Corps for that reason alone, notes University of Puget Sound's Dahlin.