University of Wisconsin graduates serving as volunteers in the Peace Corps are returning to overseas service for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Peace Corps is an independent agency and United States government program that primes and positions volunteers to provide international development assistance. The pandemic caused the Peace Corps to suspend global service in March 2020, but volunteers are now returning to overseas volunteer placements.
UW has a strong tradition of service and has been involved with the Peace Corps since its creation in 1961 — with nearly 3,400 Badger alumni having served as Peace Corps volunteers, Campus Peace Corps Recruiter Hannah Bennett said in an email statement to The Badger Herald.
Beyond the UW campus, over 6,400 people in Wisconsin have served in the Peace Corps, Bennett said.
“There is a significant presence of returned volunteers throughout the state — a point of pride for Wisconsin,” Bennett said.
UW is one of the top recruitment schools for Peace Corps volunteers in the country, having ranked #1 for the fourth year in a row when rankings were last issued in 2020, Bennett said.
Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Wisconsin-Madison President Ron Geason works with Bennett in Peace Corps recruiting efforts, thereby helping UW maintain its high recruitment rate.
“UW produces more Peace Corps volunteers than any other large campus in the country,” Geason said. “And we have done this for years in a row.”
In her role, Bennett works with students who are interested in the Peace Corps. She helps them learn about the agency, get help with application materials and answer any questions related to service, Bennett said.
Bennett follows a long legacy of Peace Corps recruiters on campus and in Madison since the early 1970s — including former UW recruiter Aaron Williams who served as the Peace Corps director under President Barack Obama, according to Bennett.
The UW campus Peace Corps office is currently located in Bascom Hall and has been part of the International Division since 2010, Bennett said.
Badger alum and RPCV Mark Thorpe benefited from the legacy of Badgers serving in the Peace Corps, as well as the presence of on-campus recruiters before preparing to volunteer in Cameroon from 1990 to 1992. Thorpe, who worked as a housefellow in a UW residence hall, learned about the Peace Corps when another housefellow shared that she was preparing to serve in the Peace Corps.
“I had never even considered it until I met somebody who was getting ready to join the Peace Corps and go overseas,” Thorpe said. “While she was talking about it, I thought it sounded interesting.”
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At a career fair, Thorpe spoke with the on-campus Peace Corps recruiter, collected an application and eventually began preparing for his educational volunteer service in Cameroon. In Cameroon, Thorpe worked as a mathematics and science teacher for middle and high school-aged students.
While overseas, Thorpe said he experienced a new culture, learned a new language and built connections within a new community.
“My favorite thing about being in the Peace Corps in general, was the experience of living in a different culture,” Thorpe said. “Living with people from a different place, using a different language in a different culture and learning about the history of the culture.”
Upon returning to the US after his service in Cameroon, service remained important to Thorpe as he began to volunteer with various local organizations.
The Wisconsin Idea is centered around the idea that education reaches beyond the classroom. The service done by Peace Corps volunteers embodies this principle, according to Geason.
“The Peace Corps is a logical extension of the university’s Wisconsin Idea, where the limits of campus are the limits of state and that public service is a big part of what UW does,” Geason said. “And the Peace Corps fits perfectly with that.”
Peace Corps volunteers can serve in one of six sectors — agriculture, community economic development, education, environment or health and youth in development, according to the Peace Corps.
Volunteers have already returned to 45 countries since the March 2020 suspension and the Peace Corps is recruiting volunteers in 56 countries, according to the Peace Corps.
As Badger Peace Corps volunteers return to overseas service, UW’s legacy of service will continue to have impacts on both local and international individuals and communities.
“Serving as a Peace Corps volunteer is an excellent way for Badgers to forge connections across borders and also continue to learn through hands-on experiences,” Bennett said. “The lessons and experiences from service are brought back and enrich the city, state and nation.”