Y ou've got your degree, but your future path isn't so clear as you thought it would be. Actually, it's pretty hazy. You're not quite ready to get a "real job" or head off to graduate school. What you really want is a chance to test your wings, experiment, and try new things.

Sound familiar? Well, you're in luck. There are more opportunities available than you might think.

Peace Corps: See the impact firsthand
Today there are more than 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers around the globe helping people in developing countries take charge of their futures. They are striving to protect the environment, create economic opportunities, teach, and help families stay healthy.

Volunteers must be U.S. citizens at least 18 years old, and most assignments require a four-year college degree. Applicants without a degree may qualify by having three to five years of work experience.

The Peace Corps looks for facilitators and people capable of using resources and local technology to come up with solutions to problems. "Anybody can do things with a lot of money, but doing things without a lot of money takes resourcefulness," says Patrick Ganey, public affairs specialist for the Minneapolis Peace Corps office and former volunteer.

Peace Corps members receive a stipend to cover their basic needs. The stipend amount varies by country and allows volunteers to live at the same level as the people they are helping. The Peace Corps pays for transportation to and from the country of service and provides complete medical and dental care.

"There are virtually no out-of-pocket expenses while serving," says Ganey.

Upon completion of Peace Corps service, volunteers get a readjustment allowance of $225 for each month they volunteered. If a volunteer completes the full term of service (two years plus three months of training in the designated country), he or she walks away with $6,075. Also, student loans are deferred while serving and Perkins loans are partially forgiven.

Yet, as enticing as living in a foreign country may sound, joining the Peace Corps is a decision you shouldn't take lightly. "The Peace Corps is something worth considering, but it's not for everyone—it has to be a deliberate decision, " Ganey says.

AmeriCorps: Home is where the heart is
AmeriCorps refers to itself as the domestic Peace Corps and currently involves more than 40,000 Americans age 17 and older. They address America's needs by fighting wildfires, starting neighborhood crime watches, and meeting a variety of other community needs.

"A lot of people just realize that they have a whole lifetime to do the typical 9-to-5 job," says Dawn Sostrin of AmeriCorps. Sostrin is a recruitment training specialist at an AmeriCorps*VISTA office in Los Angeles and a former AmeriCorps*NCCC member.

"The best thing about AmeriCorps is that there are many different types of programs, so you can find your niche," says Sostrin. AmeriCorps includes more than 1,000 projects across the U.S. Two programs are managed nationally: AmeriCorps*NCCC the National Civilian Conservation Corps and AmeriCorps*VISTA, which stands for Volunteers In Service To America.
  • AmeriCorps*NCCC
    "When I looked at the Peace Corps, it was just too long. This was a 10-month program and that was perfect for me," says Sostrin of her AmeriCorps*NCCC experience in Charleston, S.C.

    A service program for young adults between the ages of 18 and 24, AmeriCorps*NCCC members live on one of five campuses that assist different regions of the nation. AmeriCorps*NCCC members are assigned to a team working to serve the communities where they are stationed.

  • AmeriCorps*VISTA
    People 18 years and older can be a part of this program. VISTA seeks long-term solutions to problems disadvantaged communities face and strives to empower the low-income people who live in them.

    The goal of VISTA is not direct one-on-one service. "It's more 'behind the scenes' volunteer work," Sostrin says.

    The program's primary objective is to engage and enable communities to take an active stance in solving their own problems. A VISTA volunteer's responsibilities might include writing grants, recruiting volunteers for projects, coordinating programs, and fund raising.

    Members who serve full-time get a modest living allowance to help cover expenses. In addition, they receive health insurance, may qualify for child care assistance, and may even have relocation expenses covered—depending on the program.

After completing a year of service, volunteers receive an education voucher worth $4,725 to apply toward future education costs or past student loans (part-time volunteers are eligible for a portion of that amount). AmeriCorps members may qualify for deferment and forbearance on student loans. If eligible, AmeriCorps pays accrued interest on student loans for members who finish their terms of service.

AmeriCorps assignments range from 10 months to a year; most are full time but part-time opportunities are available. "Even though a year may seem like a short amount of time—there's so much that you're capable of achieving," says Sostrin.

Teach For America: There may be a teacher lurking inside
Teach For America, New York, is an organization of recent college graduates from all fields who devote two years to teaching students ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade in under-resourced urban and rural public schools throughout the U.S.

Teach For America discloses the sad reality and the need for Teach For America corps members: Children in low-income areas are already three to four grade levels behind students in high-income areas by the time they are nine. This, coupled with the reality that kids from low-income families are seven times less likely to graduate from college, prove to be tough obstacles for many children to overcome.

It's the recognition of this disparity, says Kyle Waide, director of public relations for Teach For America, that drives many young people to join. Waide himself is a former Teach For America member. "One of the most important things you can do to address that disparity is to be a teacher," he says. "When a kid learns to read—that kid has learned that for life."

Although the need is great, Teach For America reviews applications carefully. "Admissions to our corps is very selective and very competitive," says Waide. Last year, slightly more than 4,000 people applied to Teach For America and 900 were selected.

"The ideal candidate is someone who sets high goals and high standards for themselves," adds Waide. "Teaching is fundamentally a leadership position."

Duncan McColl, a Teach For America corps member from 1998 to 2000, says the selection process confirms that people participating in the program are doing so for the right reasons.

"If you're someone who feels strongly that every student should have access to a first-class education and you're willing to roll up your sleeves and work for that—it will show through during your interview," he says.

After being accepted, corps members attend a five-week summer training institute where they work with current corps members, alumni, and experienced educators to learn a teaching approach that will serve as a foundation for their two-year term. When they arrive at teaching sites, many corps members are required to work toward certification—rules vary from state to state.

Corps members earn a regular, full-time teacher's salary and benefits paid by the school district where they're teaching. Salaries range from $21,000 to $36,000, depending on the region.

Because Teach For America is a part of the AmeriCorps Service Network, corps members qualify for some of the same benefits as AmeriCorps volunteers. "Teaching really strengthens your character—it's kind of a workout for the soul," says McColl. He recognizes that everyone has tough days now and then. "But when you have a tough day teaching kids that need help—it's really not that bad once you think about it."

You'll have "the edge"
If you volunteer, you will continue to benefit long after your term is over. The skills and knowledge you attain will give you an "edge" that graduate schools and employers will appreciate.

"At Yale, we certainly value people who are public-service minded," says Jean Webb, director of admissions at Yale Law School in New Haven, Conn., one of the top law schools in the country. While Webb admits that volunteering in public service organizations won't automatically result in admission to graduate school, she says that at Yale it could help someone who is on the borderline.

Duncan McColl, a former Teach For America member, agrees. "For anyone who's familiar with the program, I think it's definitely going to help your status as a prospective employee."

Dawn Sostrin has seen the benefits of a volunteer experience parlayed to the working world and academia often during her work with AmeriCorps. Members generally are more focused and passionate about their career and graduate school plans after having volunteered. They've had a taste of what's "out there" and determined what they're good at. "It's a great opportunity to give back to the community as well as grow as a person," she says.

The Peace Corps is also a good stepping stone for people unsure of the direction they're headed. "In general, former Peace Corps volunteers have dedication, persistence, a lot of motivation, and a real ability to work with people," Ganey says. He believes these traits are beneficial to future employers and graduate schools. "The tools that you use as a Peace Corps volunteer are phenomenally useful in whatever you do subsequently."

In the end, you really can't go wrong with a volunteer experience. Just be ready: You never know where those wings will take you.

    Useful resources

    Talk to the people
    at your credit union
     about credit cards,
    debit/ATM cards,
    and other services
    to help you while
    you're helping others.

    There are
    more than 7,000
    Peace Corps volunteers
    around the globe
    helping people in
    developing countries
    take charge of
    their futures.

    Ideal Teach For
    America candidates
    are people who
    set high goals
    and high standards
    for themselves.

Useful resources

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