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Peace Corps Director Seeks Increase in MIT Recruits

By Rima Arnaout

“The toughest job you’ll ever love,” may soon be more accessible to more MIT graduates than ever before.

In an effort to boost recruitment among Institute graduates, Peace Corps Director Mark D. Gearan, visited campus yesterday to speak with Chancellor Lawrence S. Bacow.

The Peace Corps stepped up recruitment efforts nationwide following a Congressional vote to increase the Peace Corps’ $241 million budget over the next four years, a few weeks ago. The added funds will serve to increase participation in the Peace Corps from the current 6,700 volunteers to 10,000 by the year 2003.

“Nationally, we’re seeing a resurgence of interest in the Peace Corps,” Gearan said. This past year, the Peace Corps received 150,000 inquiries from students interested in joining, compared to 100,000 inquiries in the past five years.

Gearan looks to work with MIT

Gearan was enthusiastic about finding ways to increase the numbers of MIT students joining the Peace Corps. According to Gearan, if MIT students serve in the Peace Corps, then “when they return after two years they will have a degree from one of the finest universities in the world and credentials from one of the most respected service organizations in the world.”

Because the Peace Corps hopes to expand its service from teaching to helping improve technology and the environment, Gearan sees MIT students as natural participants in the program due to their extensive technological backgrounds. “The kinds of things the Peace Corps does is exactly the kind of thing we’re looking to do at MIT,” Gearan said.

The Peace Corps will work with Bacow and Christopher G. L. Pratt, director of MIT’s Office of Career Services and Preprofessional Advising, to promote participation in the Peace Corps on campus. Pratt also attended the meeting.

“The graduates of MIT have been an integral part of the Peace Corps,” Bacow said, but the number of MIT students participating in the Peace Corps has dropped over the years. Only seven MIT students are currently serving in the Peace Corps.

Ideas to increase service discussed

The meeting focused on finding ways to “give students a taste of the Peace Corps,” Bacow said, either through traditional participation in the Peace Corps or through special programs set up with MIT.

“The market now is so strong for our students,” Bacow said, “and there’s a pressure to take a high-paying job to try to retire some of those debts” incurred in paying for college, Bacow said.

Bacow suggested making serving in the Peace Corps especially attractive to students by setting up programs through professors at MIT whose work involves technology in society, urban planning, environmental issues, and other subjects that overlap with the work of Peace Corps volunteers. The idea is “to link Peace Corps field workers with a groups of MIT students [working with those professors], doing corresponding research,” Bacow said.

Bacow and Gearan discussed the idea of creating a short-term service program for MIT students. Students would spend three to six months abroad and work with regular Peace Corps field workers during crisis situations. “There’s a frequent demand for technological expertise” during crises such as hurricane Mitch, said Jean Seigle from the Peace Corps’ New England Office.

Seigle suggested setting up “a mutual relationship with the university whereby we support a work-study program” through which “the university supports students with a tuition waiver or reduction.”

One way MIT could set up such a relationship with the Peace Corps is by adopting the Masters Internationalists Program, which is already in practice in about fifty universities in the nation, Gearan said. Through the Masters Internationalists Program, students would apply to graduate school at MIT and to the Peace Corps simultaneously.

Other ideas for increasing participation in the Peace Corps at MIT included integrating Peace Corps service into MIT’s Center for Public Service, establishing a Peace Corps representative at MIT, and having Peace Corps information sessions on campus. This effort already began in part last Wednesday, when several former Peace Corps volunteers on campus sat on a panel and talked to students about their experiences abroad.

During the meeting, Gearan also presented Bacow with a plaque that stated “with respect and appreciation to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for its friendship and its many contributions to the Peace Corps.”

Meeting provides good ideas

Gearan was pleased with the ideas put forth in the meeting. “It was a working meeting,” Gearan said. “It was very productive, and I was impressed with the Chancellor’s knowledge of the Peace Corps... and [with] his very specific suggestions,” he said. “We are grateful for the doors that are open to our recruiters” at MIT.

In the coming weeks, Gearan will talk further with Bacow about which ideas can be implemented at MIT. Bacow and Gearan will continue to “think through ways we can better reach MIT students so that they keep [the Peace Corps] in their minds as they are going through school,” Gearan said.

Gearan’s meeting with Bacow at MIT is one of many he has had recently with university administrators around the nation. Gearing recently spoke with the presidents of Boston University, Harvard, and the University of California at Los Angeles to create awareness of the Peace Corps on those campuses as well.

Gearan has a history of leadership

Gearan, who attended Harvard College and Georgetown University, assumed leadership of the Peace Corps in 1995. Since then, he has worked to increase the number of countries served by the Peace Corps, and to increase government support of Peace Corps volunteers.

The Peace Corps was established by former President John. F. Kennedy in 1961. It currently serves over 80 countries.