Peace Corps takes UAF students across the globe
Editor’s note: The fall 2009 Aurora featured the Peace Corps master’s international program at UAF. This story is an update. If you are a PCV or RPCV with a UAF affiliation and want to be added to our Google map, please submit your information.
By Nancy Tarnai
Through the master’s international program, UAF’s presence is expanding globally.
For nearly a decade, students have been able to combine graduate studies with Peace Corps service, earning a master’s degree and gaining relevant and valuable international experience at the same time.
The School of Natural Resources and Extension has three volunteers in the field — in Fiji, Gambia and Mexico — and soon one more will go. By next year, three new MIP students will be on campus, along with one or two more Paul D. Coverdell Fellows (returned volunteers). The College of Rural and Community Development has one MIP student in Paraguay. Add the mix of volunteers who aren’t affiliated with MIP or Coverdell but who choose to study in Fairbanks, and you’ve got intercontinental flair.
MIP student Teresa Anderson is studying natural resources while awaiting her PC assignment. “I’ve always wanted to do a science master’s and do Peace Corps, but it wasn’t until senior year at UAF that I realized the option of combining them both,” she said. “I always think I’m well-rounded and have a good perspective on the world right up until experiencing something new and realizing just how naive I was before. After years of this cycle, I know that after Peace Corps I won’t be able to imagine how I ever lived without it.”
Anderson expects that having a good attitude will serve her well in the field. “In this case, good should be defined as patience, understanding and humor,” she said.
“I am preparing myself for feeling like a failure while I try to do my job in the Peace Corps. I understand that what I will get out of Peace Corps will be the emotional highs and lows of my life and I will leave behind funny stories about that one Peace Corps volunteer from Alaska.
“The value of PC is much more a cultural exchange rather than the development of a developing country. Those are the most lasting effects.”
Her classmate Lauren Lynch is preparing to take off for Togo, in West Africa. The Amherst College alumna knew she wanted to earn her master’s degree while serving in the Peace Corps. When she studied schools with MIP programs, she discovered UAF. Being awarded a fellowship sealed the deal.
Lynch thought the Peace Corps would help her learn about working with people and how to make sure that her natural resources management research is relevant to people. “The Peace Corps is a good opportunity to make sure what I do is useful in some way,” she said.
“I love UAF,” she said. “The classes are really good. I like the grad student community and everyone in this department.”
“The partnerships are growing,” said Tony Gasbarro, UAF PC coordinator and two-time PC volunteer. He has been with the UAF program since its inception and takes a personal interest in every MIP and Coverdell student.
Gasbarro believes Alaska is the draw for most of the PC faction at UAF. “Alaska is a resource state and the students equate it with adventure,” he said. “Alaska is attractive to them. The cross-cultural opportunities are greater here.”
The students who come to UAF for or after PC service are high-energy, high-quality people, Gasbarro said. “They contribute in the classroom and are very participatory.”
Associate Professor Susan Todd, the SNRE PC coordinator and advisor, said, “The Peace Corps students have this energy around them; they bond and feed on each other. They’re interested in impacts, changing things and making things better for people as well as the environment.”
The program provides what many students interested in becoming volunteers need. “You get the degree and the Peace Corps,” Gasbarro said. “Without this program some students are afraid if they go in the Peace Corps they won’t finish their degree and if they go for the degree they won’t do Peace Corps.”
Returned volunteers fare well in the career market, Gasbarro said. “Having Peace Corps service on your resume is a shoe-in at some jobs.” Employers know that PC volunteers have rural experience, are not easily flustered and know how to work with indigenous people, he explained.
“And they are resourceful,” Todd added. “They have tenacity and they are undaunted.”
UAF’s first MIP graduate (May 2009), Erin Kelly, is a perfect example of using her education and PC service to find the right job. After serving in El Salvador and completing her master’s, Kelly is working for the New York Department of Labor as an agriculture labor specialist. “Oh my gosh, I love it,” Kelly said. “It’s a really good use of my skills.”
Kelly works with farmers and farm laborers, making sure the farms are in compliance with labor laws and that laborers know their rights. “I work with a really good team and I feel I’m making a difference,” she said. “I get to use my interpersonal skills and my Spanish.” The challenges have been learning the labor laws and how to maneuver through bureaucratic levels. The joy is getting to visit farms three or four days per week. “It’s similar to the Peace Corps in the cultural aspects,” Kelly said. “It’s very rewarding.”
Brooke McDavid, who loved her PC assignment to Fiji so much that she stayed a third year, got a bonus out of her service. She married a villager. “Solo courted me with coconuts, bananas and play dates in the sea,” McDavid wrote in an email to Todd. “He took the time to explain the intricacies of village tradition and helped me feel at home. He taught me the Fijian word for the Milky Way and that the moon has a wife. He told me a three-hour bedtime story about the history of his clan, including the name of every single third cousin, and how they came to be here. He has a big heart and a certain disregard for the rules. A perfect combination. Together we just have so much damn fun!”
In Vanua Levu, McDavid has conducted a community needs assessment and trained villagers to give the survey, worked with women to create vegetable gardens and study financial management, and started a mangrove nursery. Her current project is researching social networks to document how people get their information.
She is the village’s first Peace Corps volunteer so feels she had a blank slate to work on. The people are poor but not starving, education and health care are lacking, and there is disparity between urban and rural areas.
“The Peace Corps has made me appreciate the simple things in life a lot more,” McDavid said. “I have learned to slow down the pace of life, and there is a huge sense of community, something I’ve never had before. It’s like a big extended family where everyone knows your business, but we collectively work together to achieve things.”
She is so impressed with that sense of community that she said wants to have it the rest of her life, “whether it’s in Fairbanks or Fiji.”
“What Brooke has accomplished has blown me away,” Todd said.
The Peace Corps is, of course, not all sweetness and light. UAF students have gotten gravely ill during service, been prematurely pulled out of countries where violence erupted and even suffered near starvation.
UAF’s second MIP student, Matthew Helt, served in Paraguay for two years as an agroforestry volunteer. He did a lot of gardening, cooking and mentoring young people. In service, he was struck down with appendicitis and to this day has a horrendous scar to prove he was operated on in a developing country.
He had studied government and international politics at George Mason University and wanted something more tangible, so he selected natural resources management. “What better location than Alaska?” he said. “I had heard my dad talk about wanting to visit Alaska since he was my age.”
Helt said his desire to serve in the Peace Corps came about because he had taken for granted what it’s like to live in a country with a functioning government, to have parents who love and care for you, and to be enrolled in an education system that sets you up for success. “In America, we have many amazing material things that everyone around the world wants,” he said. “What they need are good governance, loving parents and quality education; I learned to appreciate those. I also got an extensive course in Murphy’s Law.”
Thankfully, Helt lived to laugh about his adventures in Paraguay.
Samantha Straus, currently serving in Gambia, frightened her professors back at UAF when they learned she ended up at a clinic in West Africa, malnourished. Food supplies are so scarce that Straus lost a lot of weight and succumbed to illness. Luckily, her conditions improved and she was able to stay in country. (Read more from Samantha about her Gambia experience.)
Deforestation is Straus’s area of research and work. She has worked with villagers to raise bees and harvest honey. “Bees need trees and trees need bees,” Straus said. Her colleagues have become more interested and dedicated to the task of growing trees if only to help their honey production thrive. Last year, nearly 100 cashew and 50 moringa trees were planted in the community.
Community members rely heavily on trees for fuel wood, medicine, food, timber and fodder. Beekeeping adds a lucrative and attractive income-generation opportunity, which has galvanized the community’s interest in tree planting.
When people ask Straus why there is no honey, she responds that the bees are eating all the honey they produce because there are not enough trees for them to feed on. The rural village where she serves is also threatened by erosion as deep gullies continue to ruin farmlands and the structural integrity of homes. Trees have many secondary uses, including soil stabilization. “More trees can only help the community in all of the abovementioned areas, and beekeeping is one of the ways they are getting there,” Straus said.
Ben Rance had served in Honduras for 18 months when all volunteers were yanked due to safety concerns. In the field he worked on everything from gender equality to constructing 55 new latrines.
“I had an unconventional Peace Corps experience,” he said. “I kind of felt like a failure. I would start projects, get going and have to leave.
“I wish I had had the opportunity to serve two years, but sometimes that’s not how the world works.”
Looking back, Rance said he learned the value of understanding cultural, social, political and economic realities in a community. He observed that monitoring, evaluation and follow-up are virtually non-existent in the PC, at least in his experience. And he worries that sometimes the program might create dependence on outside help.
Nevertheless, the value is seen by Todd in the big picture. “This enriches UAF,” she said. “Our students and faculty say it is the best thing that has happened to our school. It’s a commitment to the betterment of society and not just what’s in it for me.”
“It makes this a stronger university,” Gasbarro said. “It keeps us connected to the rest of the world and makes us not quite so provincial.”
UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers agrees. At a PC gathering on campus in fall 2013, Rogers said the Peace Corps programs are a natural fit for UAF. “Tony (Gasbarro) talked me into it,” he said. “I had seen Tony’s presentations over the years. When he tells his stories people get excited. The opportunities the Peace Corps creates are really amazing.”
Rogers encourages all students to study abroad at some point. “Having international, cross-cultural experiences is part of what it takes to be successful,” he said.