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Peace Corps attracts graduates with promise of experience

Kate Antonacci | Monday, January 24, 2005

“Life is calling. How far will you go?” In response to this challenge from the Peace Corps, students across the country have offered years of their time and energy to act as ambassadors of peace and development around the world.

The Peace Corps requires two years of service, but some argue that the benefits, such as student loan deferment and the learning of a foreign language through immersion, are well worth the time.

Though the average age of a volunteer is 28, many decide to join the Peace Corps directly out of college, using it as a break before continued education or an opportunity to find direction for their future.

Gino Signoracci graduated from Notre Dame in May and joined the Peace Corps in September. He is currently volunteering in a small town in Ukraine.

“Being in the Peace Corps is a better way to experience all the ins and outs of a foreign country than any I could have imagined, as someone who has recently graduated from college and can’t just catapult to a position where I can help people on a large scale,” Signoracci said.

Junior Anne-Michelle Reilly is working with the National Peace Corps Association as an advocacy intern while studying in Washington D.C. for the semester.

“I think the Peace Corps is a great organization that is grossly under-funded. They are one of the few U.S. Government organizations that is respected worldwide, mostly because the goal of the program is to present to the world a positive view of America,” Reilly said. “Bush promised to double the number of volunteers to 14,000 and he proposed a budget increase of 20 percent last year, but Congress reduced that significantly.”

Lyndsey Bergen, a senior at Saint Mary’s, is hoping to enter the Peace Corps following graduation.

“I hope to someday work in international politics, but am still unsure exactly what I want to do,” said Bergen. “I am hoping that this experience will cement my goals further.”

Though fears sparked by the recent tsunami could hurt the Peace Corps’ application numbers, at this time it has only seemed to propel the volunteer effort.

“Of all the countries affected by the recent tsunami, the Peace Corps only had volunteers in one -Thailand. I think there were 83 people there, all accounted for,” Reilly said. “Sri Lanka and Indonesia used to have Peace Corps volunteers, but for different reasons they are no longer host countries.”

Many Peace Corps members think that their role is more important now in the tsunami-stricken areas than before.

“My thoughts have not changed at all. I am currently nominated to serve in South America, but I would not be opposed to serving in Asia,” said Bergen. “If anything, the tsunami has strengthened my resolve to join. America is an incredibly lucky country and I believe it’s time to narrow the gap between developed and underdeveloped countries, which holds true even more so after the disaster.”

Though few Peace Corps host countries were affected by the tsunami, the organization is still offering aid.

“The Peace Corps just announced that they will be sending 30 members of the Crisis Corps made up of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV’s) to Thailand to help. I think something like 273 RPCV’s have already called in offering to help, with 70 of those being RPCV’s from Thailand,” said Reilly. “The head of the Peace Corps has not ruled out sending the Crisis corps to the other affected countries. Because the RPCV’s are fluent in the language and know the area, they will be able to provide immediate relief.”

Signoracci suggested that those inspired to help tsunami-affected countries try a different approach than joining the Peace Corps.

“Volunteer safety comes before all else in the Peace Corps, and really you can’t teach English in schools if the schools have all been destroyed,” he said. “From my point of view, if you’re thinking of joining the Peace Corps, consider taking an extra step and going as a relief worker to India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, or Indonesia [instead]. You could make an even bigger difference there.”

Notre Dame plays an important role in directing those interested in working with or for Peace Corps to the right contacts.

“I found out about the internship through the career center,” Reilly said.

“I go to Saint Mary’s, but Notre Dame has facilitated the chance for an interview on campus, which certainly helped a lot,” said Bergen. “One of my references was a woman I volunteered for here at SMC for orientation activities. Other than that, it’s pretty individualistic.”

The Peace Corps began in 1960, under the leadership of then-Senator John F.

Kennedy, who pushed college students to serving the nation in the cause of peace. In 1961, his idea developed into a federal agency devoted to the mission of world peace. According to the Peace Corps Web site, in that last 45 years, more than 170,000 volunteers have traveled to 137 countries to help people of interested countries in meeting their needs for trained men and women, promote a better understanding of Americans and promote and better understand of other peoples.

Signoracci said that the benefits of the life-changing experience outweigh the dangers that dissuade many interested volunteers from joining.

“I know it’s heart-stopping to think that you might go to serve in the Peace Corps and a natural disaster or political uprising might occur,” he said. “But every breath is a risk.”