Peace be with you

sherry chen
Sherry Chen, a second-year student in the Master’s International Program, picks vegetables at a community garden tended by women from Burundi.

Rollins ramps up its programs for aspiring and returned Peace Corps volunteers

by Patrick Adams 09MPH and Pam Auchmutey

It’s been two years since the Our Community Farm Project took root on a converted playground in Decatur, Georgia. Every Saturday, refugee women from Burundi arrive early in the morning to tend the vegetables and fruits they produce to help feed their families and sell at a local farmer’s market. Organized by Refugee Family Services, the successful project led to formation of the Global Growers Network of Georgia to expand urban gardening, primarily among the large refugee population in DeKalb County. What the network needs most is more land.

maggie bale

Master’s International student Maggie Bale plans to join the Peace Corps after she graduates. Her brother Jeff, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Namibia, enrolled at Rollins this fall.

Maggie Bale 12MPH has helped find it. Last spring, she applied her skills in Geographic Information Systems and mapping to pinpoint locations in nearby Clarkston, Georgia, that could be developed as urban gardens. While Bale’s work not only benefits Clarkston’s refugee committee, it also is preparing her for her next assignment after she graduates next year. Bale is among a growing number of Rollins students enrolled in the Master’s International (MI) Program, which prepares them for Peace Corps service overseas.

“I came to Emory with a strong knowledge of what it means to be a Peace Corps volunteer,” says Bale, whose two older brothers are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs). Her brother Jeff enrolled at Rollins this fall. “But what my brothers couldn’t give me through their stories was real-world experience. The Master’s International Program provides that experience by helping me work with refugees, one of the most underserved—and international—populations in Atlanta.”

Real-world experience is exactly what Kristin Unzicker 02MPH had in mind when she joined Rollins five years ago to direct leadership and community-engaged learning in the Office of Admission and Student Services. While she spends much of her time helping students connect with the local Atlanta community, she has devoted the bulk of her energy to revamping the same mi program she went through as a Rollins student.

Kristin Unzicker

Kristin Unzicker (center) leads an exercise with the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows at the Clarkston Community Center. The fellows, all Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, manage the Master’s International Program, which prepares Rollins students for Peace Corps service after they graduate. The fellows and students work with the refugee community in Clarkston, an experience that mimics Peace Corps service through community engagement.

Like many earlier alumni of the program, Unzicker declined her Peace Corps assignment to pursue another opportunity after graduating from Rollins. In her case, she joined the Society for Public Health Education in Washington, D.C. Two years later, ready for a change and inspired by an article to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa, she called up her Peace Corps placement officer to reactivate her application. Within two months she was bound for Botswana, where she became a district aids coordinator in a small village in the middle of the Kalahari. Her volunteer and student experiences helped in reshaping Rollins’ MI curriculum.

“I spent my Peace Corps experience trying to figure out how to be a better public health professional in the field—how to apply the things I learned in school at the community level in Botswana,” Unzicker says. “And because I struggled with that at times, I wanted to help ease that process for others.”

Subsequent research by Unzicker and others showed that MI students wanted more contact with one another and with the Peace Corps community. When the students began to meet, eight students were in the MI program. That was 2009.

A year later, eight had grown to 16, and the regular meetings had morphed into weekly seminars, many of them led by RPCVs, who could speak about using community needs assessment tools or the challenges of integrating into the local community. Those RPCVs also spearheaded the MI program’s new service-based learning component by establishing partnerships with local refugee settlement and service agencies in Clarkston. “The aim was to create something that mimics the Peace Corps experience,” says Unzicker.

Today, the MI program achieves that with its two-year service time frame and “global done local” approach to community development. Just as RPCVs are assigned to local organizations overseas, MI students are assigned to one of several locally based organizations—Refugee Family Services, Lutheran Services of Georgia, Clarkston Development Foundation, the Center for Pan Asian Community Services, Fugees Family, the Global Village School, Jewish Family and Career Services, and Refugee Resettlement and Immigration Services of Atlanta—for the whole of their Rollins experience. MI students have assisted their refugee partners—or “counterparts” in Peace Corps parlance—with literacy tutoring, the creation of health education curricula, and development of surveys to assess the impact of new programming.

“A lot of times, organizations don’t have enough staff to do the things they want to do,” says Sumaya Karimi, a family advocate with the Clarkston Development Foundation who teaches a community transformation course at Rollins. “The students help fill that void.”

Sherry Chen, an MI student involved with the Our Community Farm Project, worked through a translator to help refugee women learn to navigate the bus system to travel to and from the garden site in Decatur. She also helped the women gain access to health care.

“The experience taught me how to be flexible and adapt to different circumstances, especially when there is a language barrier,” says Chen. “You learn how to overcome obstacles and keep going.”

A welcome change

lisandro torree

“Mentoring lets me tell my stories to a captive audience that hasn’t heard them a thousand times. It’s also a great way to stay connected to the Peace Corps after having been back for a year and a half.”Lisandro Torre, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Uganda

Chen has a rich pool of expertise from which to draw. A pair of RPCVs—Deb McFarland, now associate professor of global health, and Jim Setzer, former program coordinator in international health—established Rollins’ MI program in 1999. Last year, the school’s 42 RPCVs accounted for more than 5% of the total student population. Up until two years ago, those RPCVs had never been tapped to mentor MI students. Getting the RPCVs involved was a welcome change.

“Mentoring lets me tell my stories to a captive audience that hasn’t heard them a thousand times,” says Lisandro Torre, who volunteered in Uganda before enrolling at Rollins to study global epidemiology. “It’s also a great way to stay connected to the Peace Corps after having been back for a year and a half.”

Today, 33 Rollins students are enrolled in the MI program, and 11 students who graduated last May have accepted Peace Corps assignments. This year, more than 200 applicants to Rollins expressed interest in the program.

Unzicker attributes much of the MI program’s success to another initiative. Two years ago, Rollins began piloting the Peace Corps’ Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program, which offers financial assistance to returned volunteers, contingent upon their participation in underserved American communities. The RSPH now has eight Coverdell Fellows, who manage the MI program.

“It’s essentially an extension of their service in the U.S.,” says Unzicker. “We found in talking to recent graduates that the MI program was one of their favorite aspects of the Rollins experience. They forged strong ties with the refugee community in Clarkston and gained a better understanding of the public health context after two years of assisting a single organization.”

For Coverdell Fellow Paul Fleming 11MPH, the program’s service learning component made the return home from Nicaragua all the more palatable. “To get involved right away at the community level—that’s something you really miss,” he says. “It’s much harder to find that in the U.S.”

What does the Peace Corps make of the new model? “Other schools have various iterations of preparing students for Peace Corps service, and Rollins is one that is truly outstanding,” says Eric Goldman, manager of Master’s International and the Office of Diversity and National Outreach at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington.

At Goldman’s invitation, Unzicker presented on the Rollins model last year at the Peace Corps’ biennial conference for MI institutions in Washington, describing before an audience of 100 coordinators how the programs complement one another to benefit both students and refugees.

With sufficient funding, those programs will continue to expand. As recruiting tools go, there may be nothing more effective. Last May, Rollins’ first three Coverdell Fellows graduated with the highest of service honors. Fleming and Jonathan Schultz received Rollins’ James W. Alley Award and Eugene J. Gangarosa Award, respectively. Rebecca Egner received Emory’s Humanitarian Award.

No less engaged are the school’s MI students, one of whom was among the record number of Emory graduates to receive a Fulbright Scholarship this year. Eric Harshfield 11MPH was awarded a Fulbright for a project in South Africa aimed at empowering communities to improve their health and well-being through improved access to water and sanitation facilities. But Harshfield turned down the Fulbright for a Peace Corps assignment as a public health coordinator in Cameroon. He chose the Peace Corps “because it is a two-year experience and involves close integration with the community,” he says.

50 years of peace and friendship

aaron williams

Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams met the Coverdell Fellows when he visited the school to formalize its fellowship program. Rollins currently has eight Coverdell Fellows. The first three fellows graduated last May.

Fifty years ago this past March, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924, establishing the Peace Corps to promote peace and friendship around the world. In September, Peace Corps Director Aaron Williams visited Rollins to formalize the Coverdell Fellows Program and commemorate the Peace Corps–public health partnership.

“Public health remains an important part of our DNA,” said Williams, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1960s. “One thing that has not changed is the enthusiasm and commitment that is so palpable at a school that is at the center of leadership in public health.”

As Williams noted, more than 400 Emory alumni have joined the Peace Corps since its inception. Of the 30 alumni who currently serve, 16 are Rollins graduates.

“We’re going to double that number next year,” says Unzicker. “We’re preparing them to be the best volunteers they can be—adaptable, flexible, and patient people capable of listening, reflecting, and integrating into the community. Not only do they go as public health professionals, they go as representatives of Rollins.”

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