Flame of altruism burns, even in US

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."

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.

Victorson, who received a degree in social work from the Shriver Center, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, is today a neighborhood organizer in Baltimore.

"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."

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