Midway through her Peace Corps service, Julia Shafer’s family visited her in Antanifotsy, Madagascar. Shafer’s students and fellow teachers welcomed them with performances of traditional dances from all over the island, and Shafer, a year after arriving as a rare foreigner in Antanifotsy, realized she felt at home in both worlds.
“It was a really cool experience, to share my family from home with my family here in Madagascar,” said Shafer, a 2012 University of Virginia graduate.
Shafer is one of 36 alumni currently in the Peace Corps, helping UVA, for the third year in a row, rank among the top five medium-sized schools for volunteers produced. Since the Peace Corps’ founding in 1961, 1,144 UVA alumni have volunteered.
Many of the UVA volunteers, like Shafer, join the corps shortly after earning a bachelor’s degree and find that their time volunteering clarifies future graduate studies or career choices. The UVA Career Center recently received a five-year grant to continue building resources that connect students with Peace Corps opportunities and to support Anna Sullivan, UVA’s Peace Corps campus recruiter.
Teaching English While Learning a Foreign Culture
Many Peace Corps volunteers teach English classes in local schools. Shafer teaches middle school students in Antanifotsy, a large town in central Madagascar.
She also mentors about 20 high school girls, leading them through Peace Corps’ GLOW – Girls Leading Our World – camp, designed to encourage women to become community leaders. Camps include workshops and activities on topics like post-secondary education, goal-setting, healthy habits and sex education.
Another volunteer, 2014 alumnus Joe Crittenden, teaches English in Ebolowa, Cameroon, to classes averaging 80 to 90 students. His curriculum is roughly equivalent to that of American middle schools, though his students’ ages vary widely.
“I decided that I wanted to see the world and I wanted to help,” Crittenden said of his decision to join the Peace Corps.
Angelina Loverde, a master’s student in UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, returned in August from Peace Corps service in Guizhou, a southwestern Chinese province where she taught English at a university for ethnic minorities. Loverde organized an English club at a local tea house, started a Scrabble club for English students and gave monthly lectures about American culture.
While teaching students English, Loverde, Crittenden and Shafer had to contend with their own language barriers to connect with their new communities.
“One of the hardest things is integrating into your community and wanting them to see you as part of the community,” Shafer said.
She befriended the owner of a local soup shop and spent afternoons talking with her friend, helping her sell soup and other snacks and learning the Malagasy dialect.
Similarly, a kind neighbor welcomed Crittenden, frequently dropping by to talk with him and share some of her family’s dinner.
“There is a mentality here of, once you are close to someone, you become a member of their family in a sense. They will call the equivalent of ‘my son,’” he said.
Promoting Global Health
Other volunteers focus on health care. Ania Giffin, a 2013 alumna, is a community health educator in the small mountain town of Pueblo Nuevo, Nicaragua.
Like Shafer, Giffin led high school girls through a GLOW camp. She also partnered with guidance counselors to craft a sexual and reproductive health curriculum for high school students and helped clinics increase education around HIV, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease prevention in Pueblo Nuevo, where teen pregnancy rates hover around 30 percent.
Giffin also started a book club for high school girls, reading Malala Yousafzai’s memoir “I Am Malala,” and discussing challenges women face in different cultures.
“The girls went into some of the high schools and shared the story with students,” Giffin said. “It was really cool to see them teaching their peers.”
Two UVA graduates heading into the Peace Corps this year are also focused on health care.
Molloy Sheehan will travel to Benin after earning her master’s degree in exercise physiology in May. “I knew I wanted to do a lot of work in health care, primarily around nutrition,” she said. “I am excited to travel, to learn the language and to meet new people. I know I am not going to change the world immediately, but I can do some good and that is very exciting.”
Another UVA graduate, Carter McCabe, is going to Peru in August to work on community health topics including sexual health, maternal health and child malnutrition.
“I am really looking forward to having a full 27 months to get a sense of the community that I am living in and of Peru as a whole,” McCabe said. “I am looking forward to learning about the culture, as opposed to just passing through and getting a brief idea.”
McCabe will pair her Peace Corps service with UVA’s Master of Public Health program, returning after her service to complete a thesis project. Alumna Lauren Mathae is completing a similar track, having returned from the Dominican Republic, where she helped train a network of health educators, including young peer health educators and community health workers making home visits.
Mathae also conducted focus groups and interviews for a thesis project examining causes of the country’s extraordinarily high rate of Caesarean sections. Now she is working with assistant professor Paige Hornsby, her adviser and a former Peace Corps volunteer, to complete the project.
“I don’t know that many master’s students really get the chance to go out and immediately apply what they learned in the field,” Mathae said. “I really got to see these health issues and develop my project based on gaps in knowledge that I could see there on the ground.”
McCabe and Mathae have been enrolled in a Peace Corps program pairing public health studies with Peace Corps service. That program was recently retired after nearly 30 years.
Beyond the Peace Corps
Many volunteers find the Peace Corps experience helpful in determining their next career moves.
Mathae, after returning to the U.S. in November, is completing her thesis while working full-time for the Pan American Health Organization, a division of the World Health Organization.
Shafer developed an interest in guidance counseling during her time in the Peace Corps.
“Before coming here, I was not really sure what I wanted to do, though I had a few ideas,” she said. “I recently got back into contact with my guidance counselor from high school, asking about her career path, and have been looking into different graduate programs. My experience here definitely pushed me toward that.”
Loverde’s experience in China inspired her studies in the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy’s public policy program. She hopes to help build policies to improve education access abroad, after witnessing the lack of resources in impoverished areas and the impact of even small investments.
“During my last few days in China, one student took me out to dinner and said that she thought I had changed students while I was there,” Loverde said. “That really touched me. I saw that making English fun boosted students’ self-confidence and interest in the language, made it more relatable, and made them more open and a little happier in what they were doing. I am grateful I was able to be a part of that.”
Students interested in Peace Corps service can contact Anna Sullivan at the UVA Career Center at [email protected]. Sullivan also holds weekly office hours at the Career Center’s satellite office in Newcomb Hall, room 170.