Peace Corps is haven for dot-com refugees

Volunteer organization sees increase in applicants from Bay Area

— With an economic rebound nowhere in sight, some veterans of the dot-com bubble are abandoning the Bay Area for places as far away as Haiti, Honduras and Ghana.

Their road to the Next Big Thing is the same one taken by a previous generation of idealistic young Americans: the Peace Corps.

For some, the decision to serve is a rejection of the excesses of the Internet boom, a search for something more meaningful and profound. For others, it's a personal response to last year's terrorist attacks, an attempt to build bridges to the developing world.

No matter what the reason, the Peace Corps is seeing a significant increase in applicants in the Bay Area � many of them tech-sector refugees. The Peace Corps received 379 applications from Bay Area residents for fiscal 2002, ending this month. That's up nearly 12 percent from 339 applications in fiscal 2000. Nationwide, applications this fiscal year are at 8,843, up 6 percent from 8,355 in fiscal 2000.

"Some of the applicants may be out of work and some may not, but these are people in transition," said Dennis McMahon, public affairs specialist in the Peace Corps' San Francisco office. "So they are in a good place in their lives to do something like this."

Peace Corps recruiters nationwide have noticed a jump in applications since President Bush called on Americans to volunteer in his State of the Union Address in January. But in the Bay Area, inquiries began to pick up back in spring 2001, coinciding with the dot-com collapse.

Applicants are searching for something more than just an escape from a grim job market, though.

"This is usually not the first time that they have thought about Peace Corps," noted Mona Nyandoro, a regional recruiter. During the boom years of the '90s, however, many jumped straight into the work world because the job opportunities were there. Now, the downturn has given them the flexibility to reclaim some of their youthful idealism � and do something more meaningful with their lives.

The Peace Corps covers housing, living and medical expenses for volunteers and provides a modest stipend. Still, it is a world away from the comforts of corporate America.

McMahon explained that the organization is looking for applicants who can innovate and be flexible, skills many dot-commers learned on the job.

"They are coming from a unique work setting, where creativity and the ability to think outside the box are at a premium," he said. "We need creativity to think of new solutions to age-old problems."

McMahon said that while the Peace Corps is best known for its low-tech work � teaching farming methods or setting up schools � it also seeks applicants with business experience, computer skills and other technical expertise.

Although many countries request Peace Corps volunteers with technical expertise, Nyandoro cautioned that applicants should be prepared to use their skills in more rudimentary ways than they do back home � to set up a computer lab, help a small businesses digitize its files or simply teach people how to use the Internet, for instance.

Carl Strolle, who lives in San Francisco's Sunset district, wants to build on his experience to bring modern technology to an unwired part of the world. Strolle, 34, spent six years doing desktop publishing and Web site development for IDG, publisher of magazines such as Computerworld, before joining a friend's start-up in fall 1999. That start-up, eFrames.com, an online photo site, eventually merged with a Florida company and Strolle left in April.

Today, he is applying to the Peace Corps. Strolle hopes to go to West Africa, probably next summer. Among the projects that interest him: helping non-profit groups update their computer systems, working with a business to set up a Web site and teaching computer classes.

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