UNH receives national Peace Corps recognition

On February 8, 2011

March 1, 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, a program started by President John F. Kennedy to promote community service. More than 200,000 Americans have become volunteers, promoting ideals of peace and friendship to 139 host countries.

Currently, 8,655 volunteers are serving in 77 host countries throughout the world.

Charlie French, a UNH extension associate professor in community and economic development, served as a volunteer for two years.

"I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Panama from 1995–1997," French said. "My primary role was to teach conservation principles to school-aged youth and sustainable agriculture to rural farmers, but I ended up working on a variety of projects that focused on building the community's capacity in areas such as marketing and sales of food crops, aquaculture, appropriate technologies for reducing reliance on fuel wood, [such as] solar ovens and high-efficiency cook stoves."

Volunteers are selected from a variety of schools categorized into small, medium and large-sized schools.

UNH falls into the medium-sized school category, and has recently been ranked 25th out of 30 schools, tying for the spot with Bowling Green State University, Brown University, Duke University, Marquette University, and Tulane University. 

UNH currently has 21 undergraduate alumni volunteers serving throughout the country.

"UNH is unique all across the board," Ally Snell, the regional Peace Corps recruiter for New England, and Peace Corps alum, said. "UNH tends to produce students with more forestry and agricultural knowledge, and currently and historically, UNH students have been present in every sector of the Peace Corps."

Dartmouth College is the only other school in New Hampshire that is ranked, placing 18th on the list in the small colleges category.

A minimum of 27 months is required for a volunteer. Training is a major component of the program, and it is helpful for students to be proficient in a language, although it is not required.

Success as a volunteer is determined upon a person's ability to integrate into a community, according to Snell, who worked with about 1,000 to 2,000 people in a remote village in Guatemala. Snell said the experience opened a lot of doors for her, personally and professionally.

The Durham community may help UNH applicants get accepted to the Peace Corps, Snell said.

"The community of Durham also plays a role as it is a giving community with many service opportunities," Snell said. "It seems that a lot of organizations on campus cater to help others."

The community atmosphere of the UNH campus is also appealing for recruiters, who will take into account a students ability to interact within a tight-knit community.

"I think UNH has the type of school culture that challenges students to look beyond the classroom and outside of Durham," Snell said. "[The school atmosphere] encourages students to see where they fit in in the scheme of things, to learn and to see issues around them, and to step outside and experience another culture."

One of the main attractions for students in the application process to the program is the fact that they get to have experiences outside of their comfort zones.

"The ability to see the world is feasible for a lot of people because it is paid for and it expands upon the skills of students right out of college," Snell said. "An ideal volunteer has a combination of commitment to service, education, experience, and motivation. Now is the time to do it when students are not tied down."

Raised in Goffstown, N.H., Snell was longing to see new areas of the world.

"I, like some students, spent four years itching to do something and hungry for an abroad experience," Snell said. "The Peace Corps is attractive for that reason, that ability to experience another culture."

For French, his experience as a volunteer was life changing.

"Many people asked how was it that I was able to give up two years of my life to join the Peace Corps," French said. "My response is that those were the two most meaningful years of my life. They were the two most formative years in terms of influencing my current values, professional focus, and community-based philosophy."

For future volunteer hopefuls, French stressed that the student should have the right motivations.

"I always tell [interested students] that it will be one of the most moving experiences in their lives, should they take it on, and that there will be good times and difficult times during the two years of service, but the potential rewards to one's self and to society-at-large are great," French said. "I always ask what their motivations are, as well. If a student applies to Peace Corps mainly out of a desire to build their resume, then I would say that is not a valid reason.

"But if they say that they want to do it because they desire a new experience and out of a commitment to humanity, then I say go for it."

French's experience has been incorporated into his current career, and he hopes it will affect his future endeavors as well.

"My current role, community and economic development specialist with UNH's cooperative extension, feels much like an extension of the Peace Corps," French said. "My role is to build community's capacity to enhance their economic, social and environmental futures. The only difference is that I am not doing the work abroad. I love the work of making positive community change happen."

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