Peace Corps redesigns for modern times

Program makes application faster, gives more choice to location

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Maryellen Baverso thought in the summer of 2011 that she would be spending the next two years of her life in Africa. One month before her scheduled departure, a Peace Corps representative phoned her about a change of plans.

The 26-year-old from Braddock Hills landed in Indonesia soon afterwards, bound for a village called Dolopol. She moved into a ranch-style home with a widow who spoke only Javanese, the language of the island, and biked to her teaching placement on a path lined with rice paddies and sugar cane fields.

The new destination was a welcome one. "It was beautiful," Ms. Baverso recalled. Though she didn't know the language or much about the culture of the country, she quickly adjusted to the rhythms of the rural town.

"That's the point of the Peace Corps: to rise to the call of wherever they need you to go," she said.

But surprises like these -- changed destinations or alternative placements -- will soon be a part of the Peace Corps' past.

On July 15, Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler-Radelet announced broad changes to the program's application process, which has been in place for more than 50 years. Under the new system, applicants can choose their country of service and apply to specific programs through a process that promises to be several hours shorter than the old one. The overhaul concludes a four-year reform effort (the largest in the organization's history) that aimed to modernize Peace Corps operations.

"The needs of this generation are different from the generations before us," Ms. Hessler-Radelet said. "In order to attract those people, we need to remain current."

These changes arrive amidst declining participation numbers in recent years. Between 2009 and 2013, the Peace Corps saw a 34 percent decline in the number of applications received.

While 2010 was a "banner year" in terms of numbers of volunteers, Ms. Hessler-Radelet said, applications have declined since. She said that was partly due to a $50 million budget reduction.

The director said another factor contributing to their diminishing numbers was the length of the old application, which took an average of eight hours to complete.

But in the Pittsburgh area, volunteers have been bucking this trend. The Peace Corps' most recent national ranking places Pennsylvania eighth in participation rate. The University of Pittsburgh ranks fifth nationally for graduate student volunteers.

The Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at Pitt gives its students credit for Peace Corps service through two programs: the Master's International School for prospective candidates, and the Coverdell Fellowship for returning volunteers. A commitment to the Peace Corps' brand of international development is weaved into the school's fabric, with several returning volunteers numbering among the faculty.

William Dunn, a Pitt public policy professor who served in the Peace Corps in 1962, recalls his two years in Senegal as a relic of a different era, one in which the skills that volunteers had were less important than their belief in the program's philosophy of global exchange.

When President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps by executive order in 1961, the program was declared as a way for the world to see America, and for Americans to see the world.

"For us, the Peace Corps was a calling," Mr. Dunn said. "It was something we did because we were passionately committed to John Kennedy and his ideas."

The program's diplomatic origins have since given way to a more career-oriented approach. College graduates are eager to enter the workforce, returning volunteers said.

The new system is designed to attract individuals who would have otherwise blanched at the idea of spending two years in a foreign country.

Mr. Dunn is skeptical about the developments. "It's in line with specialization everywhere," he said.

Now each position description is accompanied by an apply-by and know-by date, which will give the process more transparency, Ms. Hessler-Radelet said. In the hopes of attracting career-minded millennials, the new system is designed to be "the same as applying for a job."

The Peace Corps recruiter for Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania, Karen Corey, explained that the new application process would provide more clarity and choice.

"People can feel very pressured to have an established X, Y and Z by a certain age," Ms. Baverso said. In some cases, applicants couldn't wait the year it sometimes took for an admissions decision to come out; they were already making other plans.

With the new application, candidates will know exactly when to expect a response, and exactly where they will end up should they enroll in the program.

Two years out of college in 1992, Pitt international affairs professor Michael Kenney was placed in Ecuador for his Peace Corps term.

Had he been given a choice, Mr. Kenney said, he would have selected Belize, the only English-speaking country in his preferred region of Central or South America. But this choice would have stripped him of "the biggest skill [he] took away from the experience": mastering a foreign language.

"I would never have chosen Ecuador, and I would have missed out," Mr. Kenney said.

He added that young people are more likely to "go where the best beaches are" than to choose a country to which they have had no previous exposure.

But there's at least one Peace Corps volunteer excited to serve in a place where she doesn't know the language. Caitlyn Neely, a recent college graduate from New Castle, will travel to Samoa this October, where she will use her teaching degree towards leading an English literacy classroom in the island country.

"My mind is racing every day about this," she said, vowing to "go on any type of adventure, no matter what it is."

Yanan Wang:

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