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Northwestern Seniors Look to Americorps for Opportunities

May 29, 2009
EVANSTON, Ill. --- With his new mechanical engineering degree from Northwestern University in hand, David Sano will face an important interview in late June. Unlike some other members of the class of 2009, though, Sano won’t be interviewing for a scarce first job in his field or slot in graduate school.

Inspired by a new president and disinclined to look for a job in today’s economy, Sano has applied to AmeriCorps’ Civilian Community Corps, a one-year program that focuses on emergency and disaster response.

“The hardest I’ve worked on anything has been schoolwork towards an abstract grade,” Sano says. “It would be nice to do some work where you can see real results, like fixing a house in New Orleans.”

Sano’s interest in national service isn’t unusual among 2009 college graduates. Nationwide, online applications to AmeriCorps more than tripled in the first two months of this year, and Teach for America applications increased 42 percent. Although these programs have no age limit, most participants are between 18 and 26.

While the increase may be attributed to the economy and difficult job market, what the service programs’ Illinois recruiter John Hosteny calls “a renewed sense of patriotism” since Barack Obama’s election is also a factor.  Obama’s role is more than intangible: His economic stimulus program includes funding for 13,000 more AmeriCorps workers, and in April he signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which over eight years triples the number of AmeriCorps positions, from 75,000 to 250,000.

“Obama sort of planted the seed for me,” Sano says. “I wanted to get involved in some meaningful, fruitful labor. I think AmeriCorps would instill a deep sense of teamwork, responsibility and sacrifice into my personality. I don’t really want to look back on my 20s and remember sitting at a desk the whole time.”

Kyle Riddle, a music and psychology major who has applied to the Peace Corps, echoes Sano. “When you help those in need, it is the most gratifying feeling you can have,” remarks Riddle, who hopes to work on community development in impoverished areas abroad. “And when you get to learn a different culture and way of life on top of that, the feeling is indescribable.”

Hosteny, head of the Illinois office of the Corporation for National and Community Service, says a public service motive is especially strong among Northwestern students. “I do notice a difference [compared with applicants from some other schools],” Hosteny says. “Northwestern students don’t ask about the benefits, they ask about what they’ll be doing. They know they’re privileged to have gone to Northwestern and want to give something back.”

“Many Northwestern students want to make a difference in others’ lives, they want to make an impact,” agrees Brett Boettcher, assistant director of University Career Services, where the government service programs recruit alongside corporate employers. “AmeriCorps offers that. Students can work with populations that need help and contribute to positive change.”

Even before the current recession, new Northwestern graduates were entering national service in considerable numbers. According to the Corporation for National Service, 73 members of Northwestern’s class of 2008 entered one of the AmeriCorps programs, up from 50 in 2007. AmeriCorps numbers aren’t yet available for the class of 2009 because applications are still being reviewed, but Hosteny expects a substantial group from Northwestern. More than 40 Northwestern students in each of the last three graduating classes entered Teach for America, which requires two years of service.

Alexis Hamilton, a 2007 sociology and international studies graduate, will complete her service with AmeriCorps VISTA in August. She has been working with the Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago as a paralegal and earlier worked with the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law. 

“I was excited by the opportunity to work in a capacity that would improve the lives of other people,” Hamilton says. “I wanted to contribute more. I knew I was fortunate to attend Northwestern and I wanted my education to reach beyond myself.”

Getting into an AmeriCorps program takes more than desire. The application process is competitive. Students choose five participating nonprofits from a list on the program’s web site and apply to them directly. Some applicants don’t make the cut with any of their choices.

Even though the economic benefits aren’t the draw for service-minded young people, they are better than they used to be thanks to the Kennedy Serve America Act. It increases the educational award for 10 to 12 months of AmeriCorps service to $5,350, up from $4,725, beginning Oct. 1. The award can be used for tuition or to repay college loans. Participants also receive a modest living allowance from the government, and their hiring agencies provide health insurance.

Northwestern graduates tend to take a broader view of benefits. “I have learned more than I could have imagined,” Hamilton says of her paralegal experience with two nonprofits, “and I have been delegated responsibilities that push me intellectually and personally.”
“It’s a great chance to expand my horizons and see different parts of the country,” Sano comments.

Career Services’ Boettcher notes that some Northwestern students appreciate that national service offers an instructive transitional year or two for refining career or graduate study plans.
Riddle is one such student. “The Peace Corps would give me a chance to learn about myself and figure out what I want to do with my life,” he says. “When you are so far out of your comfort zone, you learn a lot about yourself, and you quickly figure out your strengths and weaknesses. I believe this knowledge would help with my grad school selection. It’s good to know what you want to do — or at least the direction you want your career to go. I see a wealth of experiences to teach me about myself.”
Topics: Campus Life