Two weeks ago, when St. Catherine University’s campus sprang to life with students criss-crossing campus to attend class, assistant professor Caroline Krafft began circulating fliers for a new certificate program that she’s overseeing: the Peace Corps Prep program.
The program exists at 139 other colleges and universities across the country. But St. Kate’s is the only school offering this particular program, in partnership with the Peace Corps, in Minnesota.
“There was an interest in St. Kate’s, particularity, because we have a very globally engaged university that has a focus on international issues,” Krafft said, recalling how the partnership began. “And in a number of our majors and programs — as well as in the university overall — there’s a focus on social justice and service.”
Since President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961, this government agency has trained and sent more than 230,000 American volunteers abroad to serve in 141 countries. According to the agency’s most recent counts from September 2017, 7,376 volunteers — including 217 Minnesotans — are currently serving in 65 countries. The size of the Peace Corps has remained fairly steady for the last several years.
While the agency welcomes volunteers who have retired, the typical volunteer isn’t all that far removed from college. The average age of current volunteers is 28, and only 2 percent are married.
Volunteers serve in one of six sectors: agriculture, environment, community economic development, youth in development, health, and education. In addition to supporting development work, volunteers also serve as full-time cross-cultural ambassadors — representing Americans abroad and connecting with local culture so they can share that understanding with people back home.
Before volunteers begin their two years of service, the Peace Corps provides an intensive in-country training that covers the basics: professional skills in their sector, along with local language and cross-cultural instruction.
Looking to both pique interest in and prepare interested students for a successful Peace Corps application and service experience — or for any other internationally focused job or service experience — faculty at St. Kate’s decided to partner with the Peace Corps in offering a prep program that aligns with all of these skill sets.
Students who complete the interdisciplinary program receive a certificate from the Peace Corps that gives them “a competitive edge when applying for Peace Corps service,” said a Peace Corps spokesperson.
“We developed the Peace Corps Prep program to foster stronger partnerships with colleges and universities and to develop a pipeline of highly qualified Peace Corps applicants,” the spokesperson said. “The program aims to prepare undergraduate students for international development work and potential Peace Corps service by guiding students to take classes that will directly relate to their work in the field.”
A stepping stone for a globally focused career
At St. Kate’s, the Peace Corps prep program is built around four components: coursework, related experience, foreign language skills and intercultural competence skills. There’s also a professional development and leadership requirement.
The program is structured in a way that allows students to meet most of its requirements while pursuing their “normal course of study, and still complete on time,” Krafft explained. For instance, a nursing student would fulfill the sector-specific course and related experience requirements by taking three core classes for their nursing major — which aligns with the Peace Corps’ health sector — and then fulfilling the program’s “intercultural competence” component by participating in one of the university’s health-focused study abroad programs.
They’d still need to take a foreign language course, unless they’re a strong native speaker of a second language spoken in the region they hope to serve in.
All of these skills will serve students well because they’re transferable to any career with an international component, Krafft says, noting that some students who complete the program may end up not actually serving in the Peace Corps.
“They’ll be relevant for a student who ends up working in Brazil, or a student who ends up working at Land O’Lakes in Minnesota,” she said, noting the local company has agricultural development initiatives all around the world, so that student “may be working with farmers in Africa.”
While only U.S. citizens are eligible to serve in the Peace Corps, some program participants may be international students or those who aren’t yet citizens who are interested in building the skill sets emphasized in the program, Krafft noted, adding that many of these students plan on working in a globally focused job sector like international business.
Expecting about 15 students per year
Krafft anticipates the program will attract about 15 students each year. It has the potential to boost St. Kate’s ranking among other local private liberal arts colleges that have graduates serving in the Peace Corps. According to Peace Corps records, St. Kate’s currently has three alumni serving in the Peace Corps, bringing its all-time count up to 153.
Historically, St. Olaf College and Carleton College have the strongest pipelines, with 511 alumni from each having served in the Peace Corps to date. Macalester College has the most alumni currently serving, with 15 completing their service abroad. Bethel University is on the opposite end of the spectrum, with two alumni currently serving, bringing its count up to 43.
Outside of the MIAC schools, the University of Minnesota ranks third, nationally, among top volunteer-producing colleges and universities. There are currently 72 gophers serving abroad in the Peace Corps, bringing the university’s total up to 1,586.
Whether or not those who enroll in the new Peace Corps prep program at St. Kate’s end up becoming Peace Corps volunteers, Natasha Yates, an assistant professor at the university who’s serving on the programs faculty committee, stresses that all who enroll will benefit from the coursework and experience.
As a recent college graduate, she went straight into the Peace Corps in Botswana. For her, it was a chance to gauge her interest in teaching. She held two assignments during her service, from 1986-88: First, she spent six months teaching biology and general science to high schoolers at a boarding school in a copper mining town; then she taught English as a Second Language and science to middle-school students at a new school in the Kalahari Desert.
“For myself, being a Peace Corps volunteer and living in a culture that’s very different from my own really helped me understand diversity and understand cultures better than if I had just read about it and studied it academically,” she said.
As with the way the Peace Corps is structured — as well as a number of internationally focused aid agencies like Doctors Without Borders and USAID where “the focus is on serving others in the way that the others feel they need to be served,” Yates said — students enrolled in the prep program will learn how to take a supportive approach to international service work.
“Sort of the goal of the Peace Corps is to work themselves out of a job in an area,” she said, then offering an example. “Drought relief [volunteers] will train others to do a job.”