Many Western Michigan University graduates live outside the U.S., but some WMU alumni find temporary homes abroad because they accepted a call to serve in the Peace Corps.
These alumni travel abroad to teach basic school subjects, educate others about illnesses and disease prevention, and even assist in economic development projects.
According to Kera Halvorson, a past Peace Corps volunteer and current regional recruiter for the organization, 25 WMU graduates are currently serving in 21 countries. Since the organization was founded in 1961, 268 WMU alumni have served.
Emily Cobbs, a WMU alumna with a degree in mechanical engineering, will travel to Uganda in November as a volunteer for the Peace Corps.
“It’s a good way to see another part of the world,” Cobbs said.
Cobbs, who signed up for the Peace Corps in September 2012 as a student, is planning on using her engineering knowledge to train mathematics teachers while overseas. She said that Uganda implemented free education for the first grades of primary school in 1997, which lead to a flood of incoming students and not enough teachers to educate all of them.
Originally from Holt, Mich., Cobbs expects to live in a rural area for the two years she spends abroad. She said she expects to have to work with the resources she is given rather than the resources she wants. where.
Cobbs is grateful for the professors she had while at WMU, who helped to prepare her for this international experience.
“[My professors] encouraged me to think outside the box and not necessarily what I thought I should be interested in,” Cobbs said.
While serving in Uganda, Cobbs will take advantage of the Peace Corps benefit of having her student loans deferred until she returns.Upon her return to the U.S., Cobbs will receive $7,000 from the Peace Corps and one year of non-competitive eligibility for federal jobs.
While Cobbs prepares to represent WMU in Africa, Helen Beck, the Learning Resource coordinator at WMU, is a volunteer who has already brought back to the university some knowledge and memories from the culture she visited while in the Peace Corps.
Beck was in Sierra Leone in 1989-90. She helped to educate the Africans about health and disease prevention.
Her experience has helped her have a greater thankfulness for the healthy environment of the U.S., and, in particular, Michigan.
Beck spent a lot of time teaching the citizens of Sierra Leone about the necessity of fresh water. She educated them about diseases in water, and how to boil the water to make it drinkable.
While Americans wake up in the morning, twist a knob and fill a cup with clean water, the people Beck stayed with had a much different experience.
“In dry season, I would gather up neighbor kids, and we would have to dig for our water,” Beck said. After finding ground water, they would have to boil it before they could drink it. The Peace Corps also supplied Beck with iodine to help purify the water.
Beck also met with some women at a riverside who would drink the same water that they used to wash their clothes and their goats in.
The time Beck spent living among the people of Africa made her appreciate the blessings of American life. It also taught her to slow down and caused her to realize just how much people really need to survive.
“It showed me that we don’t need new cars to live,” Beck said. “We don’t need the best of everything in life.”
Despite the fact that the people of Sierra Leone had much less than those in America, Beck said that the character of the Africans was inspiring.
“One of the beauties of the people in Africa is they are just the most gracious, gentle, joyful people I’ve ever met,” Beck said.
Halverson comes to the WMU campus each semester to recruit more Broncos to serve in the Peace Corps.
“The most rewarding part is that you get the opportunity and privilege to go to some of the most untouched places in the world,” Halvorson said. “You get the honor of possibly being the only American these people will ever meet.”
Those who volunteer with the Peace Corps help to build cross-cultural bridges, Halvorson said. The service members represent the U.S. culture abroad and, when they finish their time of service, they bring back pieces of the culture they were in.
“People join the Peace Corps to go on an adventure,” Halvorson said.
That adventure lasts for 27 months; three months of training, two years of service. While it is a long time to be away from home, the experience provides several benefits.
According to Halvorson, the Peace Corps is a great resume builder. Volunteers will make many connections during their service, gain experience in career fields, and they will have one year of non-competitive eligibility for federal jobs after they return home.
There are several areas of service available. Some volunteers could teach basic school subjects, others could work with youth in an orphanage, and some may teach computer skills or educate people about health and disease prevention.
Anyone interested in joining the Peace Corps should apply one year before they would like to leave. It is a long process because the organization is working to get proper paperwork, such as visas and medical clearances, for more than 8,000 applicants, Halvorson said.
The Peace Corps is looking for people willing to put in the time and be flexible about where they go and what they do when they get there, Halvorson said. People who have professional experience, enjoy serving others, and have a nice resume and GPA should apply if interested.
“We like to look for people who are leaders,” Halvorson said.
Halvorson will return to WMU for another Peace Corps information session on Nov. 6.