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Peace Corps Offers Valuable Experience, Benefits to WSU Students

Posted by struscott | November 18, 2009

Agriculture students looking for real-world and international experience can find it in the Peace Corps, along with many other benefits.

Forthun with the Gorna Oryahovitsa Youth Parliament

Forthun with the Gorna Oryahovitsa Youth Parliament

While students may also serve in education, business and many other fields in addition to agriculture, students with agricultural degrees and experience have a competitive edge right now because those skills are in high demand, said Melanie M. Forthun, public affairs specialist for the Peace Corps Northwest Regional Office.

“I found that serving with the Peace Corps was a great way to get hands-on experience in my field and grow in ways I wouldn’t have been able to in the states,” said Dru R. Olson, Peace Corps campus recruiter at Washington State University and the University of Idaho.

Olson, who served in Romania from 2007-2009 after graduating from the University of Idaho with a degree in business, originally applied as an agricultural business volunteer, but switched to youth development because that is where the need was.

“The thing that stuck with me was the cultural exchange, as well as working with kids at the orphanage and learning about their stories and struggles,” Olson said.

Painting and cleaning up a bus station in Rila, Bulgaria as part of a beautification project.

Painting and cleaning up a bus station in Rila, Bulgaria as part of a beautification project.

Volunteers are placed where there is a need. Then recruiters match the skills of the volunteer with the position and country of service, with language skills and preference also taken into consideration, Olson said.

Volunteers placed in a country where another language is spoken spend the first three months learning to communicate, while typically living with a host family during the initial training period, Olson said.

In addition to language training, volunteers also receive technical and cross-cultural training, including learning how to adapt and be culturally sensitive.

Besides serving abroad, students can also earn a Master’s degree. WSU students can apply for the Peace Corps and Master’s International program at the same time.

Students in the Master’s International program spend the first year on campus, followed by 27 months of Peace Corps service. Students then return to campus to finish their degrees.

Students wanting to wait until after their 27 months of service to earn their Master’s degree can choose to participate in the Fellowship Program.

Newspaper article about the Kindergarten Renovation project Forthun helped write.

Newspaper article about the Kindergarten Renovation project Forthun helped write. While writing the project, she spent time with the kindergartners and taught them about life and holidays in America.

An interview is conducted as a part of the application process to further examine the volunteer’s skill set in order to find the best match. During the interview, recruiters try to expand on the prospective volunteer’s experience, motivation and ability to adapt to a new culture.

Students wanting to experience another culture, work in the field and meet the needs of the community should definitely consider applying, she said.

Olson recommends that interested students apply at the end of their junior year of college due to the lengthy application process.

However, she warns against solely serving in order to see other parts of the world.

“Don’t do it for travel alone,” she said.

While serving in the Romania, Olson developed projects, found resources to fund them, helped connect community members to start the project, and found volunteers to keep things sustainable. That last element, Olson said, is a key to success.

Transferring skills from volunteers to community members so the project can continue after the volunteer returns to the United States is an essential part of how the Peace Corps works, Olson said.

WSU graduates have served in regions all over the world, including Latin America, Africa, Asia and Europe, Forthun said.

Many grants and projects Forthun helped write had to do with Bulgaria’s transition into the European Union.

Many grants and projects Forthun helped write had to do with Bulgaria’s transition into the European Union. She and the community members she’s pictured with here marched in an EU Accession Celebration parade.

“Last year, approximately 14 percent of WSU graduates serving with the Peace Corps were in agriculture-specific programs,” Forthun said. “Additionally, several WSU graduates applied other environmental and agricultural majors to other Peace Corps assignments.”

One of Olson’s projects in Romania involved writing a grant to fund the purchase and planting of small walnut trees and working with land-owning farmers to establish a profitable enterprise.

“It’s a similar amount of work, but the income is higher with walnuts than apples,” she said.

During service, all health expenses are covered and up to 18 months of medical insurance is available upon return from service, in addition to a $6,000 re-adjustable allowance, Forthun said.

“Serving in the Peace Corps is a life-changing and rewarding experience with many benefits, including gaining two years of international experience, graduate school opportunities; language, cross-cultural and technical training, possible student loan deferment and/or partial cancellation, medical and dental care, and a living allowance,” Forthun said.

Olson and Forthun agree that Peace Corps service, regardless of what field volunteers serve in, is a rewarding experience for both the volunteer and for the community involved.

“It’s a unique experience and I feel it had a positive impact on my life and also the community I served,” Olson said.

By Kimmi Devaney, CAHNRS Marketing and News intern