Peace Corps Fellows program celebrates 10 years at BGSU

University marks partnership with the Peace Corps as Falcons take flight into global service

By Alex Sciranka

This academic year marks the 10-year anniversary of the Paul D. Coverdell Peace Corps Fellows Program at Bowling Green State University. 

The fellows program works to provide returning Peace Corps volunteers with financial assistance as they transition into graduate school. In 10 years, BGSU has hosted more than 70 Peace Corps Fellows in a range of graduate programs.

The Peace Corps Fellows Program was made possible at BGSU through the work of Dr. Margaret Zoller Booth, dean of the Graduate College. Having served in the Peace Corps herself, she saw a need for a Peace Corps program to exist at BGSU. In 2008, she founded the Master of Arts in cross-cultural and international education (MACIE), BGSU’s first Coverdell academic program.

Establishment of this program allowed BGSU to host returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs) in graduate fellowships. Since 2008, Booth has continued championing the University’s partnership with the Peace Corps and has expanded fellowship eligibility to all graduate programs at BGSU. Her passion for the Peace Corps stems from her own personal experience volunteering for the organization. 

“Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer changed everything I thought I knew about life,” Booth said. 

After her undergraduate career, Booth served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya from 1983-84.

“You cannot go in with high expectations,” she said. “I went in ready to do a job for two years. In that time, I was expected to teach high school English courses. But as time goes on, you quickly learn that you may also become the school nurse, the counselor or the sports coach, and you truly become a member of the community you serve.”

Upon returning to the United States, Booth was filled with questions. 

“I needed to better understand the way culture fits into education,” she said. “I knew that in answering these questions, I had to continue my education in a graduate program.” 

And so began her career in education, always maintaining a passion for the program that impacted her life so profoundly.

Students continue to experience this same passion every day as they live out the Peace Corps mission on the campus of BGSU. 

“My service has given me a chance to become an advocate for the communities I served,” said Heather Bloom, a current Coverdell Fellow who is studying for a dual Master of Arts in Spanish and history.

"Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer changed everything I thought I knew about life"

“I focus on Latin American issues in my studies because it is so important to educate my peers on the cultural differences that exist throughout the world,” Bloom said. “In doing so, we help limit the misconceptions that may exist regarding a particular group of people.”

Bloom volunteered for the Peace Corps in Paraguay from 2010-2013 as an environmental education and conservation program coordinator. Bloom helped educate her host community on responsible environmental practices and how to implement programs for better sustainability.

“One of the mottos of the Peace Corps is that it will be ‘the toughest job you’ll ever love,’ and I cannot stress that enough,” she said. “I wanted to make a difference in the world. But in evaluating my service, I’ve realized the true reward comes from the feeling of being accepted by a community. Being able to enhance my communication in another language to cultivate a deeper relationship with my host family is a feeling I will always cherish.”

Soon, more BGSU students will be able to experience the same sentiments. This spring, BGSU held a kickoff event for students who have been accepted into the Peace Corps and plan to begin service this summer. The event celebrated the achievements these young leaders have made, and will soon make on their journeys around the world. 

“Every community has its own unique needs and challenges, so hearing from and working with the people directly will be an extremely valuable experience,” said James Johnston, a doctoral candidate in philosophy. Johnston will be serving for two years in Zambia as a maternal and child health promoter. 

“It seems as though the world has become very divisive in recent years,” Johnston said. “I think work like this is important for me and the world because it allows both parties to see the humanity that we all share.”

While Johnston sought Peace Corps service on his own terms, BGSU is continuing to formalize these opportunities for students through the Peace Corps Prep program. This campus-wide collaborative effort works to bring the principles of Peace Corps service to undergraduates interested in becoming volunteers. The program allows undergraduate students to complete their desired degrees while incorporating courses that carry out the mission of the Peace Corps. 

“The Peace Corps Prep program adds a layer of intentionality to the course of study,” said Beatrice Guenther, co-director of PCP and director of the international studies program. “Students are less likely to select a course just to ‘fulfill a requirement,’ as connections between courses become evident without leading to a duplication of classes.”

Undergraduates take courses in intercultural competency, foreign languages and leadership development, and must complete community service work within the region. Students in the Prep program work closely with RPCVs to complete service hours, receive advice on the application process and to get a firsthand idea of the obligations and benefits of service.

“This program is great for anyone who is interested in working in an intercultural organization or nonprofit, not just Peace Corps applicants,” said Olive Bartholomew, a junior majoring in International Studies and Spanish and is one of a handful of students to be accepted into the program thus far. “I am interested in serving because I see the opportunity as a valuable cultural exchange.”

Students interested in the Peace Corps Prep program can learn more by connecting with the International Studies Program or the Center for Community and Civic Engagement. Students will be connected with Peace Corps Campus Ambassadors and RPCVs who can walk students through the application process.

Peace Corps Campus Ambassadors are selected by local Peace Corps recruiters to promote volunteerism and educate college students about the program. Olivia Romeo, a junior studying neuroscience, currently serves as the ambassador for BGSU. 

“We are responsible for connecting with the diverse groups on campus through group discussions, class presentations and social media,” Romeo said.

While participation in the Prep program does not guarantee a student will be selected into the Peace Corps, the program will provide students with a certificate from the Peace Corps detailing the student’s commitment to exercising the core values of the organization. Having this distinction sets BGSU graduates ahead of the curve when applying for positions involving international or cultural relations.

Enhancing these connections with the Peace Corps has established a unique network only experienced by a few universities in the country. This ongoing partnership is just one of the ways BGSU strives to promote local and global public good.