Peace Corps a popular choice for Oregon grads

Written by | March 1, 2012

Service and master’s combination program to send its first student abroad this fall
Laura Kutner is the campus representative for PSU Peace Corps Recruitments.

Laura Kutner is the campus representative for PSU Peace Corps Recruitments.

Since its inception 51 years ago, Peace Corps has sent more than 200,000 American volunteers to pursue development work in more than 130 countries, many of which lack basic home amenities such as electricity and running water.

This year, the state of Oregon moved up one spot to rank third in the nation for Peace Corps volunteers currently serving per capita; the Portland metropolitan area currently ranks 11th amongst cities.

Portland State recently plugged into the trend, and in fall 2010 introduced the Peace Corps Master’s International program to campus—a unique opportunity to bookend two years of overseas service work with approximately one-year stints as a resident graduate student, culminating in both a master’s degree and at least two years of intensive, hands-on experience in the selected field of study. Currently, PSU offers the PCMI program for five graduate programs: teaching English to speakers of other languages, social work, sociology, environmental management and public administration (nonprofit specialization). Other programs are seeking to join, according to Teresa Taylor, the program coordinator for the PCMI.

“The PCMI is not a separate degree but rather an optional track within the degree,” Taylor said. “For students who are trying to decide between international service work or graduate study, the PCMI program offers the opportunity to combine the two. The academic preparation and applied experience gained on campus allows each student to bring a deeper awareness and wider skill set to their Peace Corps placement.”

There are also financial benefits to the program. The four to six credits that a PCMI student completes during service abroad are granted tuition remission, and Peace Corps pays a small stipend while volunteers serve. Peace Corps also pays for all transportation costs and provides healthcare, health insurance and loan deferment options for volunteers while they’re abroad, as well as a low-cost health insurance option upon their return to the U.S.

Returned volunteers who have successfully completed the program are also gifted a “relocation allowance,” which, according to Taylor, usually amounts to about $7,000.

PSU will send its first PCMI candidate—Kathryn Johnston, who is pursuing her master’s in teaching English to speakers of other languages—abroad this fall. Johnston has not yet heard where she would be assigned to serve.

Although applicants may indicate preferences for their service assignment, such as community development work in the Pacific Islands, potential volunteers must remain flexible and will be assigned wherever their skills are most needed.

Although the PCMI program is new to PSU, it has been successful at other American universities since 1980s. Typically, PCMI applicants apply to the master’s program first and then to the Peace Corps, as they must provide evidence of acceptance into a participating graduate program when they apply to the Peace Corps.

Of course, volunteers enter the Peace Corps at all stages of their lives—the oldest volunteer currently serving is 84 (and from Portland). Many Peace Corps volunteers choose to serve immediately following completion of their bachelor’s program, and pursue advanced degrees after they serve without the advantages offered by a formal arrangement between Peace Corps and their school.

Laura Kutner, the PSU Peace Corps recruiter, served for a total of three years in
Guatemala after extending her two-year assignment as a youth-development volunteer for a third year as a volunteer leader. Kutner, a Portland native, graduated from University of California, Santa Barbara, with degrees in cultural anthropology and Spanish. She is currently pursuing a master’s in public administration with
specializations in global leadership and non-profit management at PSU.

“I wholeheartedly believe in the Peace Corps,” Kutner wrote in an email, “as one of the only organizations that stays true to its mission: to promote world peace and friendship. It really teaches its volunteers to do sustainable development work, by giving them appropriate skills and the time to integrate into another culture in order to work with people and not for people.”

During her service in Granados, a village in mountainous Baja Verapaz, Guatemala, Kutner was struck with what she describes as a “crazy idea”: to finish the stalled construction of the town’s two half-built classrooms by using compacted trash as building material, a technique she’d heard about from a fellow Peace Corps volunteer.

There was a finished metal frame for the classrooms, but no funding to finish the project with traditional insulation material.

“I realized one day at recess, about a year into my service, that the Coca-Cola I was drinking was the exact width of the metal frame,” Kutner said. She ran the idea by local engineers, who modified and approved the technique, and eventually the entire town became
involved in the project of stuffing thousands of bottles with non-biodegradable trash. With the use of the filled bottles, chicken wire and concrete, the classrooms were finished.

“It worked beautifully,”
Kutner said. So well, in fact, that project affiliate Hug It Forward went on to use the technique in the construction of 15 more Guatemalan schools. The non-profit is currently constructing two more “bottle schools,” including their first outside of Guatemala, in
neighboring El Salvador.

“Peace Corps is certainly what you make of it, because nobody is going to be telling you what to do everyday,”
Kutner said. “However, you are put in situations where you have to work with people from different cultures, in many unstructured situations, and the skills you learn—to adapt, work with others, be patient—are invaluable to any career field.

“You also develop a confidence that is truly remarkable, just by living and working in another country,” Kutner
continued. “I truly cannot stress enough that benefit.”

Kutner also credits the Peace Corps with showing her what she wants to do with her life. Since her return, she has founded the nonprofit Trash For Peace, which constructs recycling bins out of trash—an idea born from Kutner’s experience building classrooms out of Coca-Cola bottles in Guatemala.

Students with French or Spanish skills or at least three months’ experience in agriculture, tutoring or teaching, are considered “very competitive,” according to Kutner, and strongly encouraged to consider service in Peace Corps. The application process takes about one year.

Because of the Peace Corps, Kutner said,“I am fluent in Spanish, and I have a confidence that I did not have before, as well as a different definition of happiness and what I really need to be happy. I would not say I am a completely different person, but my entire world view grew because of the Peace Corps, and I am grateful to be able to carry that with me and share that with people everyday.”

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