Working To Serve

When leaving for work in the morning, Megan Maksimowicz, an alumna from Wichita, doesn’t head to an office building in a big city. Instead, she walks across red dirt scattered with green bushes, passing small, identical houses.

She makes her way to the school where she works as a Peace Corps education volunteer, teaching math and physics to high school students. The school, and where Maksimowicz lives, are both located near Tanga, Tanzania, an African country off the coast of the Indian Ocean.

During her senior year of college, Maksimowicz had a tough time deciding whether or not to pursue graduate school after majoring in atmospheric sciences. When a professor mentioned the Peace Corps, Maksimowicz decided to take a chance. “I hadn’t had a break from school, and it seemed like if I was going to join the Peace Corps, it might be my only chance for a long time,” Maksimowicz says.

Other students close to graduation are turning to similar opportunities. Instead of plunging into the 9 to 5 corporate world, almost-graduates are looking for alternative job options. Besides the Peace Corps, Teach for America is another popular choice, not only nationally, but also at the University of Kansas.

Wendy Shoemaker, senior associate director at the University Career Center, says that students pursue these options because they’re looking for a bridge experience. “It offers a transition between college life and whatever is next,” she says. “Alternative job options are different and they offer skill development and experiences that are appealing.”

Since 2008, Teach for America at the University has received almost 100 applications per year, an increase from the typical 70 or so applications four years ago, says Jeff Braum, Teach for America’s on-campus recruiting manager. The University ranks 25th for top colleges nationally that have produced the most Peace Corps volunteers, with almost 500 joining since 1961.

Nationally, the application process for the 2011 Teach for America corps was more competitive than in years past with an 11 percent acceptance rate, according to a Teach for America press release. Peace Corps application numbers align with season trends, and roughly one in three applications are selected to the Peace Corps, says Emily Sharp, the University’s Peace Corps recruiter.

While the Peace Corps and Teach for America have different agendas, their core mission is the same: integrate qualified, passionate volunteers into needy communities and help those less fortunate. But what else makes these organizations so highly sought after by graduating students?

The Peace Corps

For 27 months, Peace Corps volunteers live in communities spanning 75 countries that request assistance. From education to public health to youth development, volunteers not only help the community and its members, but also fully integrate themselves as a member of their society.

But before they’re accepted as volunteers, applicants must endure a year-long process. Adam Erickson, a senior from Chanute., knows how intense applying for the Peace Corps is. Erickson is currently in the nomination stage of the process, meaning he’s completed the first part of applying, which included sending in letters of reference, essays, submitting basic background information and participating in on-campus interviews.

Now as a nominee, Erickson knows he will be teaching English in Eastern Europe. If he passes medical exams and the Peace Corps has a definite spot for him, he will depart in September 2012 for a three-month training session and for his specified location.

The Peace Corps looks for people with a strong commitment to humanitarian service, self-reliance and an ability to “roll with the punches,” says Sharp, the University’s Peace Corps recruiter. Living in a community with a different culture doesn’t always go as planned. “In many of our host communities, life moves at a slower pace,” Sharp says. “Things don’t always work as reliably or efficiently.”

Peace Corps volunteers are project managers, says LaShonda Walker, public affairs specialist at the Peace Corps regional office. They use the skills they’ve learned to help make a community a better place, while getting international work experience.

While Peace Corps volunteers practice their skills and learn about different cultures, they also receive financial benefits. Sharp says the Peace Corps covers all fees and makes arrangements with the volunteer’s community to provide both housing and medical care at United States standards. Volunteers also receive a stipend to live comfortably at the level of the people in the community and 24 vacation days. When volunteers return, they receive a $7,500 readjustment allowance.

Maksimowicz, the Peace Corps education volunteer in Tanzania, lives in a small house with electricity, something other volunteers in the same area don’t have access to. She doesn’t have running water, and must carry buckets of water dispensed from a pipe back to her house. It’s a 25-minute walk from the nearest vegetable stand, and a 30-minute bus ride to the nearest town.

Maksimowicz says the culture, living conditions and working in the school have changed her for the better. “I’ll never know the actual, long-term impact of the things I do here,” Maksimowicz says. “But the sense of accomplishment I feel, every time a student makes an improvement or I learn about the culture here, are worth the difficult times.”

Teach for America

Kayla Kuhl, a 2011 an alumna from Shawnee, says she felt both nervous and excited when 30 ninth-grade students walked into her math classroom outside of Atlanta at the beginning of the school year. She had no idea what to expect. While playing get-to-know-you games, one student stood up and said, “I have a bad attitude.” Kuhl says she knew she might have her work cut out for her. “I was nervous the entire day just being in charge of all of them,” she says.

Despite majoring in civil engineering, Kuhl opted to apply for Teach for America her senior year after assisting a Teach for America teacher in Chicago over winter break. “Thinking about how much of an impact those five days had on me and the students, I couldn’t even imagine how great the impact would be if it turned into two years,” Kuhl says.

Accepted alongside 12 other University students last school year, Kuhl is now working to complete her Masters in Education from Georgia State University, while teaching five classes and tutoring students.

Nationally, Teach for America is expanding. Currently in 43 cities, by 2015, the organization plans to reach 60 cities, says Alicia Herald, executive director at Teach for America in Kansas City.

The organization is also growing among applicants, the majority being recent college graduates, says Kaitlin Gastrock, Teach for America’s regional communications director. Seventy-seven percent of the 2011 Teach for America members are recent graduates. “There’s a spirit among graduating seniors looking for a way to have an immediate impact,” Gastrock says.

Teach for America’s on-campus presence helps produce consistent numbers of applicants, says Braum, the University’s recruiting manager. He says students look for ways to give back, while also accelerating their career. Teach for America members do this by gaining real-world experience while helping students with little educational support.

Before acceptance into Teach for America, applicants must apply, teach a five-minute sample lesson, interact with other applicants and participate in a personal interview. Once accepted, members are sent to low-income communities to provide educational opportunities to students.

Teach for America doesn’t look for a specific type of person during the interview process, but they do look for certain skills. Past leadership roles, strong critical thinking and interpersonal skills are traits that stand out, according to the Teach for America website.

Nora Burt, an alumna from Libertyville, Ill., and Teach for America member, teaches high school Spanish in Kansas City. Her classroom sizes are larger—about 30 students—and she teaches five classes a day. Every day she plans in-class activities for the students, including group and individual work, and comes up with fun ways to engage her students.

Although Teach for America members learn the basics of lesson planning during their training institute, it’s up to them to craft plans to engage their own students. Because of the nature of her job, Burt, and other Teach for America members, put hours into planning lessons.

“It’s not just a resume builder,” Burt says. “It’s something that you really need to feel passionately about, because you’re responsible for the education of these students who may not have had the best learning experiences in the past.”

Teachers in the program make a two-year commitment, and are considered part of their school’s faculty. They receive a full first-year teacher’s salary, ranging from $29,000 to $51,000 based on region, Baum says. They also receive a federal loan forbearance and education stipend. When teachers’ two years are up, schools can decide to hire them or not.

Besides monetary benefits, Teach for America members also see students improve in their learning. However, it’s an up and down process that can sometimes be frustrating.

Kuhl says one of the hardest parts of her job is keeping her students motivated. Less than half of her students do their homework and it’s hard to get them caught up to the educational level they should be performing at. She also says most of them don’t see a future for themselves. “I can see all of my students have so much potential, but I just wish they could see that for themselves,” Kuhl says. “If I see a student’s grades are slipping, I find time to talk to them. It makes a big difference when I have a personal relationship with them.”

The opportunity to help and relate with students is what Gastrock, Teach for America’s regional communications director, says is so appealing to almost-graduates. “It’s one of the hardest jobs, but also one of the most rewarding. You can find a way to service a community and find personal fulfillment.”

  • Updated Dec. 5, 2012 at 2:20 pm