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Students in nonprofit careers find inspiration in public service

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, March 5, 2012


Within the Ivy League, Brown has long held the reputation as a haven for social activism, stemming in part from the legacy of the New Curriculum’s creation. Many students still enter lucrative careers in the private sector, but figures from the Center for Careers and Life After Brown reveal the University’s historical activism bent is far from gone.

According to Jim Amspacher, career advisor in Careers in the Common Good at the CareerLAB, 48 percent of graduates in the Class of 2010, the latest year of complete available data, decided to work in nonprofit or government sectors. Amspacher, who worked for nonprofit initiatives for 20 years before coming to the CareerLAB, said the percentage of each senior class headed to careers in the common good — like social entrepreneurship ventures, government agencies and public health programs — has remained constant over the years.

Though recent media coverage on volunteers’ personal safety and financial stability has exposed drawbacks to careers in the common good, alums still agreed the benefits outweigh the challenges.


Brown teaching for America

The most common nonprofit venture that seniors join has consistently been TFA, which recruits graduates from elite universities to teach in low-income communities in the United States, Amspacher said. Twelve percent of the Class of 2011 applied to work for TFA, with 43 students eventually joining the program.

“We’ve definitely seen an increase in applications over the years,” said Angela Callado, TFA’s recruitment manager for the New England region. She said applicants from Brown stand out as exceptionally qualified each year. 

Callado said she thinks TFA is popular among Brown graduates because many have a desire to make a “socially minded impact” on the lives of less fortunate students. “They know the potential that having an education can have on an individual,” she said.

Nicola Fleischer ’12, an education concentrator headed to a San Francisco elementary school this fall, said education’s valuable impact drove her to join the program. 

For Fleischer and other TFA volunteers, the nonprofit venture offered them the attractive prospect of getting firsthand exposure to teaching students and further understanding of the problems in the nation’s public education system. “I didn’t really want to spend another year talking about this stuff in university classrooms,” Fleischer said.


Top of the list

Another popular career in the common good among recent graduates is the Peace Corps, which ranked the University 21st in medium-sized colleges that produced the highest number of the agency’s volunteers in 2011. The University sent 24 graduates into the Peace Corps last year, according to the agency’s website.

“Brown is a mainstay of the Peace Corps’ top college list,” said Elizabeth Chamberlain, public affairs specialist for the Peace Corps’ Northeast division. “Brown students seem to be very interested in international development and have strong language skills.” According to Chamberlain, the Peace Corps looks for applicants who are open to serving in a wide variety of countries.

In response to recent concerns over cases of sexual abuse of female volunteers in the agency, Chamberlain sent The Herald an email highlighting the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act of 2011, which codified reforms aimed at increasing personal safety measures for the agency’s volunteers.

“Safety and security really is a paramount concern for us,” Chamberlain said, adding that volunteers need to have their personal safety assured to give them the confidence necessary to immerse themselves in their host cultures. 

Jeanine Chiu ’10, a development studies concentrator who also learned Arabic during her undergraduate years, is now volunteering for the Peace Corps in Jordan. While at Brown, Chiu worked for a middle school enrichment program. She said she feels her background in development studies provides her with a perspective different from many Peace Corps volunteers.

Chiu described the experience of working on a committee for Camp GLOW — Girls Leading Our World — as particularly gratifying. On the committee, she helped recruit girls from rural areas to attend a week-long camp to learn healthy lifestyles, as well as leadership and critical thinking skills. 

Many of the girls entered the camp shy and uncertain, Chiu said. “Seeing them blossom and grow throughout the short six days was incredibly inspiring,” she added.

One of the most surprising parts of Chiu’s experience has been the difference between Western media perceptions of the Middle East as a violence-ridden region and the welcoming spirit of the Jordanian rural community in which she has worked. “Everybody I’ve met has been incredibly welcoming to Americans,” she said.

Charlie Wood ’10, who is now in his second year of teaching science at a high school in Mozambique, told The Herald in an email that the best moments are when his students, most of whom have had inconsistent educations, rise to the challenge of learning physics.

The students not only had to “deal with adjusting to the crazy American teacher with his ‘radical’ ideas like games, group work and class participation, but also my simple grammar and terribly strong accent,” he said.

Students who are interested in exploring the Peace Corps as an option should start looking into the program earlier rather than later, Chiu said. “The experience is very different from what you expect it to be. You just never know what you’re going to get.”


‘Breadth of opportunities’

Apart from TFA and the Peace Corps, there are a multitude of other options available to students looking to make a difference after commencement. 

Harrison Stark ’11, who worked at the Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race & Justice at Harvard after graduating last spring, said he believed many alums who may have leaned toward more lucrative careers in finance or consulting decided to consider careers in the common good after the financial crash.

“A lot of the private sector companies are really good recruiters because they have the resources to do it,” Stark said. “I think Brown is unique in that so many of its students are interested in public good issues.”

The breadth of opportunities for students interested in the common good was also striking for Ari Rubenstein ’11, who joined Green Corps, a grassroots activist organization that mobilizes campaigns for pro-environment issues. “I was active in environmental issues on campus, and I knew that I wanted to continue that work in some form after graduating from Brown,” Rubenstein said.

Rubenstein was attracted to Green Corps for both its primacy in the environmental activism movement and for its strong job placement program. The organization connects its employees with other progressive groups after their one-year commitments to the program are over. 

Describing how he has moved to various locations, including Richmond, Va. and Chicago, Ill., to organize environmental movements for Green Corps, Rubenstein said the challenge of constantly moving has been outweighed by the difference he feels he has made.

One case that Rubenstein found especially memorable is his work rallying members of a low-income community in the South Side of Chicago who were hard hit by pollution from a nearby coal plant. He said he helped mobilize 140 community members to attend an Environmental Protection Agency hearing, during which 30 witnesses testified about the firsthand effects of pollution.

“It was really affirming because we were talking about real people’s lives,” Rubenstein said, adding that he believes many nonprofit groups remain a strong choice for recent college graduates.

“Even in this poor economy, organizations like Green Corps have not been suffering as much as people might assume,” Rubenstein said, adding that he is not too concerned over his job prospects for the next few years. “Even in hard times, people still care about things they really value.”


Career advice 

To support students interested in nonprofit careers, the CareerLAB has pursued a three-pronged strategy with increased advising, online resources advertising employment options on the Career Field Notes page and six or seven events per semester featuring alumni, Amspacher said. Past alumni forums that have drawn heavy student interest have featured topics like “Demystifying Nonprofits,” “Political Jobs in 2012,” “Pathways to Teaching and Education” and “Micro-financing.”

In response to students’ concerns over their financial security in entering nonprofit careers, Amspacher said the CareerLAB held a forum called “Making a Living While Making a Difference.” He said students should devote serious consideration to “what they’re looking for after graduation” before deciding on a nonprofit career.

The CareerLAB was not aimed at persuading students to pursue nonprofit careers, but rather at aiding those who already expressed an interest to explore options. “It’s less trying to rally the troops and more trying to help students do what they want,” Amspacher said.

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