Richelle Andrae: 'This is a way to make a living for a year and learn skills.'
When John F. Kennedy said, "Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country," the message caught fire almost as soon as he uttered it. Nearly 50 years later, Barack Obama's "call to service" has also spread far and wide, with a modern, high-tech twist. It's all over the Internet - at www.serve.gov, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
People are stepping up to the challenge. Applications for AmeriCorps VISTA, Teach for America and the Peace Corps have surged, in Madison and throughout the nation.
"The job market has something to do with it, but it's more than that," says Linda Sunde, Wisconsin state director of the Corporation for National and Community Service, which includes AmeriCorps VISTA, Teach for America and Senior Corps. "Young people now graduating from college have been engaged in servicelearning projects from an early age, and the idea that service is important is already ingrained."
AmeriCorps and VISTA workers earn a poverty-level stipend, less than $1,000 a month, but they also get basic health insurance and an educational stipend, currently $5,350, after a year of service. And they gain valuable work experience and skills.
"These jobs offer solid practical experiences while you are earning a little money," says Sunde. "It looks good on your résumé, and it's more rewarding than taking orders at McDonald's."
Sunde was a VISTA volunteer in 1975-76 and says that experience "changed my life."
Applications for Teach for America are up 30% nationally. Applications from UW-Madison grads are up as well, by about 20%, says Luke Livingston, the program's Madison-based recruitment director.
"We always ask applicants why they are interested because we want people who are mission-driven," says Livingston. "Almost all of them talk about being concerned about the achievement gap and wanting to give back."
Indeed, Livingston gets a little annoyed when people assume volunteers sign on just because it will look good on their résumés.
"It's just too hard a job for that to be a motivation," he says. "I taught in an elementary school as a Corps member, and it's really tough trying to teach second-graders who are still struggling with the alphabet when they should be reading Dr. Seuss."
Teach for America pays better than AmeriCorps or VISTA, with annual salaries ranging from $27,000 in rural communities to as much as $47,000 in urban areas. The teachers, who must go through an intensive summer training program before they enter the classroom, also get an education award of $4,725 for each year of service.
But Livingston says money is rarely the motivation for applying.
"Applications are up," he contends, "because we've done a lot of recruiting and because there is a strong sense of commitment to social justice among young people."
Christine Tores, a spokeswoman with the Peace Corps' regional office in Chicago, agrees the sluggish job market is not what's driving the rise in applications.
"Since Peace Corps is a two-year international commitment, any serious applicant is not likely to pursue Peace Corps based solely on the economy," she says. "Most applicants have been thinking about Peace Corps for a while and working toward that goal."
Tores thinks interest is growing for two reasons: Obama's call to service and a growing emphasis on volunteerism in schools and colleges. She also credits the Peace Corps' use of social media sites, like Facebook and Twitter, for stirring interest among potential applicants.
The Peace Corps is highly selective. Applicants must be college graduates and have a skill that is needed in the country where they serve. They can expect a lifestyle similar to that of the people they serve, but enjoy what Tores calls "great career benefits," including enhanced opportunities for graduate school and federal government employment, and employment connections to a worldwide network of other returned volunteers.
To get a sense of the breadth and depth of the new will to service, Isthmus set out to find a sampling of individuals from among this year's crop of volunteers.
Carrying on a family tradition
William Marcouiller - Peace Corps
William Marcouiller grew up in a Peace Corps family; his parents served in the Philippines, and his aunt and uncle were in Guatemala. He's thought about joining the Peace Corps since he was in middle school.
Now 22, with a freshly minted bachelor's degree in civil engineering from the UW-Madison, Marcouiller recently learned he's been accepted and will be posted to the Dominican Republic.
Marcouiller speaks Spanish, learned while studying in Costa Rica as an undergraduate, so he expected to be placed somewhere in Central or South America. And as an engineer, he's pretty sure he'll be working on water systems.
The time he spent in Costa Rica dramatically changed Marcouiller's view of the world. He hopes it will also help him adapt to a two-year immersion in a strange land and culture.
"I was living among people who have very few material things," he says. "And they were happy with that. It made me question what I really need and appreciate what I have more. I want less now, and I'm very careful about what I buy." The former videogame aficionado even gave up the games when he returned to the States.
Many of Marcouiller's friends and classmates are also headed for public service work after graduation. "I only know two or three people who have found jobs," he says. "A lot of people I know are either looking at VISTA or going to graduate school. The economy is a big, big worry."
Because of his family connections, Marcouiller feels he knows what to expect from Peace Corps service: "It will be tough, but very rewarding. I know it will change me and make me see the world differently. And I'll be helping other people live better."
Giving something, getting something
Richelle Andrae - AmeriCorps VISTA
Performing community service is nothing new to Richelle Andrae, 21, who is graduating this weekend from the UW-Madison with a double major in Spanish and religious studies. And then she's headed to northern California to oversee an elementary school tutoring program.
During her undergraduate years, this VISTA volunteer helped raise $160,000 for the American Cancer Society's "Relay for Life" and worked as a translator with La Comunidad, Madison's Spanish-language newspaper.
"In community service, you have a great opportunity to give something and get something back at the same time," she explains. A number of her friends have also applied for VISTA or AmeriCorps jobs.
"Now, more than ever, young adults are encouraged to take time between undergrad and grad school or a career, and this is a unique way to do that," says Andrae. "This is a way to make a living for a year and learn skills - leadership, coordinating programs, fundraising - doing a bit of everything. Not many entry-level positions offer all that."
She knows she's had privileges that most of her students haven't.
"It makes me feel a little guilty that I was able to come to a great school and have my parents pay my tuition," she says. "It was never even a question for me. I'll be trying to help 6-year-olds who, if they don't get help right now, will never be able to go to college."
Andrae will oversee volunteer tutors at a Santa Rosa, Calif., elementary school with a large percentage of students whose first language is Spanish.
A different path to a desired career
Maria Ramirez - Teach for America
When she found out that earning a teaching degree at the UW-Madison would take five years and prevent her from studying abroad during her junior year, Maria Ramirez reconsidered her career path.
"I always had teaching in mind," says Ramirez. "I just didn't know how I was going to get there."
Ramirez has now signed up with Teach for America. She'll be teaching high school Spanish next fall in Prince Georges County, just outside Washington, D.C. At the same time, she'll be enrolled at American University, earning her master's degree in education.
Ramirez, who turned 22 last week, studied in Spain for a year, an experience she believes will serve her well in the classroom.
"When you live outside the UW, you learn so much outside of class," she says. "You have to be adaptable and make on-the-spot decisions. I think that will be an asset for me as a teacher."
A native of Waukesha, Ramirez knows many of her students will be lagging academically. But the idea of working and living in an environment different from what she has experienced excites her.
"When I was growing up, I had all these opportunities at my fingertips," she says. "It bothers me to see people who are just as capable, just like me, in many ways. But because they were born in a different zip code, they don't have the opportunities I've had."
Ramirez also expects the experience to broaden her own horizons.
"We live in our own bubbles in the U.S.," she says. "If you are in the middle class, your interactions are limited." Teach for America is one way to get beyond that.
Jesse Ayala - Teach for America
Jesse Ayala expects his job teaching high school math in New Orleans next year to be the hardest thing he ever attempts.
"They tell me it will make me cry," he says, "but I'll get over it." Ayala hopes to be placed at a school in Central City, one of the poorest parts of New Orleans - even before it was hit hard by Hurricane Katrina.
Ayala, 22, is graduating from the UW-Madison this week with a degree in history and political science. He has never taken a course in education. This summer, he and other Teach for America volunteer teachers will get a crash course on pedagogy, lesson planning and classroom management.
"I'm sure it's going to be hard," he says. "I'll be working with students who are already pretty far behind. And it may be intimidating to have students who are bigger than me."
But Ayala is convinced it's simply the right thing to do.
"I believe it is important to do public service, and it's always been expected for me," he says. "I was a Chancellor's scholar at the UW. That's a full-ride merit scholarship. I think that when people have made that kind of investment in me, I need to pay something back."
Ayala studied abroad in Egypt as an undergraduate. He says the extreme poverty he witnessed there makes him want to improve conditions for some of America's poorest people. That's why he's going to a troubled school in a dangerous neighborhood, in the heart of New Orleans.
"The kids in New Orleans have seen America at its worst," he says. "I hope I can give them the idea that they do have opportunities and that they can succeed."
Putting a face to other cultures
Allison Radke - Peace Corps
Allison Radke, a Spanish and social work major just graduating from the UW-Madison, has been dreaming about joining the Peace Corps since she was a junior in high school. In a few months, her dream will come true, as she heads off to spend two years teaching English in Africa.
"I did my high school junior year as an AFS [American Field Service] student in Argentina," says Radke, 22. "While I was there, I realized how much I was growing because of the experience, how much I was learning about myself, as well as about the language and the country."
Radke expects her Peace Corps years will continue that process. "I'm excited by this opportunity to learn and teach," she says. "And, sometimes, I wonder if I'll learn more than I can teach. I hope it will be an equal exchange."
The Peace Corps fits Radke's sense of idealism, her desire for adventure, and her interest in a career in some kind of international organization. But she seems most passionate about the contact she'll have with other cultures and people.
"I really believe that peace is more attainable if we know each other better," she says. "Diplomacy is important, but people really need more grassroots experiences with other people and cultures."
When Radke comes back, she intends to help educate others about Africa.
"Many people think of Africa as just a place with famine and AIDS," she says, "but they don't have much understanding about the people who live there, the geography, culture or languages. I hope I can change that."
The first VISTA members started in January 1965. Today, the program that serves U.S. low-income communities has an estimated 90,000 positions.
Volunteers sign on for a one-year term to work in schools, social service agencies, nonprofits and local governments. They are often recent college grads, but a degree is not necessary for some positions, and some volunteers are older adults, laid-off workers or retirees.
Nationally, applications to the program have skyrocketed over the last two years, from 91,399 in 2008 to 246,842 in 2009. Another 52,429 people applied in the first three months of 2010. (AmeriCorps VISTA was unable to provide statistics for applications from Wisconsin or the Madison area.)
The program was budgeted for 75,000 positions nationally in 2009, but the Economic Recovery Act provided increased funding for an additional 15,000 positions, for one year only.
Contact: Linda Sunde, Wisconsin state director, Corporation for National and Community Service, 414-297-1118, firstname.lastname@example.org
State office: 310 W. Wisconsin Ave., Room 1240, Milwaukee, WI 53203-2211
Peace Corps volunteers serve in 74 countries in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Europe. Volunteers work in education, youth outreach, community development, the environment and information technology.
Almost 200,000 Americans have served a two-year stint since the Peace Corps was founded in 1961. Applications have been rising steadily - 11,175 in 2007, 13,011 in 2008, and 15,386 in 2009. However, the number of applicants accepted has gone down by about 200 in each of those years - from 8,076 in 2007 to 7,671 in 2009.
The national Peace Corps office does not keep track of the number of applicants from Wisconsin or the Madison area. But the number of Wisconsin residents accepted into the program has fallen from 268 in 2007 to 207 last year.
Contact: John Sheffy, UW-Madison Peace Corps representative, 608-262-1121, email@example.com, 329 Ingraham Hall, 1155 Observatory Drive, Madison, WI 53715
Founded in 1990, Teach for America recruits recent college graduates from all backgrounds and career interests to teach for two years in urban and rural public schools. The program provides training and ongoing support to ensure their success as teachers in low-income communities.
Teach for America received applications from 854 Wisconsin residents, including 366 from the UW-Madison, for the 2010-2011 school year. That's up from 653 for all Wisconsin and 300 from UW-Madison for the 2009-2010 school year.
Nationally, 2010 applications were up by 32% over 2009, an increase of about 10,000 individuals. Teach for America currently has some 7,300 corps members at work in the nation's schools. It's administratively affiliated with AmeriCorps/Vista.
Contact: Luke Livingston, Madison-based recruitment director, 646-484-1028, luke.Livingston@teachforamerica.org
Regional office: 310 West Wisconsin Ave., Milwaukee, WI 53203-2213; 414-273-1499.