By Julia Guest
How does UC Santa Cruz prepare its students for two years of peacemaking in a foreign country?
According to UCSC Peace Corps Coordinator Lexa Dillon, it takes a certain kind of student to join the Peace Corps.
“Students here tend to think more out-of-the-box and don’t necessarily go straight into the working world,” Dillon said.
Sara Walsh, now an academic adviser for College Eight, joined the Peace Corps after she graduated from UCSC. She said it takes a strong-minded person to commit to going.
“There was a lingering blood fuse in Columbia when I was there,” Walsh said. “If my parents knew how dangerous it was, they’d probably have a heart attack. It’s easy to get caught in the wrong spot.”
UCSC ranked sixth recently for the number of graduated Peace Corps volunteers in 2008, according to the Peace Corps website’s list of the top-25 mid-sized colleges that generate volunteers. There are currently 50 alumi from UCSC serving in the Peace Corps, according to regional facts from the San Francisco Regional Office.
The application process is rigorous. Not all students who apply are accepted. Last year, approximately 40 people applied and one-third did not get in. Dillon said the organization evaluates students based on “emotional maturity,” “motivation and commitment,” and “productive competence,” to name some points.
UCSC’s sixth-place ranking does not surprise Walsh. “We have historically been a strong school to support international programs,” she said. “The university attracts curious, adventurous, and unconventional students willing to commit themselves to uncomfortable situations and to making a difference.”
Dillon graduated from UCSC in 2000 and volunteered in Guinea, Africa. She says it is an important experience to have in light of the fragile state of the world.
“I worry about America’s reputation the past couple of years,” Dillon said. “The Peace Corps gives people overseas a different idea of Americans, and [volunteers] have an opportunity to get out of consumerism and the fast-paced nature of life here.”
One bridge between UCSC students and Peace Corps volunteering is UCSC psychology lecturer Tony Hoffman, who developed a psychology course called Ayudando Niños en Costa Rico (ANECA). The course focuses on aiding at-risk children in the county, using a Peace Corps model for orientation. According to Hoffman, UCSC offers more teaching basd on social justice than many other universities.
“A lot of our majors here have preparatory social justice training and attitudes,” Hoffman said. He mentioned the community studies department — which requires students to reserve one quarter for field study — and said it is “the strongest program” at UCSC to prepare students for the Peace Corps.
Students in Hoffman’s ANECA course are also able to experience firsthand conditions in another country when they travel to Costa Rica.
Although UCSC produces a large number of volunteers, for Hoffman it just means the emphasis on international issues at other universities is lacking.
“I think it’s sad that we’re rated sixth,” he said. “It means many other universities have far fewer Peace Corps volunteers. I meet people from England, France, Germany, Italy, you name it, and I see more students involved in international aid programs there. To be sixth in the nation says something about the nation, because we’re a small university.”
UCSC, UC Davis and Humboldt State are the only Northern California colleges with Peace Corps offices on campus. Dillon holds meetings every quarter to review the application process.
The Peace Corps claims that the skills volunteers bring and develop abroad will stay with them for the rest of their lives. For Dillon and Walsh, this has proven to be true.
Both women, in their careers today, use their experiences abroad to help students on campus. Walsh said she gained an appreciation for diversity and an understanding for the adjustment into a new culture, which strengthens her academic advising sessions.
Hoffman champions student involvement in the program, but understands a need for more of it on a national level. The Peace Corps, she said, “is the best American program [students] can apply for to go overseas.”