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Flame of altruism burns, even in US

By Danna HarmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 23, 2003



BALTIMORE

When Lane Victorson returned from the Comoros Islands seven years ago, he took odd jobs here and there, at a loss as to what he really wanted to do. He volunteered at a youth facility for violent criminals and sex offenders, did some construction work to make money, sold long-distance telephone service and, generally, as he puts it, "flailed around."

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Then, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer from his Comoros days told him about the Peace Corps Fellows program, and he was off to a whole new start.

Since the first Peace Corps volunteers signed up 43 years ago, tens of thousands of Americans have left this country to do good - building schools and roads, setting up business cooperatives and health clinics, teaching English and agroforestry - around the globe.

Upon return, their senses more attuned, perhaps, to the needs of the less fortunate around them, many of those volunteers have sought to devote their time and energy to development work at home. But some, struggling to readjust to the demands and bureaucracy of helping professions in the first world, have been turned off by the difficulties involved in getting the right credentials and the right job.

And so, like Victorson, many - almost 2,000 to date - have turned for help in this transition to the Peace Corps Fellows, a nationwide graduate program designed to assist returning Peace Corps volunteers to use the skills they developed overseas to get academic qualifications and job experience needed to launch public-service careers at home.

"We observed many Peace Corps returnees who would look at their time away as the highlight of their lives, their time of greatest service, never to be recreated," says Michele Titi, director of the fellows program. "And then we thought: 'Wait a moment, there is so very much they could do here, too - we just need to help show them the way.' "

Since the fellowship's inception in 1985, 32 universities around the country have signed up to host the fellows, offering them entry into a broad array of fields of study - from business to nursing to recreation and park management to urban planning and social work.

They ask in return, however, that all add a practical component to their studies by taking on internships in underserved communities. The program is funded by grants from the host university, the Peace Corps, and other sources, and is open to all former Peace Corps volunteers, no matter how long they have been back in the US.

So, for example, one volunteer just back from teaching English in Costa Rica, is getting a master's in education and is teaching bilingual English-Spanish classes in a low-income neighborhood of Chicago.

Another, who spent two years building a women's microcredit program in Senegal almost two decades ago, is now getting a degree in nonprofit management and working at a hunger project in Pittsburgh. Someone in Milwaukee who is now juggling an internship at a juvenile justice program and law classes was, just last year, building a school in Bulgaria.

And a young man in Arizona, currently working on economic and agricultural issues facing rural communities as he gets a degree in environmental studies, was an agroforestry technician in Paraguay 10 years ago.

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