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The Second Toughest Job

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"Here at Columbia, we say [teaching] is the second-toughest job you'll ever love,'' Schirber says, adapting the Peace Corps' slogan, "the toughest job you'll ever love.''

Other returning volunteers will soon have the opportunity to duplicate Schirber's success. The Peace Corps, which helped start the Teachers College program six years ago, has decided to expand the project to include a wide range of colleges, universities, and school districts across the country. The expanded program, now called Peace Corps Fellows/USA, is a milestone for the agency. It marks the first time in its 29-year history that the Peace Corps has developed a specific program to fulfill one of its congressional mandates: to have volunteers bring home their experiences from abroad and share them with their fellow citizens.

"This program is an opportunity to share their international perspective in the classroom,'' says Barbara Zartman, deputy director of the Peace Corps, "and a way of harvesting the investment that taxpayers have made in the volunteers. It's too good an experience to leave at the end of two years.''

Since last summer, 12 additional colleges and universities have signed agreements to offer master's degree programs for returning volunteers. The 12 are Tulane University, the University of Southern California, Florida International University, Georgia College, George Washington University, Ohio University, Texas A&M, the University of Southern Mississippi, Georgia State University, Auburn University, the University of Michigan, and the University of Maryland at Towson. By the end of May, the agency expects to have agreements signed with the University of Hawaii, San Diego State University, San Francisco State University, Northern Arizona University, and the University of New Mexico.

Each university will arrange to have nearby school districts hire the returned volunteers to teach subjects in which there is a shortage of qualified teachers. The Peace Corps teachers begin working in the local schools immediately, completing their own studies at night and during the summer. All former Corps volunteers are eligible to apply for the program. Formal teaching experience abroad is not required by the Peace Corps, although some universities may decide to make teaching experience a prerequisite. Dale Gilles, who is coordinating the university program for the Peace Corps, estimates that between 900 and 1,200 of the 3,000 volunteers who return to this country every year have formal teaching experience. The total number of returned volunteers is now about 120,000. "Basically, every Peace Corps volunteer is in some way a teacher,'' Gilles says.

The participating universities also are trying to raise money to provide tuition stipends or scholarships for the returning volunteers. At Tulane, which began its program in January, the Coca-Cola Foundation will pay half the cost of the master's program--or about $20,000--for the first six students admitted to the program. For the Peace Corps, the only cost of the new program is the salaries of Gilles and his assistant.

P. Michael Timpane, president of Teachers College, says he believes the agency was wise to give the program time to develop before expanding it. In its six years, Timpane notes, the program has proved to be "a terrific benefit for everybody concerned.''

"In some very difficult schools, [the returned volunteers] have performed very ably,'' the Teachers College president says. "They are not easily dismayed.''

University officials who have begun to screen applications for the programs--most of which will begin in the fall--say they prize the returned volunteers for their varied experiences, knowledge of foreign languages, multicultural perspectives, and ability to work under difficult conditions with few resources.

At each participating university, officials are working to construct the programs according to local needs. For example, Zartman notes that San Francisco schools are very short of bilingual teachers fluent in Tagalog, the language of the Philippines. San Francisco State University, therefore, is "moving with incredible speed,'' she says, to put together a program for some of the Peace Corps volunteers who were pulled out of the Philippines last year for safety reasons.

George Washington University in Washington, D.C., plans to admit 30 returning volunteers for a program of study that emphasizes working with at-risk students in both regular and special education, according to Juliana Taymans, an associate professor of special education. The District of Columbia schools, as well as the suburban Montgomery County and Prince George's County systems in Maryland, have agreed to hire returning volunteers who are admitted to the program.

Georgia College has found that many returned volunteers are eager to teach at rural schools, to the amazement of some local administrators, according to Edward Wolpert, dean of the college's school of education. Some of the rural Georgia superintendents who have been approached by the college about hiring Peace Corps veterans, he says, have been "somewhat surprised that there are people who would like to come out and teach in the 'boonies.'

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"One of the things the superintendents will find nice about these people is that they are used to working under very primitive conditions, with limited books and supplies,'' Wolpert says. "Things aren't quite that bad here, but at least they will not have people demanding things they can't get.''

The dean adds that he hopes another, more subtle, benefit of the program will be the effect the returned volunteers will have on their college classmates, the majority of whom are from the surrounding area.

Says Wolpert: "We're hoping there will be a really good effect on our indigenous students by having [the returned Peace Corps volunteers] share their experiences.''


Ann Bradley, Education Week

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