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International experiences lead to Peace Corps opportunity in Rwanda

| Judy Berthiaume

When Ian Allen graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2011, he took with him bachelor’s degrees in Spanish and political science as well as valuable knowledge gained by studying abroad in Spain and Nicaragua.

Allen’s international experiences combined with his double major helped him land his dream job after college — serving as a Peace Corps volunteer.

“I was looking for an international experience after graduation and Peace Corps was the right fit,” says Allen, who now is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. “I was inspired by Peace Corps' dedication to doing international development at the grassroots level coupled with their emphasis on cultural exchange.”

He says the international experiences in Spain and Nicaragua he had as a Blugold prepared him well for what living abroad for a long period of time would look like.

As a community health volunteer in Rwanda from 2012-14, Allen worked alongside community health workers in a local health center to develop curriculum and trainings related to HIV/AIDS and malaria prevention and awareness.

In addition to his work at the health center, he also taught life skills and coached the debate club at a nearby high school.

“Overall, the highlights of my Peace Corps experience were the connections I made within my community,” says Allen. “I lived in a small compound and, after time, the people around me became my second family. We still keep in touch and they also keep me abreast of how some of the projects I worked on are currently doing.”

When Allen was applying to the Peace Corps, volunteers could be sent anywhere in the world so he had no idea where he might land.

“My initial plan was to use some of the Spanish I had studied at UWEC and hopefully be posted somewhere in Latin America,” Allen says. “I ended up, however, in Central Africa. This ended up being a truly fortuitous life change for me.

“I fell in love with the region, and found living and working in Rwanda to be an incredibly optimistic experience. It's a country that has suffered great hardships, but is also rebounding in an incredible fashion.”

Living in Central Africa literally changed Allen’s life trajectory.

Now at the University of Minnesota, Allen is studying comparative and international development education.

He also uses his international experiences to work on a large evaluation project funded by the MasterCard foundation that analyzes some of the different NGO education projects in East Africa that they support.

“Most of the work and research I do now is focused on East/Central Africa, and upon graduation I’m hoping to move back and continue working there,”  Allen says, noting that his plan is to work in the field of international development.

The Peace Corps has long been popular among Blugolds like Allen.

In 2015, with 13 Blugolds serving as current Peace Corps volunteers, UW-Eau Claire was ranked among the organization’s top volunteer-producing colleges and universities in the United States.

Since the Peace Corps was created in 1961, 347 UW-Eau Claire graduates have served as Peace Corps volunteers.

With Blugolds’ high interest in the Peace Corps and the university’s commitment to international education, UW-Eau Claire recently announced that it is partnering with the Peace Corps to offer a certificate program. The program will help ensure that Blugolds can graduate with the skills they need to become international volunteers or to pursue a career in international development.

“Students who participate in the program will have an edge when applying for the Peace Corps,” says Colleen Marchwick, interim lead of the Center for International Education at UW-Eau Claire. “This is important since applications to the Peace Corps are at a 22-year high, making it a very competitive application process.”

Currently, 100 percent of applicants who earn the Peace Corps Prep certificates are accepted into the Peace Corps program, compared to a 20 percent acceptance rate for the general public, Marchwick says.

The UW-Eau Claire-Peace Corps Prep Program is the only program of its kind in Wisconsin or Minnesota, and one of fewer than 50 programs nationwide.

“I’m very excited to hear about the program,” Allen says. “I networked early with the Peace Corps recruiter who gave me advice about what experiences I should seek out during my time at UWEC to make me a strong candidate.

“As the agency becomes more and more competitive, a program like this one can help students to tailor their education and extracurricular activities to make them stronger candidates for service. It’s a great opportunity for students who are looking to serve or for a career in development.”

The program will help Blugolds build knowledge and skills in areas like health, education, youth development and the environment, as well as foreign language proficiency, intercultural understanding and leadership skills, Marchwick says.

“UW-Eau Claire was fortunate that we already have the coursework and extracurricular experiences that the program requires,” Marchwick says. “We were a natural fit for the program. It will enhance already existing efforts on our campus in global education and service-learning.”

UW-Eau Claire’s strong institutional commitment to international engagement and service-learning already encourages students to think globally, Marchwick says.

“We have higher than average participation in study abroad, and a rich history of international education and global engagement,” Marchwick says. “We offer an impressive array of study abroad and intercultural immersion programs, and numerous campus curricular offerings in global learning areas. We also offer majors in international studies and languages. All of these initiatives have natural synergies with the Peace Corps Prep program. “

Photo caption: As a community health volunteer in Rwanda, Ian Allen worked alongside community health workers in a local health center to develop curriculum and trainings related to HIV/AIDS and malaria prevention and awareness.