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Corps builds well-rounded grads

November 18, 2010

Zambia, Africa is starkly different than America and adjusting to life takes time and patience, said Peace Corps volunteer and UW-River Falls Aluma Barbara Heggernes.

Some of the adjustments include adapting to living in a hut and making the necessary improvements to make it feel like a home.  Besides fending off mice that had moved in with her, Heggernes had to cement the floors and paint the walls with lime to restrict termites.

“After being here for only five months, I have realized why it is such a long service. It takes a while to adjust to the culture, the people, the food and how to dress,” Heggernes said.

Heggernes is participating in a community health improvement project that works with mitigating the effects of disease and illnesses such as Malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis that plague the village of St. Pauls in Zambia.

Joining the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps are two options for recent college graduates that provide useful volunteer experience and benefits during and after the term of service.

The Peace Corps is a 27-month commitment that sends volunteers to over 77 countries. The volunteers gain cultural, technical and leadership skills, which help many returned volunteers achieve long-term career goals by enhancing their marketability with potential employers, said Peace Corps spokesperson Janice McInerney.

The training that the volunteers obtain can help explain why Business Week named the Peace Corps one of the best places to launch a career, said McInerney.

AmeriCorps, or the “domestic Peace Corps,” is typically a nine month to one year service commitment where volunteers serve across the country dealing with issues such as hunger, homelessness, economic development and disaster relief.  Some of the benefits that a volunteer gains from AmeriCorps are networking, professional development and being part of a larger purpose, said AmeriCorps alumnae, student support services counselor and AmeriCorps Falcon Fellows coordinator Gina Sevick.

Besides the experience that is gained, while a volunteer is serving in AmeriCorps or Peace Corps they are provided with medical care, a living allowance and loan deferment on some loans, according to their websites.

When serving in AmeriCorps, interest that is accrued on college loans is paid, and the Peace Corps may offer up to 30 percent forgiveness on some loans, Heggernes said.

After completing 27 months in the Peace Corps, the volunteer earns $7,425 and has one year of noncompetitive eligibility for federal jobs.

Upon completing the full-time service of one year in AmeriCorps, the volunteer is given an educational award of $5,350. The award can be used toward paying off loans or future schooling.  Several universities across the country will match the educational award, said Sevick.

Augsburg College in Minneapolis, MN will give an undergraduate who is currently serving, or has served at least one year a $5,000 scholarship. Augsburg will also grant an AmeriCorps volunteer who has served at least half-time for one year a 25 percent tuition credit towards one course for the duration of a graduate program.

The education and experience that is acquired through service in the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps can be of value to certain employers, said Director of Career Services Bridget Kenadjian.

“In a job market like this one, additional global and multicultural experiences are highly valued and make you a unique candidate,” Kenadijan said.

The Peace Corps and AmeriCorps are large commitments that should be thought through and may not be for everyone, said Kenadjian.

“Certain personality types may have a more difficult time with these experiences than others, so knowing oneself and one’s limits is important when considering if you want to apply,” Kenadijan said.

The tangible benefits should not be the driving factor for signing up for the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, and a volunteer needs to have a strong motivation towards service and helping people, said Sevick.

As Heggerness wrote on her Facebook from Zambia, she discourages those who may join because it looks good on a resume.

“There are volunteers that are here for that reason, and although they would probably never admit it, it is quite apparent because they are miserable. Peace Corps is not for everyone, and I encourage anyone thinking about applying to look extremely introspectively into themselves to make certain they are committed to devoting the time, energy, patience and flexibility to be a Peace Corps volunteer.”