Peace Corps finds plenty of volunteers at UNH

By Danielle LeBlanc
On March 4, 2014

The University of New Hampshire has certainly shown its dedication and willingness to serve others, as it was named the No. 11 medium school in the country for Peace Corps volunteers in 2014.

For many, immersing themselves in a foreign country for just over two years would seem terrifying; however, UNH currently has 23 graduates volunteering worldwide in the Peace Corps.

Rob Orton is a recruiter for the Peace Corps. He works for the Northeast regional recruitment office and serves UNH as well.

"I was a volunteer from 2005-2007 and then returned back to the agency as a recruiter Jan. 13, 2013," Orton said.

According to Orton, his territory is all of Maine, all of New Hampshire (except Dartmouth), and Middlesex and Essex counties in Massachusetts. Orton claimed that although he jumps around a lot, he's on campus at UNH often.

"I think that I find that with students from UNH and people from New Hampshire in general is that there is quite a motivation to serve others and to make a difference," he said.

That includes anything from caring about education to supporting healthcare. He sees that motivation to serve others in most students that he talks to from UNH.

"That's one of the big criteria for Peace Corps that we're looking for is that motivation to serve others and make that difference, especially in a community overseas," Orton said.

Peace Corps Acting Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet also seemed to share Orton's sentiments.

"The University of New Hampshire has strong programs that align well with Peace Corps programs, making its graduates competitive applicants for Peace Corps service abroad," she said. "Since the first days of the Peace Corps, more than 690 UNH alumni have enhanced their skills and experience through Peace Corps service."

According to Orton, UNH was No. 12 for medium schools in the country in 2013, and the number of volunteers for UNH is somewhere in the 23-25 range per year.

The medium college and universities category consists of schools that have between 5,000 and 15,000 undergraduate students. The No. 1 medium school this year is Western Washington University, with 65 volunteers.

A Peace Corps press release listed UNH alumni as currently serving in 18 countries: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Cameroon, Ethiopia, Georgia, Ghana, Guatemala, Jordan, Kenya, Liberia, Morocco, Namibia, Nepal, Nicaragua, the Philippines, Rwanda and Senegal.

Volunteering for the Peace Corps is a 27-month commitment, according to Orton; three months of the volunteer's service takes place in whatever country that he or she will be serving in.

"You deal with a lot of language training and cultural training, technical training to get you ready to do your job," Orton said. "And a lot of safety and security training as well to make sure that you can stay safe as you volunteer."

From there, the volunteers move out into one community and live there for two years. Orton said that the idea is that the volunteers become a member of that community and really start to collaborate with its members in order to make a difference and improve their lives.

There are six sectors that every volunteer works in: education, environment, agriculture, communications, economic development and youth development.

"Within that sector then you come up with projects between you and the community to make sure what you're doing is sustainable," Orton said.

According to Orton, the application process is fairly extensive. During the application process volunteers are asked for their preference in location, however, flexibility is required. The application itself is online and takes about eight hours to fill out.

"It's something that you can start it, save it and come back to it," Orton said. "As long as you touch it at least once a month then it's not going to get deleted on you."

Orton said from there they start to do eligibility, competitiveness and suitability reviews. This is to ascertain whether they are suitable for Peace Corps service and if they have skills that can be used overseas.

Anders Nordquist, a UNH alumnus, just finished his service in September in Madagascar. Nordquist said he decided to volunteer because he wanted to see a new culture and gain experience as a teacher.

"I didn't want to just travel and to be a tourist in another country but I wanted to learn about another culture," he said. "One of the best ways to do that is to live there a long time with the people and that's what Peace Corps does."

According to Nordquist there are three goals that all Peace Corps volunteers are asked to fulfill during their service: for volunteers to help the people in that country, learn about that culture and then, when they return home, to teach others about that culture.

Nordquist was an education volunteer while in Madagascar. His primary job was to teach English in a high school and middle school. Nordquist also helped with the development of the schools.

"I had an English club and sports groups for after school," he said.

Nordquist also trained teachers and helped improve the teacher training system in Madagascar. He left to begin his stay in July of 2011 and finished his service in September of 2013.

Rebecca Keys is another UNH alumna volunteering in the Peace Corps, currently in the Philippines as an English teacher. According to Keys, her main project is a remedial reading program for seventh grade students.

"We identify the students who are struggling the most with reading and we have remedial reading sessions once a week in small groups," Keys said.

However, Keys has done many additional projects while volunteering as well, one of which is developing the school library. 

"We're doing renovations, getting book donations, and I'm educating students and faculty on library use and things like that," Keys said.

Some of Keys' other projects include a student leadership program, coaching the swim team, and a girl empowerment camp for girls age 14-16.

"We talk about leadership, gender, body image, healthy relationships, all sorts of stuff," Keys said.

There are a lot of projects one can do in the Peace Corps, and volunteers aren't limited to just one assignment. Keys claimed that she decided to join not only because her great aunt had been a part of the Peace Corps, but also because her parents always expressed the importance of volunteering.

Keys said that she had been volunteering her whole life, from church groups to local projects. Then while attending UNH, Keys studied abroad in London for a semester.

"You could say I caught the travel bug and wasn't ready to stop moving," she said. "After I graduated in 2010 I decided to apply."

Elizabeth Chamberlain, Public Affairs Specialist at the Peace Corps Northeast Regional Office, said she feels there are a number of reasons graduates like Keys and Nordquist join the Peace Corps and why UNH is ranked so high on the list of volunteer-producing colleges and universities.

"I think it's a combination of things," Chamberlain said. "I think one real basic factor is that the university offers a lot of graduate degrees and programs that the Peace Corps needs."

For example, programs like health, education, agriculture, and environment. According to Chamberlain those are the types of volunteers the Peace Corps needs and UNH offers all of them.

Nordquist seemed to agree with Chamberlain when he said that he felt he was very prepared to go and teach aboard.

"I credit that to UNH. ... I think UNH prepared me well to be successful in the Peace Corps," Nordquist said.

Chamberlain also claimed that she feels that it's also part of the culture on campus as well. "There seems to be an attitude of 'yeah I'll go try that,'" Chamberlain said.

Keys also seemed to agree with Chamberlain. 

"We have a lot of student orgs and there's a lot of students that participate," Keys said.

Brendan Callahan is another Peace Corps volunteer and alumnus from UNH who is also a perfect example of an active student during his time at UNH. According to Callahan, he always enjoyed volunteering and helping out. While at UNH, Callahan participated in Habitat for Humanity and the Alternative Spring Break Challenge.

"During junior year I started to think about the Peace Corps," Callahan said.

However, it wasn't until his senior year when Callahan met Charlie French that he started to think about it seriously. According to Callahan, French had been a volunteer and would occasionally talk about his experience in class and show pictures.

"When I looked into Peace Corps further, I realized that it was something that I just had to try," Callahan said. "So in the second semester of senior year I put my application in."

After being accepted, Callahan's assignment was to work in the Menagesha sub-forest, which is the oldest protected area in Africa.

Callahan was there helping to set up an eco-tourism project while living in the village of Sebeta a few miles from the park; however, it was in the village that Callahan discovered a government-run school for the blind.

"The place was in shambles and the kids were not receiving any of the care they needed or deserved," Callahan said.

Callahan said he started spending more time there and tried to help anyway he could. Soon other volunteers from Ireland arrived and they worked together to build ramps, pathways and roads to make the school handicap-accessible.

"But since I was a Peace Corps volunteer I couldn't resist being a bit cliché and building the kids a playground," Callahan said.

Callahan claimed that the Peace Corps really allows you to see that there is a much bigger world out there. It lets you actually participate in it in a way that you wouldn't have an opportunity to otherwise.

Keys seemed to agree with Callahan and said that she might be up at one of the tables at the Career Fair one of these days convincing people to join.

"I can't imagine what my life would be like not having done this," Keys said.

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