St. Lawrence Peace Corps Prep Certification Program expands on the Laurentian legacy of international service.
Robin Rhodes, director of St. Lawrence’s new Peace Corps Prep Certification Program, is not surprised that recent graduate Christian Hovey ’22, an English and history double-major with a Latin America and Caribbean studies minor, is one of the first Peace Corps volunteers to return to overseas service since the agency’s unprecedented global evacuation in March 2020. The Peace Corps suspended global operations and evacuated nearly 7,000 volunteers from more than 60 countries at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Hovey will join the first wave of returning volunteers to serve as a health volunteer in Paraguay.
St. Lawrence consistently ranks at the top of Peace Corps’ list of institutions with the highest number of volunteers each year. When Rhodes got wind of a formalized preparatory program in partnership with the agency at a 2017 African studies conference, she knew it would be a perfect fit.
“We have so many students that go into the Peace Corps who are interested in things like global aid and international development,” says Rhodes. “I had to ask myself, ‘Why do we not have this certification at St. Lawrence?’”
However, when Rhodes contacted the Peace Corps headquarters, the application process had been closed, and universities would have to get special permission just to apply. Once Rhodes secured permission to submit a full proposal, she enlisted the help of Marina Llorente, Charles A. Dana Professor of Hispanic Studies and former Hanson Associate Dean of International and Intercultural Studies, and Carol Smith, senior officer of Corporate and Foundation Relations. By spring 2021, with input from faculty chairs and Academic Affairs, the proposal had been accepted, and St. Lawrence opened the program to students in fall 2021.
“The Peace Corps is quite competitive,” says Rhodes, “so to have this certification gives students an advantage. It’s a testament to their understanding of intercultural studies and the different sectors that make up the agency’s focus: education, health, environment, agriculture, community economic development and youth development.”
The Peace Corps is quite competitive. So to have this certification gives students an advantage. It’s a testament to their understanding of intercultural studies and the different sectors that make up the agency’s focus: education, health, environment, agriculture, community economic development and youth development."
– Robin Rhodes
“In the past, I have taught classes about teaching English abroad, and I’ve taken students to Rwanda to do research,” says Rhodes, who also serves as director of International Student Academic Support in the World Languages, Cultures, and Media Department. “I have always felt like there is a good, strong group of students here that really want to be out in the world. Going beyond our borders is something that is important to them.”
Llorente, who served as associate dean for International and Intercultural studies at the time, and assisted Rhodes with the proposal, agrees. After soliciting input from department chairs on courses that would align with the Peace Corps Prep Certification requirements, Llorente says the response was amazing.
“I thought, ‘Wow, we cover the Peace Corps Prep requirements in many of our courses, no matter the discipline,’” says Llorente, explaining the proposal process had additional benefits. “Identifying courses to fit the program challenged faculty to think about their own teaching, their own pedagogy, and how it intersects all the requirements of the Peace Corps, which is designed to change and transform communities.”
During interviews for the inaugural student cohort, a common response to Llorente’s question of why spend two years of your life dedicated to helping another community, students would say, “In my class I did this, or in my class I learned that.”
“It’s in our curriculum already,” says Llorente, “so this is just perfect for us. That’s the reason we are number one in Peace Corps volunteers for small schools.”
Although the program just started in the fall 2021, Rhodes says they have exceeded their goals for the number of applicants in the first year. The Class of 2022’s Western Azaert and Emily Mierek were also able to complete the program by illustrating how their undergraduate course of study fulfilled the certification requirements.
“The only way they could have done that is to already be engaging in specific classes and acts of service, leadership, and intercultural study,” Rhodes says.
Even more encouraging is the fact that 25 Laurentian Peace Corps veterans immediately responded to Rhodes’ call for mentors, fulfilling a component of the proposal that makes St. Lawrence’s preparation unique. Every student now has an alumni mentor and will have a chance to meet them this summer with a more formalized mentorship program to follow in the fall.
There are other advantages according to Rhodes and Llorente. The Peace Corps and St. Lawrence are in sync on efforts to diversify involvement and help students who might not normally think about the Peace Corps or consider the possibility of international careers. Private sector companies are also focusing on hiring graduates with broader cultural competencies both in the U.S. and abroad.
“Anything we can do for our students to have deeper cultural understanding and empathy is a good thing,” says Rhodes. “That’s what the program does because we’re asking students to look at and focus on intercultural relationships to gain an understanding and openness of different cultures and communities. We are asking, ‘How can you be a partner within that?’”