Learning to Serve

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Shawnee Program Preparing Students for Peace Corps

Southern Ohio is a world away, both literally and figuratively, from the far reaches of the globe where the Peace Corps’ thousands of volunteers deliver food, shelter and other assistance to those most desperate. But Southern Ohio, and Shawnee State University (SSU) in particular, is also where anyone interested in international service to others can get a head start on many of the skills they need.

Since 2011, The International Service and Peace Corps Prep program at SSU has helped students acquire the knowledge, skills and experience needed to serve in countries around the world – students like Destry Lowe. Lowe is a recent SSU grad who is scheduled to begin a tour of service with the Peace Corps, teaching English in the Dominican Republic, in March. “I’ve been passionate about international events and humanitarianism since I was in high school,” said the 23-year-old. “I decided that the real way to understand how the world works is to work at the grass roots level with an organization like the Peace Corps.

He added, “Learning first-hand from communities disenfranchised from advance- ments that we enjoy in the U.S. will help shape my world view and will hopefully point me in a direction where I can best serve the global community and my own local one.”

President John F. Kennedy started the Peace Corps in 1961 to foster a better understanding among Americans and the people of other countries. Today, it is the preeminent international service organization in the U.S. Its volunteers are deployed to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world.

Dr. Tracey Henderson, coordinator of the SSU program, is one of the more than 215,000 Americans who have served during the past five decades. She entered after earning her undergraduate degree in 1983, and spent three years working in then Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in Central Africa. She returned to the U.S for grad school, and then went back to Africa, this time to Mozambique, where she taught people to farm and sustain themselves on much smaller tracts of land than what they’d had before civil war ravaged their country.

“My goal is to get students exposed and engaged in international service because it is such a great, rewarding experience,” she said. “But, it is very challenging. You have to be an individual who is able to adapt and learn, who can analyze differences and be able to connect to a new, and often very different, culture.”

Not just differences in food or clothing, like the typical tourist might experience, but fundamental differences in the way people in other countries view the world and live their daily lives. Take the concept of time, for instance. When Henderson lived in Africa, she once scheduled a meeting with local community members to start at noon. However, the meeting didn’t start until everyone arrived, which was about three hours later. “You can set a time, but it’s very ballpark. And that’s a hard thing for Americans who are used to schedules.”

In addition to such cultural differences, the Peace Corps Prep program also includes course work in foreign languages, agriculture, forestry and environment, public health, disease prevention, community and youth development, and information technology.

Another aspect of the program is international student mentoring, which works out well since there are currently 72 international students enrolled at SSU. “We match the Peace Corps students with new international students. It’s nice for them to have that person to learn from, and vice versa,” Henderson said.

SSU is one of only 40 universities nationwide that offer Peace Corps preparation courses, which means its graduates gain a competitive edge, whether their goal is to get into the Corps or another service organization, said Ryan Warner, director of the university’s Center for International Programs & Activities. “It’s a great way to set oneself apart from other graduates.”

It also helps create a more global environment on campus, and thus “a better atmosphere to integrate international students,” Warner added. “Even though we are a small community, our international students find Portsmouth to be a great place to live and relocate a family.”

Another important program component is community service. Over the years, SSU students have volunteered in Scioto County in a variety of ways, from tutoring English to raising vegetables in a community garden.

Those who complete the program have many skills to offer an employer, no matter what their chosen path. “Companies are looking to hire people who are able to work with people from a wide range of backgrounds,” Henderson said. “We also have a lot of people from this area who go into missionary work. This is a great way to show that they can thrive in a diverse setting.”

As Lowe makes final preparations to spend the next two years in the Dominican Republic, he feels like he has already received much valuable training, thanks to the SSU program.

“It helped me to understand that changing the root cause of poverty requires times and dedication to the on-going process of international development,” he said. “Peace Corps volunteers aren’t super heroes to some backwards indigenous community. We are volunteers for the community’s own goals for success, following their means of achieving them.”

The Prep Work

The Peace Corps Prep Program at Shawnee State University is designed to prepare students for a variety of international service opportunities. It is open to students of all majors. For more information, contact Dr. Tracey Henderson, program coordinator, at thenderson@shawnee.edu, or call (740) 351-3136.

Photos Ashley Gallaher Quinn and Compliments Peace Corps

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Amanda Gilmore

Amanda Gilmore of Wheelersburg, Ohio, is a professional editor for Wastren Advantage Inc. of Piketon, Ohio. She spent 10 years as the community relations coordinator at Boyd County Public Library (another great place featured in this magazine more than once) and another 10+ before that as a writer and editor for The Independent in Ashland. She's a part-time teacher at Ohio University Southern, and loves to travel, eat and hang out with her two awesome kids, Pierce and Kate. You can contact her at ajosephinegilmore@yahoo.com.

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