Building nations, from the ground up

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February 27, 2008

6:15 PM

p. For some students, life after the College includes years of job-searching. For others, the future holds more schooling. Still more will devote the next two or more years to doing volunteer work in developing countries as a member of the Peace Corps.

p. “There is so much opportunity in many developing countries for economic growth and what they need at this stage,” Lauren Queen ’08 said. Her goal as part of the program is to help with skills training.

p. Right now, 51 of the 8,079 Peace Corps volunteers and trainees serving abroad are alumni of the College. The College is currently ranked as the country’s fifth highest contributor of Peace Corps volunteers in the medium-sized colleges and universities category.

p. Students’ reasons for applying to the Peace Corps are as varied as the students themselves. Queen was attracted to the Peace Corps because of its business development program, while Kristin Corcoran ’08 applied after several volunteer and educational trips to Latin America sparked her interest in the area.

p. Living with a host family while studying abroad in Lima, Peru and interning with the U.S. State Department in Bolivia taught Corcoran the importance of the Peace Corps’s grassroots approach to development.

p. “I want more local contact and I believe in the grassroots approach because it’s a great opportunity to become part of the community and understand it from the inside,” Corcoran said. She also cited the efficiency of such an approach. “Working with the community to create solutions is much more effective than imposing something from the outside. It’s important to implement programs and methods that communities can run on their own, with their own resources.”

p. Katie Leach-Kemon ’04 also praised the Peace Corps for the effectiveness of its grassroots approach. She spent two years in Niger educating local people about disease prevention, with an emphasis on HIV and malnutrition. “In order to be able to help people, you have to learn about them and earn their trust,” she said.

p. Applying to the Peace Corps is a rigorous process. Recruiters interview prospective volunteers to determine their levels of education, experience and skill and nominate applicants for specific projects based on their skills. A placement officer confirms the location assignment and extends an official offer to the applicant. While the applicant’s geographic preference is considered, it is not guaranteed that this request will be granted.

p. The first three months of every two-year placement consist of training within the country on local culture, language and health and safety issues, as well as training in any special skills volunteers might need for their specific projects.

p. Despite this extensive application and training process, the Peace Corps has a 20 to 30 percent drop-out rate. Difficult living conditions and homesickness contribute to volunteers’ struggles while abroad. When Leach-Kemon first arrived in Niger, the culture shock was enough to tempt her to get back on the plane to Virginia. “Mud hut, no running water, eating starches all the time and nothing else,” she said. She also cited difficulty in adjusting to the climate — 110 degrees on a normal day, 140 at its worst.

p. After an initial adjustment period, Leach-Kemon credits the local residents with helping her to adapt to the culture. “The people were the nicest people that I have ever met in my life,” she said.
p. “I feel like Niger is my second home now.”

p. Queen admitted she was hesitant about the culture shock.

p. “I was afraid of giving up the way things were here,” Queen said. “I have so many friends that I love so much.” She’s realized that any plans for next year will involve adjustments. “All graduating seniors are going to have to deal with losing this great community.”

p. Corcoran, too, admitted to fears of leaving friends and family.

p. “I’m nervous about being away from friends and family for so long,” Corcoran said, but she added that she hopes to create a community of friends abroad. She is comforted by previous positive social experiences in Latin America. “Once you get to know a friend and go to their house, you become part of their extended family,” Corcoran said. “The people are welcoming and caring, and it’s easy to fit right in.”

p. Prospective applicants are encouraged to think extensively about whether or not the Peace Corps will be a good fit for them.

p. “It is a very challenging and, at times, frustrating job, so it is important to mentally prepare yourself for two years of extreme highs and lows,” Leach-Kemon said. “For many people, the Peace Corps’s two-year commitment is too long and too far. I’d really encourage anyone interested in serving underprivileged communities to also consider AmeriCorps. There is so much need in our own backyard.”

p. Corcocan suggested potential applicants do some research beforehand. “Talk to a ton of people who have done it to get different perspectives on the program, especially people who worked in different geographic areas and issues.” she said. “Be honest with yourself about what your concerns are.”

p. Despite its challenges, many Peace Corps alumni have such a positive experience that they maintain involvement with international affairs after completing their placement. “I feel like my experience in the Peace Corps was ideal training for my current career path in global health,” Leach-Kemon said. “Being in the Peace Corps opens so many doors for future career opportunities.” She is currently enrolled in a Master of Public Health program at the University of Washington and continues to visit Niger in order to conduct research and to reconnect with local friends.

p. No matter their location or specific job, Peace Corps volunteers are guaranteed two years abroad full of intensive growth experiences. “I was so idealistic when I first arrived in Niger,” Leach-Kemon said. “I was determined, as many young people who join the Peace Corps are, to help people. Living life as a Peace Corps volunteer in a rural Nigerien village … taught me how complicated helping people really is.”

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