The Peace Corps Fellowship Program at MU obviously benefits the returned Peace Corps volunteers with its financial support and tuition waiver, but there are also deep rewards to the campus community. That is, just having these remarkable fellows around the departments, classrooms, and hallways of MU helps to fulfill the university’s goal of globalizing the campus. The program, which has existed at MU since the fall of 2007, is currently sponsored by six graduate programs: Geography, Truman School of Public Affairs, School of Social Work, Agricultural Economics, Rural Sociology, and Political Science. For this special feature of SyndicateMizzou, we interviewed each of the first MU Peace Corps Fellows—Julie Feeney, Kate Fjell, Craig Hutton, Matt Rysavy, and Nick Spina
It is a curious thing to consider theirs reasons for joining the Peace Corps. While none of the MU Peace Corps fellows reported having a long-term desire to do such intensive volunteer work right after college, one way or another they found their way to the agency. In several cases, the Peace Corps provided something to do while career goals were narrowed. In others, this kind of international volunteer work was already compatible with their career ambitions. Regardless of the reason for joining, all of these returned volunteers found that the decision had changed them and that they got more out of their experience than they felt they had given themselves.
Donald Spiers, Associate Professor of Animal Science, serves as Program Coordinator to the Peace Corps Fellows Program at MU. As a former volunteer himself (Venezuela 1973-1975), Spiers offers a summary of the history and context of the Peace Corps—its origin, its mission, and the Peace Corps Fellows Program. <br/ > <br/ >
The Peace Corps was founded in the early 1960s by John F. Kennedy. While on the campaign trail at the University of Michigan—where he delivered those now famous lines, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”—Kennedy proposed a service whereby young people would go overseas, “taking the message of the United States to these countries, helping them out, and exchanging information and cultures with them…. And so one of the first things he did when he became president was to form the Peace Corps.” Since then the program has been going strong, with roughly 7,000 volunteers around the world at any given time.
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The first two goals of the Peace Corps, Spiers explains, are “to help people in countries that are in need ask for the help of the Peace Corps” and “for other countries to learn about us, to find out who Americans really are. This is something that may, on the surface, sound a little ridiculous or simple because there are all these movies about us, and that sort of thing, in other countries,” Lastly, the Peace Corps functions to help Americans understand other cultures. “For the most part,” Spiers reminds us, “we find that they are very much like us. They’re not very different from us. One of the things, in fact, that we hear from most of the returned Peace Corps volunteers is that they always got more from their experience [than they gave], that the people in these other countries gave them so much more.”
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The Peace Corps Fellows Program began at Columbia University Teacher’s College in 1985. Today, there are about forty institutions in the U.S. that house the program. Things got underway at MU in the fall of 2007: “When we found out that the current chancellor of the university, Brady Deaton, was in the Peace Corps [Thailand 1962-1964], and he had a strong interest in helping students understand international cultures, and that Provost Foster has a very strong interest in internationalizing the campus, we began pursuing the possibility of getting a Peace Corps fellowship on this campus.”
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There are currently six departments involved with the Peace Corps Fellows Program at MU: Political Science, the Truman School of Public Affairs, Rural Sociology, Agriculture, Economics, Geography, and Social Work. “It’s a nice mixture that we have representing these different departments,” Spiers remarks. “The Peace Corps’ primary interest in having a Peace Corps Fellows Program is for the fellows to go out [to different places within the United States] and work in the community to help underprivileged groups improve their education, their food sources, and their health—pretty much the same goals they had when they were in the Peace Corps.” The idea of returned volunteers bringing their skills back home to communities throughout this country, Spiers explains, “is a major push of the Peace Corps, especially today.” The MU Fellows are now working together on a project with the Columbia community to assess matters related to food security here.
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Asked what makes an effective participant, Spiers has several thoughts: “A good Peace Corps volunteer, in my opinion, is not someone who has the idea that they are going to save the world or help out ‘these poor people.’ I found when I was in the Peace Corps in Venezuela that the local people had a much greater knowledge of things than I could ever hope to have. They had a much better understanding of humans, of human behavior than we do when we go over to these countries.” Hence, other than an attitude of respect and humility toward their host culture, Spiers suggests, “what makes for a great Peace Corps volunteer is one who is extremely flexible, one who is willing to roll with the punches, one who is versatile who is not just stuck in one way of looking at things, who can go with the flow as needed in that particular country.”
The Peace Corps fellows are enrolled in one of six programs: Geography, Truman School of Public Affairs, School of Social Work, Agricultural Economics, Rural Sociology, and Political Science. The Peace Corps Fellowship Program benefits the returned volunteers with financial support, but there are also deep benefits to the MU community. Just having these remarkable fellows around the departments, classrooms, and hallways of MU helps to fulfill Chancellor Deaton’s goal of globalizing the campus.
The Peace Corps is active at MU on several levels, explains Donald Spiers, Coordinator for the Peace Corps Fellows Program, which was adopted by MU in the summer of 2007. “Going through the Peace Corps experience, immersing yourself in the culture, speaking the local language: that all opens different cultural doors and different ways of looking at the world,” Craig Hutton observes. “I think that is part of what we bring to MU’s campus and hopefully to the larger community as well.”
Kate Fjell offers similar sentiments: “Having been a Peace Corps volunteer, my entire perspective is so different. I think globally, or at least I try to. It is really hard for me just to think about what something means just for Missouri or for my town or my family. I’m always thinking about other people out there in the world.”
Because few Americans know much about Malawi, Ecuador, Paraguay, Niger, the Caucasus, and Armenia, having someone at MU talking and writing about these places helps to educate others about these faraway locations. Nick Spina, for instance, sees how his unique Peace Corps experience benefits the field in which he is currently studying: “Political scientists do a lot of work in international relations, and I bring a unique perspective to that. I was in a developing country for two years doing hands-on development work, so I know more than just what you would read in a book.”
“There are a lot of students who don’t have international experience,” Matt Rysavy notes, “so just being able to be in class and add a different idea or a different way of looking at or structuring problems… I think is very useful for other people. The American value system is so much different from a West African value system, so just incorporating that into different discussions, group projects, and papers [is helpful]. There have been a lot of times after class when people have said, ‘I never really thought of approaching a problem that way.’”
Offering another example from the classroom, Julie Feeney explains: “A lot of people say, ‘You went to a developing country? You must have seen so much poverty.’ I can say, ‘Well, there is poverty here in the United States, which I have seen and is equally as horrifying.’” “I think class discussion is always enriched by having as many different view points [as possible],” concludes Fjell. “They all enrich the conversation…. I’m just another of those people who can help provide a different perspective.”