Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/special.aspx?id=139283
Story Retrieval Date: 5/22/2013 1:14:47 PM CST
WASHINGTON - In the five years that Ken Surdin has been a regional recruiter for the Peace Corps, he’s noticed a swelling enthusiasm among applicants for the organization’s two programs in the Arab world: Jordan and Morocco.
“It’s an area that obviously has importance for us right now,” said Surdin in a telephone interview from the Peace Corps’ Chicago office.
It’s an area that has importance for Surdin on a personal level, too. He served in the Peace Corps’ Morocco program from 1997-1999.
“I think there are more universities that are creating Middle Eastern studies programs. So students (are) learning about this part of the world, and if Peace Corps seems like an option for them it’s only natural that they want to continue building on the knowledge base that they already have,” Surdin said.
Since 9/11, Americans’ interest in the Arab world has been borne out in language programs, cultural exchanges and an intellectual compulsion to learn about the region. From conversations he has had with recruits, Surdin believes these factors have persuaded Peace Corps applicants to serve in the two Arabic-speaking countries.
But numbers show that it hasn’t inspired all the applicants to stay for a full two-year hitch.
Over the past ten years, the resignation rate from Jordan, at 15.2 percent, is almost double the international average of 8.6 percent. Volunteers resign at a lower rate in Morocco, but it’s still nearly four percentage points higher than the average, at 12.4 percent.
Do potential volunteers underestimate the cultural and political challenges awaiting them?
“Serving in Jordan, men and women had different social obligations,” said Kristin Gottsacker, 26, from Sheboygan, Wis., referring to the frustrations that can come to a boil in a country where women’s roles tend toward the traditional.
Gottsacker worked in Peace Corps Jordan’s Youth Development sector with physically handicapped children.
“It was difficult to conform to these cultural norms having come from a western perspective,” Gottsacker said.
According to Allison Price, a spokeswoman for the Peace Corps in Washington, about 80 percent of resignations are for personal reasons; a sick family member, a desire to leave early or even graduate school.
“There is a wide range,” Price wrote in an email.
The renewed appeal of programs in the Arab world may simply reflect the larger trend in the organization’s popularity. In the fiscal year ending in September 2008, Peace Corps saw a 16 percent hike in applications from the year before, the largest jump in the previous five years.
Peace Corps has 7,876 Americans serving in 76 countries across the globe.
Price suspects that President Barack Obama’s repeated calls to service during his campaign for president directly influenced the application influx.
“We saw our online applications spike 175% around the time of President Obama’s inauguration,” wrote price in an email, comparing a three-day period in January 2009 to a similar period the year before.
Peace Corps is indisputably enjoying a new patron in Obama, who repeatedly talked about the organization during his campaign and has asked Congress to increase the Peace Corps budget from $340 million to more than $373million.
Just before the August recess, the Senate quietly confirmed a new director, Aaron S. Williams, who himself was a volunteer in the Dominican Republic from 1967 to 1970.
College graduates, according to Price, are coming of age in a more interconnected world and one that stresses self-sacrifice and service. Retirees are also, more than ever, answering the call to service.
Interestingly, Price asserts that the recession plays only a small role in the application uptick.
“While each individual has unique personal reasons for joining the Peace Corps, volunteers typically decide to join the Peace Corps because of their commitment to public service. This is the kind of life choice that would not be based on the ups and downs of the economy,” wrote Price.
Though the political reasons impeding Peace Corps presence in other North African and Middle Eastern countries may be obvious, there once was a time when the organization worked in many of the countries where the United States now struggles to maintain good relations. Volunteers served in Libya, Iran, Pakistan, and in what seems now like a reversal of fortunes, Afghanistan.
The Peace Corps’ wouldn’t comment on the organization’s future in the region. For one, officials don’t know, since policy stipulates that a government must formally request a Peace Corps presence.
Despite its above average resignation rates, Morocco is the Peace Corps’ third largest program and has been in operation since the1960s. Volunteers have served in Jordan for a little over a decade, even staying after the three deadly hotel bombings in November, 2005.
“I can’t speculate on why some volunteers choose to leave early,” spokeswoman Price observed.
“What I can say is this: Peace Corps volunteers have been invited to Jordan, Morocco and 72 other countries to contribute skills, perspective, and energy.”
Editor's note: Reporter J.H. Freeman served in the Peace Corps' Jordan program.