WASHINGTON — The Peace Corps boasts that it's "the toughest job you'll ever love," but this year, just getting hired may be the toughest part.
At a time when both presidential candidates have pledged to promote and expand national service, the popular humanitarian assistance program that sends thousands of Americans abroad annually is now planning to cut 400 volunteer positions in the face of an unexpected multimillion-dollar budget shortfall. With fewer spots, an increasing number of Peace Corps nominees who were expecting to begin service this fall have seen their deployments delayed at least until next year -- and in some cases indefinitely.
"There are more people waiting this time than in years past," said Rosie Mauk, the Peace Corps' associate director of volunteer recruitment and selection. "The recruiters don't like to tell people that there isn't a spot for them. To have to tell people that they have gotten to know -- and they know are passionate about the Peace Corps -- that there is just not room for them now is the most difficult part."
Jen Casto, like many aspiring Peace Corps volunteers, applied to the program during her senior year of college. A double major in English and foreign affairs at the University of Virginia, she volunteered for years as a youth mentor and student tutor and speaks French and Spanish.
Last October the Peace Corps nominated her to a secondary education program in sub-Saharan Africa, with an expected departure this month.
"At the end of the interview, [my recruiter] said that I was definitely nominated and that she was going to find me a spot in Africa," Casto said.
Over the next six months, she visited an array of doctors to complete the famously thorough Peace Corps medical clearance process. Although she passed without much trouble, others have had to have wisdom teeth removed and costly blood work done to gain medical clearance.
But last month, about six weeks before she was expecting to leave for 27 months of service, Casto received an e-mail informing her that her program was full. Along with about 125 others, she was told she would have to wait until another program could be found.
"There is just a sense of frustration," said Casto, who turned down several summer internship offers to prepare for deployment. "I am really committed to this. I have wanted to do this for so long that I am willing to put my life on hold . . . but at what point do I just move on?"
The Peace Corps usually nominates twice as many people as it needs, so delays are not uncommon. Recruiters also make it clear that a nomination does not guarantee a formal invitation. But this year, as the agency cuts volunteer positions to save money, a greater number of competitive applicants like Casto, who have spent considerable time and money to join the Peace Corps, are finding themselves sidelined at the last moment.
With the bar suddenly higher, some of these delayed applicants have enrolled in extra classes and volunteer programs to improve their chances. After Dorian Connelley, 24, found out she would not be leaving in October as planned, she began studying French to make her application stronger. She is waiting to hear if that has made a difference.
"You have to go at it full steam, with no guarantees, because that is the only way you will be qualified," said Connelley, a 2007 graduate of Cal State Long Beach. "That is why people are frustrated. They have jumped through all these hoops and now the Peace Corps is saying, 'Not in this economy.' "
The agency, which has a budget of $330.8 million, is preparing for an $18-million shortfall over this fiscal year and next, primarily because of the declining value of the dollar and increased food and fuel costs worldwide. It estimates its foreign-currency losses from 2008 alone to be $9.2 million.
"We are preparing for the $18 million, but that is a worst-case scenario," said communications director Richard Parker.
The budget for fiscal 2009 has not yet been passed. The House Appropriations subcommittee that sets Peace Corps funding has supported the Bush administration's request for $343.5 million, and its Senate counterpart has approved $337 million. But until Congress passes that budget -- which could be delayed until after the presidential inauguration in January -- the agency must operate at its existing funding levels.
Even though the new budget is likely to mitigate some of next year's shortfall, the current funding problems are real. In addition to cutting volunteer positions, the agency has asked its managers in Washington and its 11 regional offices to reduce their budgets by 15.5%.
In what Parker called a move toward a more efficient recruiting model, the agency is planning to merge its Minneapolis office with Chicago's and its Denver office with Dallas'.
Although the Peace Corps has made an effort to insulate current volunteers, the budget cuts have been felt overseas as well.