BGSU expands its Peace Corps connections

Peace-Corps
Reviewing Peace Corps materials are (left to right) Margaret Booth, V Rosser, Beatrice Guenther and Molly Kosnak.

By Bonnie Blankinship

Since it was launched in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy, the Peace Corps has been sending Americans around the world to serve others, and Bowling Green State University has been a rich source of volunteers. Now BGSU has teamed with the Peace Corps to expand opportunities for both undergraduate and graduate students.

The new Peace Corps Prep program gives undergraduates who wish to become volunteers the skills and experience they need to be strong candidates for acceptance into the corps. BGSU is one of only two public universities in Ohio with the program.

In addition, the BGSU Graduate College has expanded its participation in the Paul D. Coverdell program for returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs) to include all of its 58 master's degrees and all its 19 doctoral degrees — making it possibly one of only three universities in the United States to do so. Coverdell offers significant scholarship assistance to these RPCVs — in BGSU's case, a guarantee of at least 50 percent of their tuition cost. An informational session will be held from 4-5 p.m. Oct. 23 in 315 Bowen-Thompson Student Union for anyone interested in learning more about the benefits of the program.

"Having both these programs, we can really say BGSU is a Peace Corps campus," said Dr. Margaret Zoller Booth, dean of the Graduate College. "Very few have embraced it as much as we have, and it's especially a rarity among public universities."

Booth, herself a former Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, is the founder, in 2008, of BGSU's first Coverdell academic program, the Master of Arts in cross-cultural and international education (MACIE). This was followed by two additional expansions as more degree programs were approved for participation.

In addition to its relevance to the Peace Corps, having a set of specialized skills along with an international perspective is an added bonus for students in today's increasingly globalized world, said Dr. Beatrice Guenther, Peace Corps Prep program co-director and International Studies director.  

"Although it's not a guarantee of acceptance to the Peace Corps, the program is an excellent preparation for any kind of international development field work such as NGOs (nongovernmental organizations)," Guenther said. "It prepares students to be global citizens and ambassadors for the United States, person by person."

Peace Corps Prep includes four key areas: coursework to develop intercultural competence and foreign language skills, professional and leadership development and training, and experience in a work sector through coursework and community service.

Open to students from any discipline across the University, the program allows students to focus their studies in the area that most interests them, including education, health, environmental issues, youth and community, and economic development. They must take five classes in those concentrations, and their classes also count toward their major or minor degree, Guenther said. In addition, if they choose to minor in International Studies, it will further signal their international preparation to both the Peace Corps and future employers.

Through their coursework, students will begin to build a professional specialty, which will be enhanced by hands-on learning through the required 50 hours of volunteer or work experience in the same sector. An equally important learning objective of the prep program is for participants to become more self-aware in order to deepen their ability to shift perspective and behavior in regard to cultural differences and to learn to truly listen, Guenther said. This combination of academic, personal and field experience will further strengthen their candidacy for becoming a Peace Corps volunteer, while also preparing them for a career later.

"The careers are there," Guenther added. For example, the Foreign Service and the United Nations "are always looking for smart, energetic, young, informed people. It's a fast way to a career."

Even though they may have different majors, the undergraduate students will be part of a supportive cohort and receive guidance from faculty and from Coverdell program graduate students who are returned Peace Corps volunteers. The program provides a "road map" and a framework with which to build their college experience.

Peace Corps Prep is a collaboration among the International Studies program, the Honors College, the Department of World Languages and Cultures, International Programs and Partnerships and the Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE)

The center will help organize participants' required 50 hours of service-learning. Two of its Civic Action Leader students are community-engagement specialists and can help Peace Corps Prep students find a good fit with their interests, said CCCE director Dr. V Rosser, co-director of Peace Corps Prep.

The center staff will also now begin sharing the prep program with every student who comes in to inquire about volunteer and community engagement opportunities, Rosser said. "This will also encourage them to think about internationalizing their skills."

On the graduate level, while the Coverdell fellows typically already have very specific ideas about what they want to do for their required internships with underserved domestic populations, Booth said, the CCCE can help identify possibilities and make connections.

The returned volunteers already have international and foreign language skills and field experience, which they bring to their domestic service. They also bring their unique perspective to campus, and tend to use the organizing skills they honed abroad to develop and promote campus initiatives.

Coverdell Fellow Molly Kosnak, a MACIE student from the Detroit Metro area, is a graduate assistant in the CCCE. She will be organizing events and coordinating communications among all the PCP and Fellows programs and the Graduate College.

"We'll be helping to match Peace Corps Prep students with returned volunteers who can offer advice and share their experience," said Kosnak, whose Peace Corps service was in Mongolia as an English teacher. Her own experience there convinced her to go into education, she said, even though it was not in her original career plans.

"It's a real benefit having a returned volunteer on our staff," Rosser said.

Booth noted that the three goals of the Peace Corps are to help educate people abroad, to become educated oneself, and to bring back to the United States the cultural understanding gained during service.

Kosnak is committed to those principles, and said the mutual "misinformation and miseducation" about the U.S. and other countries cannot be underestimated. In Mongolia, she found a deep lack of knowledge about the United States, and back home, almost no knowledge about Mongolia, for example.

Rosser participated in a Peace Corps conference this year and was heartened to learn that the Peace Corps is very focused on diversifying its volunteers. "They want to help students see themselves as Peace Corps candidates — racially, ethnically, LGBTQ students," she said. Kosnak said this will also help provide a truer picture of the United States through its volunteers.

In addition, Rosser said, "We want low-income students to see it is a possibility for them, students who may not have thought so before. The strong message from the conference was that resilience, the ability to think on your feet and to work independently with an entrepreneurial energy are the personality traits that are most important."

Being at the conference also gave her confidence about proceeding with Peace Corps Prep "because this is what we do every day. We already have a lot of the pieces in place. Being a Peace Corps Prep site is distinctive for a public university. It shows our commitment to thinking more broadly about international engagement."