Peace Corps director Aaron Williams helped the University announce a new partnership with the Peace Corps at the 50th anniversary for the organization earlier this month, and now that the fanfare is over, University officials are getting to work hammering out the specifics of the new program.
The partnership, known as The Master’s International program, allows graduate students from the schools of Natural Resources and Environment, Education and Social Work to spend a year at the University prior to into the Peace Corps, followed by a semester or two at the University upon return.
Rosina Bierbaum, dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment, said the Master’s International Program expands on already available options for overseas study.
She said their work overseas counts as six credits and counts as their required master’s thesis.
Officials haven’t decided how the school will maintain contact with students while they’re abroad, though some have suggested blogging as an option, she said.
Bierbaum said the school first applied to participate in the program because officials noticed there were six to seven returning Peace Corps volunteers a year enrolled in master’s programs at SNRE. She added that she sees “great potential” with the new Master’s International program as well.
The application process and general features of the program are the same in all three of the schools now involved with the program, Bierbaum said.
She said the categories of the work have the potential to be “blurry.”
“Someone from our school could work on environmental education or something from public policy, for example,” she said. “I don’t think there will be crisp lines between them.”
SNRE master’s student Abigail Hyduke, took part in a different Peace Corps partnership program. She said though she finds the Master’s International program beneficial to many, it isn’t something she would have chosen.
Hyduke completed her Peace Corps work prior to attending graduate school and said her overseas experience aided her in determining what she wanted to study in graduate school.
“I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do and the Peace Corps helped me figure that out,” Hyduke said.
The School of Social Work is one of four social work schools in the country to have a Master’s International program, according to Srinkia Jayaratne, director of the Office of Global Activities in the School of Social Work.
Like with the SNRE program, Jayaratne said officials are still trying to figure out how students abroad will communicate with the school, adding that students will be assigned an advisor from the School of Social Work who previously volunteered in the Peace Corps.
Jayaratne said the school also offers a special orientation class for all Social Work students who will be working abroad, including those participating in the Peace Corps. It is designed to prepare them for the different cultures and contexts they will be facing. Upon return the students will meet again and share their experiences.
He said the program is a great opportunity for students who want to receive a master’s degree and take advantage of what the Peace Corps can offer.
“It’s an integration of what it really means to live in a different country, live with the people, work in pretty difficult situations and then think about the theories and concepts that we’ll be teaching in the classroom prior to going abroad,” he said.
All students will be working in some way with children and youth programs, he said.
Jayaratne said since there is no precedent for this program in the School of Social Work, there are bound to be challenges, but said he is optimistic.
“There’s a lot of interest,” he said. “We have had as many as 15 to 20 students inquire about the program so far.”
He added that there is a “long window” before the school can fully evaluate the effectiveness of the four-year program since the first set of students will be coming in fall 2011.
Educational Studies Program Chair Addison Stone said the specifics of the program in regards to the School of Education are still a “work in progress,” including the details of maintaining contact with the students once they are abroad.
He said the general set-up of the program is similar to that of other schools, with the student spending at least one semester at the University before going overseas for his or her Peace Corps work.
Stone said the idea behind students spending time at the University both before leaving and after they return is to “deepen understanding of educational issues” not only for themselves but for the master’s students who aren’t involved in the program.
Stone said half of the Education School students participating in the Peace Corps are involved in second language instruction while the other half is involved primarily in math and science instruction.
Stone said he hopes having a Master’s International program will help the School of Education establish a relationship with the Peace Corps.
“We of course have had some Peace Corps veterans apply to our school but they are few and far between,” Stone said.
Social Work graduate student Tim Polakowski said it’s a “great opportunity” for interested students.
“One of the benefits of the program is that before it (the experience), a lot of people who are doing the Peace Corps or who want to are afraid to do it because they don’t see what to do with their Peace Corps experience afterwards and how it ties into an academic program,” Polakowski said.
Carrie Rheingans, dual master’s student in the schools of Public Health and Social Work, said she would have applied for the program had it existed when she was applying for graduate school.
She said it’s “really exciting” that a Peace Corps experience could be combined with an academic program.
The only critiques she has of the program are the amount of credits given for the two years of overseas work and, since the program is roughly four years, she suspects returning students may feel disconnected.
“Being here for three years, I know what it’s like to not be around the people I started with,” Rheingans said. “I feel disconnected and people who do the Peace Corps in the middle for two years will feel that when they come back.”