Elaine Waldman knew what she wanted: a job in the health care field where she could work with young people and organize outreach programs.
As a 22-year-old with a freshly minted college degree and very little work experience, she didn't expect to find such a career opportunity at home in Southern California. So she joined the Peace Corps and found it 9,000 miles away in the Ivory Coast town of Adzope.
"It was the most productive experience I ever had," said Waldman, who parlayed her Peace Corps experience into a job at the Venice Family Clinic and organized the health center's first peer-based AIDS education program.
Once the exclusive domain of bright-eyed hippies willing to dig ditches and teach English while living in near-poverty, the Peace Corps has grown into a valuable source for the kind of international work experience the U.S. job market increasingly demands.
Since 1990, the number of business-oriented Peace Corps assignments has grown 200% as volunteers are deployed to Central and Eastern Europe to help rebuild the economies of the former Soviet empire. About 1,000 of the 6,900 Peace Corps volunteers currently serving throughout the world are working on business projects, said Kristin Wennberg, a public affairs specialist at the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington.
Opportunities are also expanding for engineers, urban planners, health professionals, lawyers and computer scientists. Professional-oriented assignments now outnumber traditional jobs, she said. "Today's Peace Corps assignments are much more sophisticated than I think people realize," Wennberg said. "While our volunteers may be digging ditches, a lot of them are engineers who are building the ditches."
These days, the typical Peace Corps volunteer is a mid-career professional looking for hands-on international experience and a change of pace--someone like Mary Schroeder, for example. Schroeder was vice president of Time Warner's cable operations in Bakersfield when she first toyed with the idea of joining the Peace Corps in 1992.
Less than a year later, she was in the Russian town of Ussurriisk, home of the first privatized vodka factory in the former Soviet Union. Schroeder helped the factory workers modernize the operation.
"Before I got there, they had two computers and nobody in the finance department had access to them," she said. Using her laptop computer, Schroeder designed a spreadsheet that automatically changed dozens of vodka prices to adjust to a change in the tax code--a process that used to be done by hand or with an abacus and that often required a weeklong shutdown. By the time Schroeder left the vodka factory last February, the workers were able to change all the prices in a matter of hours, she said.
When she came back to the United States, Schroeder settled in Seattle and launched a financial consulting business, doing the kind of work she did for the vodka factory. The flexibility she acquired during her Peace Corps stint has helped her manage the rigors of owning her own business, she said.
Peace Corps volunteers must be healthy American citizens at least 18 years old. A candidate must fill out an extensive application and pass an interview and FBI background check, said Robin Clark, a public affairs officer in the Peace Corps' Los Angeles recruiting office. About 3,500 of the 10,000 people who applied last year ended up joining the corps.
Volunteers receive a stipend to cover housing, travel expenses and necessities such as food and clothes, but Clark is quick to point out that "you're not going to go over there and live the corporate executive's life, expatriate-style."
None of that dampened Waldman's enthusiasm for her Peace Corps assignment, which began in 1990. While serving in Ivory Coast, she initiated an AIDS education and outreach program with the help of local high school students. That qualified her for the kind of work she wanted back home.
When she returned in March, 1994, Waldman got a job at the Los Angeles Free Clinic teaching high-risk youths the basics of AIDS prevention. Last January she became a health educator at the Venice Family Clinic, where she has started a peer outreach program similar to the one in Ivory Coast.
Waldman brought a portfolio of pictures and newspaper clippings about her AIDS-prevention program in Adzope to her job interviews, and she says she is convinced that her Peace Corps experience got her the two jobs in Los Angeles.
"The fact that I had worked in a peer-based HIV education project that I built from the ground up, that it was something that worked and transformed the lives of the people in it--those experiences were the ones that really counted," she said.
Peace Corps volunteers gain organizational, leadership and group organizing skills, and they often receive a greater degree of responsibility abroad than they would get at home, Clark said.
"When they come back, they are on the fast track," she said.