Of all American schools with under 5000 undergraduates, Case Western Reserve University now ranks 10th in the number of alumni currently serving in the Peace Corps. The organization is dedicated to improving the quality of life for people around the world, especially in third-world nations, through teaching and mentoring. “Every day, volunteers make countless contributions to projects in agriculture, education, the environment, health and HIV/AIDS education and prevention, small business development, and youth development,” Peace Corps director Aaron S. Williams said in a statement to the media.
“As members of a diverse community, [CWRU] students have an awareness of global issues and a curiosity about other cultures,” said Cleveland-based regional recruiter Annabel Khouri. CWRU is one of three Ohio colleges to make the top 20 in the small school category, along with Oberlin College and Denison University.
Some college students are skeptical about the value of serving in the Peace Corps, viewing it as more of a break between college and career than real work experience. However, Khouri pointed out that “you are in a community and people are looking to you for solutions. You are given much greater responsibility and opportunity than any entry-level job could provide and you bring those skills to future employers.” Christine Torres, a public affairs specialist for the organization, also mentioned that returning volunteers become part of an extensive network with excellent employment connections.
Since its inception in 1961, the Peace Corps has expanded to 76 countries. Volunteers live and work in their host nation for 27 months and have an option to extend to three full years. Not only does the Peace Corps provide a unique work experience, it also provides living expenses, full health coverage, and the advantages accompanying federal employment to all volunteers.
Anyone concerned with promoting open-mindedness and cultural understanding is likely to find the Peace Corps appealing. “One area of focus is finding ways to foster more understanding among various groups within their countries of service, and dispelling stereotypes and myths,” Torres said. The organization’s name can cause people to dismiss its mission as lofty and idealistic. But in actuality the Peace Corps is more about people-to-people relationships than the romantic notion of world peace. Its volunteers focus on issues specific to their area of service, like HIV/AIDS prevention or women’s empowerment.
The Peace Corps places volunteers into a wide range of fields, including public health, agriculture, engineering, business, and teaching English. Volunteers are not limited to one project when they go abroad. Miranda Lange, a 2009 CWRU graduate serving in the West African nation Mali, worked on health projects for her first two years. She and another volunteer focused primarily on eradicating malnutrition and improving prenatal care in a rural desert village. Now she applies her business background to help improve marketing techniques at the Malian branch of Marie Stopes International, a worldwide non-profit that provides family planning and reproductive healthcare services.
Khouri served in Kenya as a small business advisor, working with entrepreneurs and subsistence farmers. She also taught members of Kenya’s Ministry of Culture and Social Services important business skills such as record-keeping, marketing, and project planning.
In addition to fieldwork, volunteers have the opportunity to discover a new culture firsthand. Returning volunteers often say the experience can illuminate problematic aspects of American culture that may go unnoticed in the U.S. In contrast to the increasingly fast-paced, impersonal American society, Lange noted that Malians value human interaction above all else.
“Even just walking over to a Malian’s house to ask how they are is appropriate and welcome. We need to send an email just to make an appointment to see someone,” she said. “I have reprioritized my life to be more humanly in touch with people.”
For those interested in applying for the Peace Corps, Khouri will be hosting a recruitment session in the lobby of Tomlinson Hall on Friday, Feb. 24 from 12:30 to 2 p.m. “It will offer an opportunity for students to ask questions about what it is like to live and work abroad,” she said, “as well as to share their experiences of either being abroad or interacting with international communities in the U.S.”