With his senior year coming to a close and a faltering economy awaiting him, Syracuse University student Josh Shaw should be worried. Over the past year, the newspaper major has watched his industry, and with it his job prospects, slip into decline.
But where others might have despaired, Shaw saw an opportunity to pursue another passion – giving back. So Shaw took a job with a nonprofit organization teaching disadvantaged youth.
"Teach For America was always something I'd considered and had wanted to do," Shaw said.
Over the past two years, Teach For America—a nonprofit organization that places college graduates in teaching positions in underprivileged communities—has garnered record numbers of applicants like Shaw from colleges across the country. The rise in popularity of service-oriented programs is due in part to the opportunities they offer college graduates in a bleak economy.
"It's a guaranteed job and coming out of it in two years, it's great for a resume," said Shaw of his two-year commitment to teach elementary school students in Baltimore. "This is really the only chance I'll have to do something like this before going into a career in journalism."
In 2009, the number of applicants vying for a spot in the organization rose by 42 percent from last year, according to Trevor Stutz, Teach For America's national communications manager.
"2008 was also a record year for Teach For America, when we received 25,000 applications and selected 3,600 teaching corps members," wrote Stutz in an email.
Selective Process for Teachers
And out of more than 35,000 applicants this year, Stutz said the organization is looking to yield about 4,000 new teachers in their incoming class. "It's a highly selective process," said Stutz.
It's also attracting some of today's best and brightest college grads. The program offers competitive pay and benefits, a combination that's hard to come by for even the most qualified students entering the job market.
The competitive entry-level pay is what makes Teach For America a practical solution for many college graduates facing four years' worth of loans. Starting salaries range from $27,000 to $47,000, according to the organization's website. Individual pay is determined by location and adjusted for cost of living. Teachers in rural areas, for example, make between $27,000 and $45,000, while those in city school districts start at $30,000. Corp members are paid by the district they work for, and make the same salary as the district's other teachers.
"When there are fewer job opportunities…it opens people up to a greater range of options and they're able to consider opportunities that weren't on their radar," said Stutz.
Attracting Those With 'Social Conscience'
At SU, Teach For America has a strong reputation among students, according to Mike Cahill, director of the Center for Career Services. "This is a very attractive school for [Teach For America] because they do always get a lot of candidates from here," said Cahill. "I just think it's the type of student who comes to Syracuse. I think we do attract a population of students who have some type of social conscience."
In fact, in the last year, the numer of SU applicants to Teach For America has risen by about 60 percent, according to recruitment director Kendra-Lee Rosati. This year, Teach For America received 198 applications from SU students, up from 126 the year before, according to Rosati.
"I knew the job market was hard, so when I originally applied for Teach For America I thought it would be one of a few opportunities I'd have," said SU senior Tori Hornstein, a public relations major who will be teaching Spanish to high school students in the Washington, D.C., area. "At the time I was accepted it was the only offer on the table."
SU senior Courtney Cohen had a similar story. "If the economy [were not] so bad, and I [didn't have] much trouble finding a job in a television related-field, [I don't think] that I would have even applied to AmeriCorps, but I'm actually really glad I did," said the television-radio-film major.
Cohen had been looking for jobs during her last semester but hadn't found anything until she was offered a grant-writing position with AmeriCorps—a government-run program which places volunteers in community service programs. Cohen will be working with AmeriCorps in New York City for one year, and afterward may consider staying in the nonprofit world.
Push for Nonprofit Work
But the economy is only half of the story. For many students who planned on taking a traditional route into their career of choice, the lack of possible job opportunities served as a catalyst to pursue their interest in nonprofit work.
"I figured instead of just taking this year to work at a restaurant or a Starbucks-type thing, and just wait until a [television] job became available…to take this year to volunteer and to try to do something that would mean something to someone else instead," said Cohen.
Making the commitment to Teach For America was difficult, said Shaw. "It was tough to make that initial decision."
But in the end, he's sure he made the right choice. "Looking back, I'm almost glad it was the way it was," said Shaw.
For many students forgoing conventional career paths for a job with nonprofits, the decision, however difficult, comes naturally. "It's corny, but I'm one of those save-the-world kids," Hornstein said.