Peace Corps director looks to strengthen ties with UW–Madison

The University of Wisconsin–Madison, with its tradition of public service, has maintained strong connections with the Peace Corps for half a century.

Year after year, UW–Madison ranks among the leading producers of new volunteers. Since 1961, more than 3,000 UW–Madison alumni have served with the Peace Corps, second only to the University of California, Berkeley. The Peace Corps’ previous director, Aaron Williams, is a UW–Madison alumnus.

Now, the Peace Corps is signaling an interest in building relationships that go beyond the university as a source of recruits.
“The Peace Corps is very anxious to strengthen our ties to the University of Wisconsin,” Acting Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet said during her recent visit to campus. “My main message is we want to be working with you more proactively.”

Hessler-Radelet — who grew up in Appleton, Wisconsin — met with UW–Madison faculty and staff—including several Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs)—to discuss ways to increase and deepen connections.

“We’re in the middle of massive reform, the biggest in Peace Corps history,” she said. “We’re beginning to think about working with universities in new ways.”

Increasingly, the Peace Corps has focused on recruiting volunteers with specialized skills, particularly in such areas as education, health, water and sanitation, environment, and food security. To help support this effort, the Peace Corps has developed the Master’s International Program, which enables volunteers study on campus for a year and then earn academic credit in a range of fields while working overseas for two years on a related Peace Corps project.

Among those who met with Hessler-Radelet were leaders of UW–Madison’s Global Health Institute (GHI), who welcomed the Peace Corps’ interest in building closer relationships. They see GHI’s undergraduate and graduate programs as fertile ground for Peace Corps recruiting.

“We have so much expertise for helping people to live the good life,” Lori DiPrete Brown, GHI’s associate director for education and engagement, told Hessler-Radelet.

DiPrete Brown — who served with the Peace Corps in Honduras (1983-85)—and others encouraged the Peace Corps to allow prospective volunteers, especially those with special interests and language skills in a specific region, to have a greater voice in where they are placed.

Hessler-Radelet agreed: “We need to offer some measure of choice in order to attract a greater number of high-quality volunteers.” She said that the Peace Corps recently moved to a new technology platform that should enable the agency to improve its capacity for matching.

Another suggestion was to create internships within Peace Corps’ domestic offices to cultivate potential volunteers. UW–Madison has made great strides in recent years on increasing international and internationally-related internships for undergraduates; Maj Fischer, who directs the International Internship Program (IIP), served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Poland and worked as a Peace Corps associate director in Fiji.

Students with service-learning experience also were mentioned as good prospects for Peace Corps.

John Ferrick, director of the International Programs office in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, suggested offering opportunities for undergraduates to work alongside Peace Corps volunteers on service projects.

As a model, Ferrick—who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Lesotho (1981-84)—pointed to the Village Health Project (VHP), in which James Ntambi (chair, Department of Nutritional Sciences and professor in Biochemistry and Nutritional Sciences) leads groups of undergraduate students to Uganda for a three-week hands-on experience on international health and nutrition.

Hessler-Radelet talked about a pilot program aimed at getting more doctors and nurses involved. The Peace Corps is collaborating with the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) and the Global Health Service Corps (GHSC) on the Global Health Service Partnership (GHSP), which aims to place nurse and physician educators in Tanzania, Malawi, and Uganda.

These health professionals will serve as adjunct faculty in medical or nursing schools in the partnering countries. The first group of 35 volunteers will begin their one-year assignments in July 2013.

Hessler-Radelet also noted that the Peace Corps is looking at concentrating volunteers closer together to enable them to join forces to have a bigger impact.

One thing that won’t change, she stressed, is that Peace Corps projects will continue to be run through organizations within countries where the Peace Corps has been invited.

“We always have a local partner and we don’t want to change that,” she said. “Ultimately, we are responsible and accountable to our host countries.”

By Kerry G. Hill