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Vassar alums volunteer oversees in Peace Corps programs

Features Editor

Published: Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, February 8, 2012 16:02


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The Peace Corps, whose logo is shown above, was founded in 1961.

As the countdown to graduation begins, Vassar seniors will be considering their after-college prospects and looking to the jobs of alumnae/i for advice on the paths they might take. Vassar's recent high ranking on the 2012 Peace Corps Top College Rankings in the small school category should bring to the forefront alumnae/i who took an alternative route before beginning a career. With 17 alumnae/i currently serving as Peace Corps Volunteers, Vassar is ranked 20th, a large jump from its 45th spot last year.

Instead of moving into tiny apartments in New York or crossing the country to start up in California, these graduates are volunteering in 16 countries, including Bulgaria, Cameroon, Dominican Republic, Hondorus, Jordan, Morocco, Lesotho, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Senegal, Sierra Leone and South Africa. Since the founding of the Peace Corps in 1961, Vassar has sent 237 graduates overseas.

Peace Corps Volunteers work in 76 different countries in a variety of fields. There are six program areas: education, youth and community development, health, business and information and communications technology, agriculture, and environment. The Peace Corps program provides volunteers with language, cross-cultural and technical training in their location prior to their volunteer work. An interest in languages and different cultures is a must, while backgrounds in agriculture, environment or teaching English as a second language are encouraged.

Vassar graduate Joshua Morton '01 was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, officially the Kyrgyz Republic in the former Soviet Union, for 27 months after his graduation. Living in a rural town, he taught English as a foreign language to middle through high school students. "They gave you three months cultural training, taught you the language and we had teaching English as a foreign language training," Morton said.

"That was my primary assignment, and was pretty standard bill for what a volunteer would do. I wrote a couple of grants for a computer center for my school, to bring them up to the modern age, and one was to actually build a new outhouse system."

Before leaving for Kyrgyzstan, Morton spoke none of the local language, but he didn't find it particularly difficult to pick up. Said Morton, "I was a religion major at Vassar, and I focused on Buddhism. It was always my interest while at Vassar to do a study abroad program, though I only did one semester [in Nepal]. So I was already familiar with living and working overseas, and enjoyed that quite a bit."

Nikki Eller '10 is currently serving as a water and sanitation volunteer in Peru. "Besides skills such as writing and presenting," Eller wrote in a piece for the Peace Corps, "Vassar left me with a curiosity to learn more, an analytical approach to problems, and the resources, motivation and confidence to try and solve them."

Vassar's Career Development Office sponsored a webinar on Tuesday, Feb. 7 for students interested in the Peace Corps. "We have a strong relationship with the Peace Corps," said Assistant Director for Employer Relations Susan Smith.

Regional Recruiter Ryan Lesley, who was himself a volunteer between 2006 and 2008, spoke about the program and answered students' questions. Lesley came to Vassar in the fall for a meeting. According to Smith, "If a student has already begun the application process, the recruiter can often arrange to meet that student while he/she is on campus that day. We offer our recruiting office or CDO library as a meeting place."

Juniors and seniors were present at the webinar, as one applies a year in advance of when he/she would hope to leave.

Leo Rubiano '13, a psychology major, was one of the students who attended the webinar. "I'm thinking of going into social work, and going to graduate school for a Master's in social work, but I'm not entirely sure. Spending 27 months overseas would be a good way to see if that kind of work is what I want to do in the long run. It also just sounds like a really good experience."

For students considering the Peace Corps after graduation, Morton offered this advice: "One of my biggest fears was the two-year commitment, but I found that it forces you to really learn what you're doing well enough to do it relatively well by the time you leave. So I would say don't let that deter you, but think carefully about it. It's volunteer work but you're not just giving, you get quite a bit from the experience. It's definitely one of the more life-changing experiences to have."

Peace Corps Volunteers with a Bachelor's Degree traditionally teach English as a foreign language, while those with a Bachelor's in economics or a Master's in any field were focused in the urban universities.

"I was the only [Peace Corps volunteer] in that town; the closest [volunteer] to me was 30 miles away," said Morton.

Joining the Peace Corps is a rigorous process, and once people decide to volunteer they sign a commitment to serve in the Peace Corps for at least 27 months.

Within the Small School category of the 2012 Peace Corps Top College Rankings, University of Mary Washington garnered the number one spot by having 29 alumnae/i undergraduate volunteers. The school with the highest number of graduates serving in the Peace Corps overall is the University of Colorado at Boulder, with 112 volunteers.

Vassar Peace Corps volunteers are serving in education, HIV/AIDS research and agriculture. But even if one does not use the skills directly learned from the Peace Corps, the experience is a learning experience in many ways.

Morton admits that his current job as a sales representative for a wine distributor in Boston does not directly relate to his time in Kyrgyzstan, but his Peace Corps experience has definitely stuck with him.

"Coincidentally, [a few] days ago one student [I had taught in Kyrgyzstan] friended me on Facebook, and he seemed to be doing very well for himself. He remembered me, and I would like to think that I actually had in the slightest degree possible an impact, so it was encouraging to see that, years later."

Smith acknowledges that there are many other options for students looking to do volunteer work after graduation. "Cross Cultural Solutions and Smaller Earth are two that come to mind," she said.

Volunteering abroad with Cross Cultural Solutions can last anywhere from two weeks to a year, while Smaller Earth allows volunteers to work in fields such as wildlife conservation or sports coaching.

"[The Peace Corps] is a very good solid, structured way in which to broaden one's horizons to the greater world," Morton said of the opportunity. 

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