Closing office breaks Peace Corps recruiter's heart
Published: Tuesday, October 9, 2012 at 1:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, October 9, 2012 at 1:23 p.m.
As Amy Panikowski cleaned out her office, it wasn’t until she took down her world map that she began to cry.
Pins, names, dates fell to the ground one by one, just as she had put them up during the past seven years. Hundreds lay across the floor as she hurried to leave that day, afraid she’d run into a Peace Corps applicant and then have to explain that she couldn’t help them anymore.
For nearly seven years, hundreds of students sent overseas to different Peace Corps sites passed through Panikowski’s office. They came looking for something new, something to help, or just something to do once they graduated from the University of Florida.
Until August, Panikowski, 33, had been the Peace Corps recruiter for UF, ranked over the past few years in the top five nationwide in recruiting both undergraduates and graduate students.
But when the Peace Corps changed the way it selects and pays college recruiters, and UF’s budget no longer could support the program with recent cuts university-wide, her position disappeared.
Her office and world map, too.
Both Panikowski and David Sammons, dean of UF’s International Center and a Peace Corps alumnus himself, knew something was up during the spring semester when they learned of the changes the Peace Corps had implemented.
Sammons said the new process involves an application in which each university applies for money. After weeks of trying to work within the new rules, UFIC withdrew its bid. Officials decided that even if they won the bid, they could not pay for everything Panikowski needs because of UF’s budget cuts.
Sammons said Panikowski’s Peace Corps contract paid only her salary, not for workspace or support. UF last year helped out with expenses and a salary supplement of $2,740, UF spokesman Steve Orlando said. Sammons said the UFIC could not continue to subsidize Panikowski without more help from the Peace Corps.
For its part, the Peace Corps says it doesn’t anticipate any drop-off in UF recruits by no longer having a local recruiter, said Alethea Parker, the agency’s southeast regional public affairs specialist.
“We’re just doing things differently,” she said.
Sammons said he, Panikowski and other alumni hope to hold informative meetings to tell about their experiences in the program to continue to encourage those who might be interested. But they can’t help them through the process.
Panikowski still has her job at UFIC as a grad student working with grants-related research in climate change and gender issues with agriculture.
She said she’s disappointed she won’t be able to help this year’s seniors, students she has helped through the past three years.
Mention a UF student’s name who has been through her office and filled out an application, and Panikowski can tell you where they went, when they went, and what they’re doing now.
“The hundreds of kids I’ve thrown overseas,” she recalled, stopping to laugh.
When Panikowski started as a recruiter, she said, her bosses gave her a goal of 20 to 25 people per year. She brought in almost 30 the first year.
For the past seven years, except 2006, she has been among the top-25 undergraduate recruiters at colleges and universities with student bodies larger than 15,000, and top-5 in the past few years.
In 2011, UF was No. 4 on the list with 101 volunteers and No.1 for graduate students with 30 volunteers.
Now, instead of just walking into Panikowski’s office, UF students interested in joining the Peace Corps must wait until a recruiter comes to campus or speak with recruiters in the Atlanta office.
The point of on-site recruitment, Parker said, is to build the relationships that help students decide to join the Peace Corps.
There should be someone on campus to guide students along the way, she said, through the rough patches and the sign-on-the-dotted-line moment.
There are other points students might not think to ask the regional recruiter. Things such as cultural and gender concerns in certain countries, or even being an African-American in Africa. Things that aren’t in the brochure. Things such as keeping alive a relationship with someone for two years and continents apart.
John Washington and Emily New returned to Gainesville several weeks ago after finishing their two years in their respective countries.
The couple, who grew up and went to school in Gainesville, hoped to serve abroad together. But New was sent to the country of Georgia, while Washington went to Mali.
Panikowski spoke with both of them and connected them with Peace Corps alumni who went through the same thing.
For New, it was the support Panikowski provided that helped her know she was making the right choice.
When she arrived in Georgia, there was a fellow Gator already serving there. Months before, Panikowski had introduced them.
For Panikowski, her Peace Corps experience brought her to the recruiting job. In 2000, she headed to Malawi, in east Africa, not quite knowing what to expect.
She learned struggle was normal. She learned to get over herself and her fears. She learned to be part of a community. Things she said her recruiter, whom she barely remembers meeting, never told her.
She didn’t get to complete her service because she came down with “a touch of malaria,” she joked. So she helped others complete their trips instead.
“My want to contribute and give back is because I couldn’t,” she said.
New said that, other than her fellow Gator in Georgia, no one at her site had ever met their recruiter. Many had no idea what they were getting into and were lost once they were there.
New joked that she had been teased by other Peace Corps members for “never shutting up about Amy.”
From the first time a student walked into her office to the last follow-up, Panikowski would be there for them.
More importantly, she said, it was what to expect and embrace once the students would join their new family abroad. Her advice mirrors that of President John F. Kennedy, who helped start the Peace Corps in 1961.
“It’s not just what you can do for the people,” she tells her recruits. “But what the people (can) do for you.”
She said she’s always amazed at the number of students who ask her to open their acceptance letter for them and how honored she is, looking up from behind the envelope and reading the name of the country where the students will spend the next two years.
“Do you know how many parking lots I’ve opened invitations in?” she said. “It’s a gift.”
Washington said he was curious what would happen to the volunteers when they get back. He said Panikowski, along with others, would organize transitions back to the United States to help them continue volunteering and help new recruits get ready for their trips abroad. The things she can’t do anymore.
It’s emails and phone calls. It’s lunch when they get back or a congratulations note for getting a new job or continue work with the Peace Corps. It’s the little things that keep her in contact with her recruits.
She had to stop talking, her eyes visibly filling with tears, her cheeks flushing red.
“It’s hard to tell them I can’t talk to them anymore,” she said.