Since its establishment, the Peace Corps has offered unique opportunities for students and graduates alike to go abroad in hopes of improving the lives of people in less fortunate nations around the globe. Created by President John F. Kennedy via an executive order on March 1, 1961, the Peace Corps attracts many college students looking for an opportunity to travel and make a difference in the world they join after graduation.
University of Indianapolis alum and former nursing major Sara Werling joined the Peace Corps following graduation and is still involved in the organization. Werling and her husband served with the Peace Corps in Morocco, from 2015 to 2017, under its Youth Development sector.
They lived in the small community of Alnif, Morocco during that period, splitting their time between “working at a youth center and being out in the community learning about the community, exchanging culture, working on language, drinking tea and generally spending time with people,” according to Werling.
Werling spent most of her time working with children and women, many of whom did not finish primary schooling. She taught English, health and exercise classes three times a week and called the class “a continually rewarding and entertaining part of my service.”
Werling also found an opportunity to use her UIndy degree in efforts to educate the populace about their health.
“Being a nurse, I also found outlets of health education in one-on-one or small group conversations with my friends, neighbors, and host family [those that we lived with for the first months in our community],” Werling said. “They would ask questions about nutrition, exercise, birth control and even topics generally not discussed in the public sphere, like sex and domestic violence. I have found that being an outsider was beneficial in this sense, as I was a ‘safe’ person to talk to. This was also a great place for me to learn more about Amazighr culture [sometimes called Berber- the indigenous tribe in Morocco], health practices and the beliefs surrounding them.”
Werling spoke of how UIndy piqued her interest in international travel, thanks to encouraging faculty, Spring Term trips, a trip to Ecuador with professors, and volunteering in Appalachia through the university. Werling explained that these opportunities and her experiences in the Peace Corps after her time at UIndy strengthened her abilities as a nurse and provided her with transferable skills.
“I always knew that traveling was an option for nurses, but I hadn’t considered the other soft skills that came along with nursing that applied to my work in Peace Corps like communication, observation and professionalism,” Werling said. “I also gained many transferrable skills that will be useful in future endeavors. Being shown compassion and grace as I was learning Arabic has equipped me with communication skills to better support non-English speaking patients. Being able to quickly assess and identify cultural norms and see how they impact choices will factor into the considerations and techniques for patient education. And as an American ambassador … being welcomed with such open arms has charged me to extend the same welcome to our Muslim neighbors in America.”
Like Werling, UIndy student and senior international relations and Spanish major Kendra Shaw plans to embark on her own journey with the Peace Corps following graduation in May. Shaw said that she respects the Peace Corps’ commitment to long-term goals, because she has learned through her studies that short-term aid often leads to further turmoil within developing countries.
“I like that it’s a long-term goal whereas two years isn’t necessarily long, but it’s more than just going for a few weeks and then leave,” said Shaw. “I’ve learned a lot in my international organization class that aid industries can actually upset a region more than help if there is too many people going in and out. So I really want to do something more long-term. And the fact that it was teaching, which I have background in, was a bonus.”
Shaw is committed to a two-year program with a three-month training period, a popular choice for recent graduates. The future UIndy graduate will be working in Nicaragua, although she does not yet know the exact location, only that she will undergo the three-month training period in the city of Managua.
Shaw said that UIndy helped prepare her for her decision to commit to the program and realize her desire to volunteer and make a lasting difference in a community.
“UIndy has led to so many opportunities,” Shaw said. “First off would be the internship I had through the International Relations Department with Exodus Refugee Immigration. And I never knew a lot about nonprofits before I came to UIndy, and to be able to work with one and teach in a community classroom for refugees that are coming into Indianapolis really opened my eyes to how I wanted to go overseas.”
Shaw will teach English in a secondary school in Nicaragua, giving her an opportunity to expand her knowledge of Spanish while improving others’ knowledge of English. This effort will earn her a certification when she returns to the United States to apply for graduate school.
Apart from teaching, the Peace Corps offers tracts in fighting HIV/aids, combating hunger, environmental protection and improving access to technology, to name a few.
Shaw encourages students who have a passion for travel or philanthropy to inform themselves about the organization and its unique opportunities for recent graduates.
“I would say apply, because even though you think you don’t have the experience, they work with you,” she said. “You’re trained, and they give you all the information before you go. So it’s a way to step out and get involved in a country that you’re not used to, but actually do good. I feel like so many people are focused on how to apply it [their education] around here when they need [it] overseas, too.”
According to the Peace Corps website, many former volunteers apply their experience to careers in education, business, or health-related fields. Some also work as journalists, writers, members of Congress, or even astronauts.
Central America, Eastern Europe, South America, the Caribbean Islands, Africa, the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia are all locations where the Peace Corps offers programs, according to their website. It also states that to apply, prospective volunteers for the two-year program need to be U.S. citizens over the age of 18 who can depart in 19-20 months. The site also provides featured openings abroad utilizing a variety of skills. The organization offers many opportunities for students to consider for life after UIndy, both at home and abroad.
While Werling plans to continue working as a nurse when she returns to the states, like Shaw, she also hopes that other students will consider the Peace Corps as they decide on post-graduation plans, despite the anxiety they may feel being so far from home.
She said that the Peace Corps is not only an opportunity to learn new skills, but to also understand cultures from a more intimate point of view than solely through media coverage.
“When talking to people from home, the first question was often, ‘Were you safe there?’ To be completely honest I was safer in my small Moroccan town than most places in the U.S.,” Werling said. “Millions of Muslims around the world, not limited to those in our town, practice Islam that is peaceful, and oftentimes there is no worse insult than being associated with the radical sects that populate the news. My hope for America is that we all can look at those different from ourselves with open-mindedness and tolerance, because when we step back, there is so much to learn about ourselves and humanity.”