Flame of altruism burns, even in US
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Victorson, who received a degree in social work from the Shriver Center, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is today a neighborhood organizer in Baltimore.Skip to next paragraph
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"By the time you get back to the US, your peers are three years into their professional life and all your social contacts are in Africa," he says. "You know you have to establish a career, but you are somewhat overwhelmed and could use some help."
The expectation is that most of the fellows will remain in the service field after graduation, putting their professional knowledge to use in the communities they live in.
And while there is usually no requirement for staying in the host community, many do. In Baltimore, for example, a study found that while 81 percent of the fellows in the Shriver program came from outside the state of Maryland, 71 percent remained in the area after completing the program. Many of them also buy homes and start families in the communities where they work.
Some of the returning volunteers express surprise at the poverty and need encountered at home. "Before I went to the Peace Corps, I had an idea about the extent of need here," says Jennifer Arndt, a former English teacher volunteer in Moldova, who got a master's in public policy from Johns Hopkins and today directs a law program for inner-city kids in Baltimore. "But now I look around and say: 'Where am I? This is not a village in Moldova; it's the USA.' But I could have been confused."
The schools where Arndt and Victorson work, they say, don't have paper for handouts, or toilet paper in the bathrooms, let alone functional drinking fountains or enough space for all the classes in the building.
"Overseas, you feel like your work is exotic and unique and superimportant," says Victorson. "Then you come live in a place like Baltimore and you begin realizing it's ridiculous to think you would be doing more if you were in the third world. You have all the hardship right here."
And fellows are proving to be good at sticking it out under hard conditions. "The fellows are used to toughing it out and more often than not they stick with their assignments," says Reed Bradley Dickson, program coordinator for the Fellows program at Teachers College, Columbia University. The retention rate for fellows who go into teaching - a profession that often fails to retain recruits - is particularly high.
"They have the maturity and depth of experience which allow them to withstand frustrations or difficulties that might cause others to give up," he says.
"Peace Corps volunteers are not usually the kind of people to punch time clocks and work just for the money," adds Jobi Taylor, project coordinator for the fellows program the Shriver Center and himself a former Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon. "We want to preserve that sense of making a difference."
"The Peace Corps experience probably benefits the volunteers more than anyone else," concludes Victorson. "You go out there and learn the ethic of service and how to be respectful of people and circumstances unfamiliar to you. Then you come back home and try and really do something good. That's when the real work begins."