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One of the unexpected consequences of the current economic malaise is that more recent college graduates are reportedly deferring their entry into the work force in order to spend a year volunteering. Organizations such as Teach for America, the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps have seen significant increases in their application pool this year according to the Wall Street Journal, even from graduates of top colleges. The young people opting for volunteer positions cite their desire to “get something done” to help those that are less fortunate as a prime motivator. The trend is largely driven, however, by the reality that the existing job opportunities are simply not as attractive right now as they might be in a few years. Given the elite reputation held by Teach for America, for one, a two year stint in an urban school or abroad in the Corps can be leveraged into an attractive resume bullet point.

There is something ironic and nonsensical, however, about putting the least experienced members of the US talent pool to work for some of the neediest people in the world. Even worse is the assumption that their college degree and enthusiasm necessarily make them assets that the poor inherently should want working in their interest. In the last few months two relevant stories have come out about the Peace Corps specifically, both of which suggest that its historical reliance on young volunteers has played a role in the organizations’ reputation as a particularly ineffective conduit for humanitarian relief. The first story from the New York Times highlights the Peace Corps’ efforts to shift its demographics by recruiting more mature volunteers. The logic behind the shift is that mature volunteers have more work experience that they can directly apply, and their life experience usually means they have more ease dealing with different kinds of people. In addition, the Peace Corps is particularly active in countries where maturity is traditionally respected and venerated. Older volunteers in these environments often have more influence with the local population, and are better able to listen in turn to what the locals are saying. The second article was a particularly scathing piece in Foreign Policy by Robert Strauss, a former Peace Corps country director. Among other criticisms, he soundly dismisses the idea that local populations always love their volunteers, and instead painted a more complicated picture of tolerance, curiosity and even amusement toward the twenty-something Americans. A young woman who recently returned from three years as a Corps volunteer in Zambia recently summed it up for me like this: “You are a form of entertainment to them at first, and then six months later you realize no one is showing up anymore to your meetings.“

There are many things that make young people good choices for volunteer work, especially in developing countries. They are usually enthusiastic, not usually jaded, sometimes creative about coming up with alternative ideas, and they in most cases have sufficient stamina and bodily health to allow them to deal heartily with medium-term relative privation. But there is sound reason to wonder exactly who is supposed to be the real beneficiary of Peace Corps, AmeriCorps and Teach for America-type programs. Is their goal to substantively improve the lives of the service recipients (there is no evidence on any of the above organizations which unambiguously proves that goal has been met)? Or are they meant mainly to serve the short-term employment needs of the volunteers? This recent surge in interest suggests the emphasis, intended or not, leans to the latter.

Comments

“There is something ironic and nonsensical, however, about putting the least experienced members of the US talent pool to work for some of the neediest people in the world.“

And yet, we see time and again that those who are most sympathetic to the poor and needy are those who are, or have recently been, poor and needy themselves. What demographic in America does this describe better than young people who have never known what it is like to stand on their own two feet and feel true independence - socially and financially?

“Even worse is the assumption that their college degree and enthusiasm necessarily make them assets that the poor inherently should want working in their interest.”

Wait. If a college degree and enthusiasm aren’t good enough for the poor, what hope do recent graduates have of obtaining actual jobs? I’m not impressed with the American education system myself, but are you really saying that our education system is so abysmal that even the “neediest people in the world” would have just cause to reject our help if it’s from young grads? And if so, what are young people supposed to DO to in order to qualify themselves? Why are we letting them throw thousands of dollars away on a piece of paper (a degree) that has value only if the rest of society acknowledges that it does, and currently we don’t?

“Is their goal to substantively improve the lives of the service recipients (there is no evidence on any of the above organizations which unambiguously proves that goal has been met)?”

…because we find no ambiguity whatsoever regarding other organizations and their ability to meet their stated goals, such as food kitchens, prisons, schools, the government, etc. There is no dissent whatsoever in the media or public opinion regarding the efficacy of these organizations. You can be sure we would dissolve them instantly at the slightest hint of dissatisfaction, because after all, if there is any dispute as to the efficacy of an organization, it obviously means that it is not effective or beneficial at all, and all who disagree are sadly deluded. (Excellent logic.)

“Or are they meant mainly to serve the short-term employment needs of the volunteers?”

A) You said in your editorial that the Peace Corps has been actively working to recruit more “mature” volunteers. So, no, their main goal is clearly *not* serving the short-term employment needs of recent grads, else why this sudden interest in older volunteers?

B) Though we have established it is not their main goal, is it a problem if these programs do help their volunteers in exchange for their service? Must their volunteers receive no benefits whatsoever from their service in order for you to consider them ethical organizations? That goes beyond even the criteria for altruism - that’s practically an ethics based on masochism. Is that really what you believe?

***Lastly, it’s exceedingly ambiguous whether “experience” has any correlation whatsoever to greater efficacy and capability in life. Experience is acquired passively – all one has to do to acquire experience is stay alive. Pretty low standards, if you ask me. Acquiring an education requires both moral and intellectual effort. I’d choose an educated person over an “experienced” person any day.

December 08, 2008
Editor

Thanks to the commenter for proving our point.

January 26, 2009

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