NU students drawn to Peace Corp.

By Pamela King

When Sarah Donovan graduated from Northeastern in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in English, she decided she wanted to be doing more than be “living at home, working at the mall.”

So she joined the Peace Corps, which provided her the opportunity to teach English to Eritrean eighth graders, where Donovan said she learned a new language, learned about another culture and, in the process, learned about herself.

“[The commitment is] only two years and it will have such a great impact on your life,” she said.

The Peace Corps is an organization that currently boasts 8,000 volunteers from ages 18 to 79 in 75 countries. Since it was founded in 1961, it has dispersed 182,000 volunteers to 138 countries.

Rated by Business Week as “one of the top places to start a career,” the Peace Corps is a way for students fresh out of college to gain a different kind of life experience before entering the work force.

Northeastern alumnus Thomas Richard, a Peace Corps volunteer who served in Yemen from 1987-1990, said a potential volunteer must have a definite reason and motivation in order to effectively serve in the Peace Corps. The official requirements are that a volunteer be at least 18 years old and a U.S. citizen.

“The first year is the hardest,” Richard said. “If you don’t commit yourself during your first year, you won’t make it.”

Richard said there are countless advantages to joining the Peace Corps. Besides the opportunity to learn a new language, the experience allows those who volunteer to fully understand the culture, he said.

Even if you can understand the language, “when you come in cold, you don’t really get what they’re saying,” Richard said.

The opportunities for service range from animal husbandry to business and agribusiness to HIV/AIDS research. Peace Corps volunteers receive, among other things, round-trip transportation, medical and dental coverage, vacation days, and a monthly allowance.

The Peace Corps recently held its second annual November Fest, a program created to recruit college students. Aimed at seniors, the event brings potential participants and experienced volunteers together for information sessions and discussions to let students know what to expect if they choose to serve.

This year, more Northeastern students attended the Fest than students from any other school, said Alex Curtis, a public affairs intern for the Corps.

Richard said students should be humble when serving in the Peace Corps. As a medical lab technician, Richard spent a lot of time cleaning up the facilities. Although he got the opportunity to work with many patients, he said, “you’re not going to save the world.”

But, Richard said he considered himself lucky to live in a stone-and-straw structure that featured cold running water and about three hours of electricity every night, which is not the situation of every Peace Corps volunteer.

A major concern of potential volunteers is health and safety.

Before a volunteer is sent overseas to serve, the Peace Corps assesses health and safety issues to determine if the location is safe place for them to be, according to the Peace Corps website. If the country is deemed suitable for service, the volunteer is then informed of any issues they may encounter during their stay. The Peace Corps staffs a medical unit in every country where a volunteer is serving.

Richard said a civil war was erupting in Yemen during his service, causing as many as 20 volunteers to be evacuated from the area as a safety precaution. However, he said he was more likely to be killed in a car accident than in gunfire.

“They drive like maniacs,” he said.

Currently working in a lab in Concord, N.H., Richard said he now has six foreign coworkers, and he can sympathize with their situation. He said he understands the struggles they are encountering while trying to assimilate into a completely new culture; his experience has made him more aware of other people’s needs.

The Peace Corps is holding another two-part information session for potential volunteers, specifically concerning the HIV/AIDS epidemic, at Boston University Nov. 30.

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