Officials laud proposed funding increases for the Peace Corps

BY BETHANY BIRON
Daily Staff Reporter
Published March 8, 2010

President Barack Obama’s budget plan for the 2011 fiscal year released last month includes a request for a $446.15 million budget for the Peace Corps — an increase of about 10 percent over this current fiscal year that officials say will greatly benefit the Peace Corps program both nationally and here at the University.

If Congress approves the budget increase, it will be used to expand the amount of volunteers currently serving in the Peace Corps, the number of countries accepting volunteers and the overall quality of the program, according to program officials.

Josh Field, press director for the Peace Corps, said the program’s focus for 2010 is expanding the number of volunteers in current posts as well as increasing the number of host countries. He added that the organization is trying to establish a third-year extension program for volunteers interested in serving longer than the two-year requirement.

Field said that if the budget passes, the increased funding will allow for more volunteer recruitment. In addition to bringing in more volunteers, Field said Peace Corps officials are looking to enhance the quality of volunteers.

“It will affect our recruitment just based on the fact that we are looking for quality volunteers with positive experience to go into these countries,” Field said. “And we are obviously looking to meet the needs of the countries that need additional volunteers in the new posts that we are making.”

Kevin Quigley, president of the National Peace Corps Association, said the increased funding would also make more resources available to the program and would help the program improve its leadership and structure.

“Financial resources will enable Peace Corps to make investments in its systems and its infrastructure to do a better job on recruiting, training, placing and supporting volunteers and enhancing their impact,” Quigley said.

Quigley estimates that the increased funding could allow for more people to join the Corps.

“Those additional resources should enable Peace Corps to grow over this two-year period by roughly a third, from 7,500 to 10,000 volunteers,” Quigley said. “And since there’s been a pretty dramatic increase in the applications to the Peace Corps in response to the president’s call for service and in response to deteriorating economic conditions, by providing more resources for the Peace Corp, many more Americans will have an opportunity to serve.”

With increased interest in the Peace Corps, Quigley said that it may make the application process more competitive but that the increased budget would also help make the application process more efficient and easier for applicants.

“Yes, there’s going to be more people applying, but it should be easier and faster to apply,” he said.

John Greisberger, director of the University of Michigan International Center — which works in conjunction with the Peace Corps’ Chicago Regional Office to serve as a resource for students and community members interested in joining the Peace Corps — agreed with Quigley that the increase in funding should make the application process easier.

“With more money, hopefully there will be more opportunities for students to be assigned or apply to be assigned to the Peace Corps sites in a more expedient way,” Greisberger said.

As a former Peace Corps volunteer in Afghanistan, Greisberger said that while he is satisfied with the amount of money that President Obama allocated to the program in the proposed budget, he would always like to see more funds given to the Peace Corps. Greisberger added that he is already working toward receiving more money for the program.

Alex Pompe, the campus coordinator for the Peace Corps at the International Center, said that the funding increase is pretty significant, especially with the current economic crisis.

“I’m really satisfied with it,” Pompe said. “It’s quite significant, especially given that amongst other federal agencies, few have seen an increase of that percentage-wise.”

Though he doesn’t believe it's feasible to reach Obama’s goal of doubling the size of the Peace Corps program by the 50th anniversary of the announcement of the program later this year, he said the additional funding would help the program expand, but in different ways.

“When were talking about doubling the size of the Peace Corps, there’s also ways to improve the quality within that doubling so that we’re talking about an improvement of quality and quantity at the same time,” Pompe said. “And one of the ways it’s been recognized is to establish firmer links to educational institutions.”

Pompe added that creating a closer relationship with educational institutions could start with the University — which is currently ranked forth among universities in all-time production of Peace Corps volunteers — with increased focus on graduate school programs and fellowships for Peace Corps volunteers.

“I think realistically one of the ways that will affect Michigan is possibly the development of more grad school opportunities, particularly Masters International, and possibly some more Peace Corps fellows programs starting up here,” he said.

Pompe added that a major factor preventing students from getting involved in the Peace Corps is debt and student loans from college. He said the budget increase could help to solve this problem by establishing a loan forgiveness program.

Christine Torres, public affairs specialist for the Peace Corps’ Chicago Regional Office, wrote in an e-mail interview that the increased funding would also allow for the program to recruit students with the special skills needed at certain Peace Corps sites.

“The types of program areas that open up will help steer specific recruitment efforts,” Torres wrote. “For example, right now, we have a very strong need for applicants degreed and skilled in Education and English teaching, as well as public health and environmental studies. While we are always generating broad awareness for programs in general, we also implement some very targeted outreach too.”