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Seniors enter post-graduate service

Joe Piarulli | Friday, May 19, 2006

A few months ago, senior Tommy Hayes would never have guessed he’d go to Puerto Rico after graduation.

Hayes isn’t going there for vacation or to start a new career. He’s not going to visit friends or practice his Spanish.

In fact, he doesn’t speak any Spanish.

Hayes is going to Puerto Rico for a year to teach and tutor English and Math as part of the Puerto Rico Center for Social Concerns.

He is one of many graduating seniors going into post-graduate service.

According to Liz Mackenzie, director of senior transition programs at the Center for Social Concerns, usually 10 percent of Notre Dame’s graduating class will commit to post-graduate service. This year, 126 graduates reported to the CSC that they will be going into a service program. But that number is skewed since only an estimated 70 percent register through the CSC.

Last year, for example, 160 students registered with the CSC. But in the fall, it was found that 211 students were involved in service. With that in mind, the actual number for this year is probably over 150, Mackenzie said.

Mackenzie said there are two main reasons why students choose service after graduation instead of graduate school or a career.

“A lot of folks, when they come talk to me, they talk about how they want to give back to the community and how they’ve had so many opportunities … and they want to do something for others,” Mackenzie said. “Others want to get some experience and do something a little bit different before they get a job.”

On May 20, those going into post-graduate programs will be honored during Notre Dame’s annual Senior Service Send-Off ceremony at 9:30 a.m. in the Leighton Concert Hall in the DeBartolo Performing Arts Center.

University President Father John Jenkins will address the seniors and their families. Every participating senior will be recognized by name and service program at the ceremony, and each will receive a journal with quotations and advice from members of the Notre Dame community.

This year, Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) and Teach for America are the largest post-graduate service programs with nearly 40 students each.

Senior Laura Feeney is one of five Notre Dame students who will travel to Houston, Texas in June as part of Teach For America’s two-year program. She said she already knows all of her future coworkers.

“There are actually a lot of Notre Dame graduates that get in [to Teach for America] which is a testament to us because it’s a very competitive program,” she said.

Feeney will be paid a teacher’s salary. She sees Teach for America as a great way to gain professional experience while helping a community.

“The focus on service here is so huge … it just kind of seems like a natural way to give back after four years,” she said.

Senior Kathy Peterson will be teaching at a Catholic school in Biloxi, Miss. starting in August for ACE.

Classes for all ACE teachers are held at Notre Dame over the summer before the individuals depart for their teaching sites.

Peterson said she has had an interest in the two-year program since freshman year and has received nothing but positive feedback about her post-graduation plans.

“I know a lot of parents are kind of wary about their children doing service programs because they don’t tend to pay well … my parents are very supportive especially since I’ll be earning a Masters in education,” she said. “My friends are very supportive too and in fact I have a lot of friends who are doing the ACE program.”

Peterson will be living with six other ACE teachers, two of whom are from Notre Dame.

According to Peterson, her interest in teaching is a big reason why ACE seemed like a good fit for her.

“ACE gives me the opportunity to do service while gaining professional skills,” she said. “We’ll wait and see if teaching is the profession for me, but even if I decide it’s not, I don’t think it will be time wasted.”

After ACE and Teach for America, the largest programs are as follows: Americorps (nine reported students), Peace Corps (eight), Echo (five), the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (five), and the Puerto Rico Center for Social Concerns (five).

Traditionally, more women go into post-graduate service programs than men. And this year is no exception with 91 women (72 percent) and 35 men (28 percent) committing to service after graduation. 2001 was the last year the percentage of women was less than 60.

Mackenzie said she isn’t sure about why the numbers are so skewed.

“There might be some external reasons,” she said.

When it comes to post-graduate service, Puerto Rico-bound Hayes is in the minority. Not only is he male and going into a relatively small program, but also he’s the only one of the five Notre Dame students going to Puerto Rico without any knowledge of the Spanish language.

“I will be picking it up from scratch which should be interesting,” he said. “That will sort of be a nice challenge I suppose.”

Despite his unique status, Hayes’ situation is a microcosm of post-graduate service as a whole, Hayes said.

“There are all sorts of varying degrees of sacrifices that students will be making,” Hayes said.

The Puerto Rico Center for Social Concerns pays for rent and utilities for their volunteers. They will also provide health insurance and a monthly stipend of $400 to pay for food and other necessities.

Hayes said he sees the program as an opportunity for reflection and a way to offer his time and skills.

“A lot of people feel a call to give back,” Hayes said. “For a lot of these people it will be the first time that they leave the upper crust of society and live a much more simple life style.”

Hayes said his parents are very understanding, especially since his mother had wanted to do the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.

“Her parents wouldn’t let her,” he said. “She ended up going and working right away and she said it’s something she has always regretted.”

According to Hayes, post-graduate service is a very legitimate “next step.” He said it will give him time to prepare for his future.

“You really get extra time to think about what you want to do,” he said. “Doing this … lets you take a step back and think things through.”

Though he cannot predict what will happen in Puerto Rico or where his life will take him afterwards, one thing is for sure – Hayes will be moving far away from Notre Dame’s notorious weather.

“I vowed pretty much the first semester of freshman year that I would move toward the equator as soon as I got out of Notre Dame,” he said. “So I’m doing pretty well for myself there.”