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Peace Corps sign-ups down among Brown alums

Brown dropped from No. 13 to No. 17 among medium-sized universities producing volunteers for the Peace Corps last year, with four fewer alums serving overseas in the program than in 2005. But current and former volunteers said the lower ranking should not be seen as a sign of diminished interest in the Peace Corps at Brown.

In 2006, 27 Brown alums served in the Peace Corps, a US government program that sends volunteers to live in developing countries and work on various projects, including English language instruction and agricultural development. Thirty-one alums were volunteers in 2005.

For five years, Brown has been among the top 25 middle-sized schools providing volunteers for the Peace Corps. Middle-sized schools are those with undergraduate enrollments between 5,001 and 15,000. Topping the list this year was George Washington University, which took the No. 1 spot from the University of Virginia.

The change in volunteer numbers from 2005 to last year isn't signifigant, said January Zuk, the Peace Corps recruiter for Brown and other Rhode Island schools.

Zuk's predecessor as Brown's Peace Corps recruiter, George Rutherford, wrote in an e-mail to The Herald that the Brown students he met "took on the challenge and chose to sail out of safe harbors so that they could serve others."

Rutherford especially noted the "engaged" nature of Brown students. "At my info sessions I would always get extremely insightful questions. Questions that made me think about my wonderful but imperfect Peace Corps experience," Rutherford wrote. "I always told students to regard me not just as the recruiter but also as a returned volunteer who would be happy to talk about the hard times as well as the wonderful ones."

Zuk agreed that Brown students are "very socially aware, progressive and dedicated to helping people."

"I find that when I go to career fairs, Brown students are very aware of what the Peace Corps is about already," Zuk said. "They've all been very interested in it for years because of their background or upbringing - they've known about it for a while."

"A lot of the people (at Brown) are interested in service work, adventurous (and) always full of questions of what Peace Corps does and where we go," she added.

The significant time commitment entailed by joining the Peace Corps - two years of service plus a three-month orientation - may be a factor in the decrease in volunteer numbers.

"It's a big decision to leave for two years," said Hannah Lantos '06, who recently joined the Peace Corps. "I think there may also be a little bit of cynicism ... because it's run by the United States government - there's critique of that, always."

Ultimately, it was a former volunteer who convinced Lantos to join. "I was speaking to someone who had volunteered with the Peace Corps, and they described it as one of the best ways to learn sincere empathy for learning to work with people, which defined what I thought the Peace Corps was about."

Lantos is heading to Zambia this week. A development studies concentrator at Brown, she believes her education prepared her for the work on a radio education program that awaits her in Zambia.

"I think that the freedom and flexibility is a big advantage - being ready to handle what comes your way and negotiate what you want," Lantos said of her Brown experience. "I think (Brown) is very similar to the Peace Corps. It's easy to go with the flow or determine your project and what you want to get out of it. Having that experience at Brown on a smaller scale will definitely be an advantage."

Lantos also appreciates the support from her family and friends. "Brown students understand spending two years in another country. So many other volunteers have family and friends that don't seem to get it," she said. "A lot of my friends got it when I told them about it."

Though a two-year endeavor may seem daunting to graduating seniors, Zuk said the experience is worth it.

"Sometimes (students are) juggling with different opportunities and need a shorter amount of time," Zuk said. "Any returned volunteer you talk to (says) the time flies by. In the scheme of your whole life, two years is so short, and the impact is so profound."

Zuk herself volunteered with the Peace Corps in Uganda after she earned her undergraduate and master's degrees. "It's so great to be a Peace Corps recruiter. I can talk about my experience (in Uganda) for my work," she said.

The 27 Brown alums are currently serving in 20 countries and working on over 11 development projects, according to Peace Corps spokeswoman Joanna O'Brien.

In the 45 years since the Peace Corps was founded, Brown has sent 569 volunteers overseas. In an e-mail to The Herald, O'Brien reiterated the qualities that usually attract students to the Peace Corps.

"These students might see Peace Corps as one of the routes they can take both to fulfill their desire to give back and to discover more about the world and about themselves," O'Brien wrote.


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