By: Barbara Trainin Blank
Talk about constructive multitasking! It’s now possible to obtain your social work graduate degree while serving your country and the world.
The goals can be simultaneously met through the Peace Corps Master’s International Program (MI), which offers students the opportunity to combine master’s-level study in a number of fields related to the Peace Corps mission and global volunteerism.
History of the Peace Corps
The Peace Corps traces its roots and mission to 1960, when then-Senator John F. Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. The materialization of that vision was founded and headed by Sargent Shriver, who died this year.
Since the Peace Corps was founded on March 1, 1961, by executive order, 200,000 Americans have served to promote a better understanding between Americans and the people of 139 host countries. Today, 8,655 volunteers are working in 77 nations.
Throughout its history, the Peace Corps has adapted and responded to the issues of the times—including AIDS education, emerging technologies, environmental preservation, and new market economies, helping people around the world lead better lives and promoting America’s positive image abroad.
The focus of the Peace Corps has changed over the years from such fields as science and agriculture to youth development. The Master’s International program in graduate schools of social work is one example.
Master’s International (MI) has made available the unique opportunity of integrating a master's degree with overseas service in a variety of fields at more than 80 academic institutions nationwide. Established in 1987, MI produces Peace Corps Volunteers with additional education and skills to serve overseas.
Four schools of social work—University of Maryland, University of Michigan (Ann Arbor), Portland State University (Oregon), and New Mexico State University—are now participating in the MI program.
Prospective MI students need to apply to the graduate school, and when accepted, submit an application to the Peace Corps. After completing the initial coursework in their master’s—the format varies from school to school—and receiving a Peace Corps placement, students travel to respective sites and begin training. It may take nine to twelve months for a student’s application to the Peace Corps to be processed.
Once overseas, participants are given an assignment according to the needs and requests of the host country. Their primary responsibility is the project and community to which they have been assigned, although the academic requirements of the MI will be linked to the volunteer work.
The degree requirement may be a thesis, paper, or other culminating project related to the student’s Peace Corps service, developed with the direction of a student’s faculty and with the approval of Peace Corps overseas staff. Generally, the master’s program is completed after the Peace Corps service, although there may be exceptions.
During service, Peace Corps Volunteers receive pay to cover living and housing expenses, earn money for their transition after service, get vacation time, and have options for possible deferment of, or partial cancellation of, student loans. The Peace Corps covers the travel costs to and from the country of service. Unlike other international volunteer programs, the Peace Corps does not charge a fee to participate.
“Typically, the graduate student spends one or two years in school, then goes overseas for...27 months, and returns to complete graduation,” says Eric Goldman, who is director of the MI program.
For the most part, those recruited into the program are directed toward specialized skills areas, such as health and education. That is the case for Cristen Cravath, a University of Maryland social work student and the first social work student to participate in MI. (See related story on page 3.)
“We’re always looking for new schools to participate,” says Goldman.
MI issues RFPs (requests for proposals) when a need for volunteer service is identified, and students are sought for assignments abroad. The four schools of social work were added as partners to the program in the fall of 2010.
The schools provide student volunteers for the skills area of youth development, a recently emerged area of interest to the Peace Corps. All the universities offer some credits—typically from three to twelve, with an average of about six—for the volunteer placements.
A Win-Win Situation
Student volunteers in the MI program and the Peace Corps enjoy a mutually beneficial relationship, according to Katie Lopez, LLMSW, MI coordinator at the University of Michigan School of Social Work.
What makes MI distinctive from obtaining an MSW and then going to the Peace Corps is the “integrated experience,” she says. “MI students are taking youth development or society and youth courses, but also have an 8-month internship. That enables them to get different placements with the Peace Corps, because they are better prepared. Other MSW students may have a more general background.”
There may also be a monetary advantage for MI students. If they complete the Peace Corps stint, the social work school (or other graduate school) may give them a scholarship for their remaining semesters.
“Peace Corps encourages financial benefits on the part of the schools, either by appointing students as research assistants or offering scholarships,” says Lopez. “Each school is different.”
Being an MI applicant gives the student a “competitive advantage,” agrees Goldman. “Students receive academic credit for their Peace Corps experience—although the exact number of credits varies from school to school.”
Some schools provide tuition waivers of one kind or another or other forms of support. Some schools, however, don’t have financial support dedicated to MI students.
But even without such support, “by being an MI student, you become connected to the Peace Corps community while on campus, and continue to receive faculty support while serving overseas,” Goldman says.
University of Maryland School of Social Work Dean Richard P. Barth, Ph.D., MSW, believes that the new Peace Corps-university partnership provides the opportunity to “bring talented and committed individuals into the school’s social work program, to help them become aware of a range of strategies related to youth development, and to learn how those strategies play out during their years in the Peace Corps.”
MI adds to an “already popular program” at the university that confirms returning volunteers’ entry into the U.S. market, says Jody Olsen, Ph.D., MSW, visiting professor at the University of Maryland. That is the Peace Corps USA Fellows program, which has attracted more than a dozen students who are pursuing graduate studies that can lead to full-time social services jobs in Maryland. The School of Social Work sponsors the Peace Corps USA Fellows program, which offers scholarships to returned Peace Corps Volunteers and engages them in community-building.
The MI students are only a small percentage of the total of Peace Corps Volunteers—some 330 out of 8,600. But the organization expects to increase that number steadily. And the students are an incredibly important part of the Peace Corps, says Goldman.
Graduate students, because they are disciplined and focused, make “great volunteers,” he adds.
MI programs are enriched by the presence of former Peace Corps Volunteers. At the University of Michigan, two of the supervisors of the the program are themselves alumni of the Peace Corps. Before becoming director of the MI program at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, Jody Olsen was acting director of the Peace Corps and, prior to that, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tunisia.
MI in Schools of Social Work
That the University of Michigan should partner with the Master’s International program of the Peace Corps is particularly appropriate, because it can be said that the Peace Corps got its start at the university.
“We have a historic tie,” says Lopez, referring to President Kennedy's appearance at the school.
The Peace Corps had been looking for more volunteers in its youth development component and identified schools of social work as one place to find them, she comments. In Fall 2010, the organization and the university signed a memorandum of cooperation in what is seen as a “mutually beneficial partnership.”
The University of Michigan School of Social Work helps recruit students for MI by sending a flyer about the program to prospective students.
“In fact,” says Lopez, “a lot of students find us through the Peace Corps Web site, then come to us. Some come from an interest in the Peace Corps and find that social work fits them.” The School of Social Work also links to the MI Web site from its own.
MI “helps internationalize the school’s curriculum and gives legitimacy in the eyes of students,” says Lopez. “It’s part of the diversification of offerings,” which also include global field placements. “It’s a great résumé builder for the students.”
MI doesn’t count as a field placement for UM social work students, because there’s no MSW supervisor on site in the Peace Corps assignments. But the students do their courseloads and two domestic placements, one before and one after the Peace Corps component. Their stay abroad earns them six credits (out of the 60 required for an MSW). Out of the six, one is for the preparatory course before their Peace Corps placement, and another is for the reintegration course after.
After joining the faculty as a visiting professor at the University of Maryland in 2009 with a goal of expanding the social work school’s international ties, Jody Olsen proposed launching the MI program at the university.
“Volunteers bring their international experience back to the school and share it,” says Olsen. “It adds another dimension to the campus.”
For the volunteers themselves, she believes, the experience in the Peace Corps broadens their observation and evaluation skills as future social workers. “Wherever the students go, they develop the skills they begin to harness in graduate school, of listening, valuing, building community, and making linkages to services,” she says.
The University of Maryland is the first school of social work to have a student enter the MI program. Cristen Cravath started her Peace Corps stint in June. Ashtyn Senuta, another Maryland MSW student, is working to complete the Peace Corps application process and enter the MI program.
At Portland State University, five master’s programs are included in PCMIP—MSW, MEM (environmental management), MPA (nonprofit specialization), MA/MS in sociology, and MA TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages).
The MSW program at PSU consists of a minimum of 78 credit hours, with four credits for Peace Corps service, in which students are required to develop and implement an individualized service learning plan in the host country.
Students complete two years on campus prior to their Peace Corps service, and then complete a one-term, two-credit independent study when they return to campus. They receive a waiver of tuition fees for the Peace Corps service for a specified number of credits.
At New Mexico State University, the MI program is offered for MSW, MPH, and joint MSW/MPH students. MPH students at NMSU may fulfill their internship requirement through the Peace Corps. In addition, students at NMSU are required to apply for and be awarded a graduate assistantship in order to qualify for the MI program.
In one way, note Goldman and Olsen, the Peace Corps has changed over the years, to a large extent because of technology. With cell phones, the Internet, and social media, volunteers can have closer ties with family and friends. Faculty and students back at the home campus can communicate via Skype occasionally. But the spirit of the program—with the added wrinkle that volunteers can see and serve the world and obtain a master’s along the way—hasn’t changed.
Peace Corps Volunteers must be U.S. citizens and at least 18 years of age. Peace Corps service is a 27-month commitment. Visit http://www.peacecorps.gov for more information.
For information about specific Peace Corps Master’s International Programs for social work students, contact:
University of Maryland: Jody Olsen, 410-706-5696, firstname.lastname@example.org
Portland State University: Teresa Taylor, 503-725-9909, email@example.com
New Mexico State University: Sue Forster-Cox, 575-646-2181, firstname.lastname@example.org
University of Michigan: Katie Lopez, 734-936-1964, email@example.com
Barbara Trainin Blank is a freelance writer based in Harrisburg, PA.
Sidebar: Safety and the Peace Corps
by Barbara Trainin Blank
On May 11, 2011, Peace Corps director Aaron S. Williams testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on enhanced safety, health, and support measures for volunteers around the world in response to statements by former Peace Corps Volunteers that they had experienced incidents of rape and sexual assault while abroad and that the organization had not responded the way they had expected.
Williams outlined ways the Peace Corps has increased its support to volunteers who have been the victim of a sexual assault or other crime. The agency has instituted several new measures to improve the agency’s sexual assault risk reduction and response program. “The health, safety, and support of every member of our Peace Corps family is my number one priority,” Williams said in a prepared statement.
The Peace Corps will continue to make changes as the agency works with returned volunteers, other government agencies. and leaders in the field of sexual assault risk reduction and response. A sexual assault panel, composed of outside experts and returned volunteers who were victims of sexual assault, has been created.
The agency has hired a nationally recognized leader in victims’ rights to be its first victims’ advocate, to ensure victims get the emotional, medical, legal, and other support they need. The Peace Corps asserts it has been “successful” in working with partners in host countries to bring perpetrators to justice—in 61 percent of reported cases in 2009 and 2010.
Jody Olsen, director of the University of Maryland School of Social Work Peace Corps MI program and former acting director at the Peace Corps, commented that throughout the agency’s history, and particularly since 9/11, it has placed “the safety and security of volunteers as our highest priority.”
“The Peace Corps devotes significant resources to providing volunteers with the training, support, and information they need to stay healthy and safe,” Olsen says. “Peace Corps approaches safety and security through valuing its three goals, and to do so, emphasizes that safety is achieved through integration into the host community with mutual trust and respect.”
The agency has also recently updated procedures for reviewing work and housing sites in advance of volunteers arriving in their communities, collaborates on project development with local communities, and develops and tests plans for responding to emergencies.
“In addition,” Olsen says, “the Peace Corps continually updates materials for volunteers with specific information about safety and security risks in the areas where they serve.”
For detailed information on the Peace Corps’ safety and security practices, visit the safety section on its Web site at http://www.peacecorps.gov.