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UCSD ranks high in nation for Peace Corps volunteers

UCSD has accounted for 551, and counting, of more than 187,000 Peace Corps volunteers who’ve been invited by 139 host countries to work on issues ranging from AIDS education to environmental preservation in the 46 years since President Kennedy launched the non-profit organization.

UCSD now ranks 24th nationally among large universities with 15,000-plus students in the number of Peace Corps volunteers placed over the past year. Currently, 45 Peace Corps volunteers on assignment obtained their undergraduate degrees at UCSD, and an additional six volunteers completed their graduate degrees at UCSD. The campus ranks first in the Southern California/Arizona region in the number of students nominated for Peace Corps service.

“Although there are many avenues UC San Diego graduates may take upon graduation, it is reassuring to know that so many choose to promote world peace by volunteering to be ambassadors of the United States through the Peace Corps,” said Andrew Ceperley, director of UCSD Career Services.

Housed at the Career Services Center, the UCSD Peace Corps recruiting office served 1,531 interested students during the October 2005 to June 2006 recruiting period. Activities included information sessions, career fairs, panel presentations and individual appointments.

The UCSD Peace Corps recruiter is Diana Gomez, a native of Mexico and a returned volunteer who is in touch with UCSD students who have recently been nominated, are currently serving, or have returned from service abroad.

Completing a university education, and volunteering for the Peace Corps, are complementary activities which go a long way today toward shaping the well-rounded leaders of tomorrow. Said Gomez: “The organization originally was founded with the idea that the student will finish their classes and do something they need to get to know the world. When you’re a student, it’s a very good time to do service to other people and give something back to the planet.”

Gomez described the ideal Peace Corps volunteer. “It’s someone who wants to be of service, that has compassion, who loves to give a little peace to the world, who is looking to go far to give more on a day-to-day basis. People become volunteers of the Peace Corps because they want to show the world that America has great diversity, great knowledge, and that we can build peace.”

Gomez noted there are currently 51 UCSD graduates volunteering for the Peace Corps in 34 different countries. “We give them a choice on where to go,” she said, “which also depends on the skills they have.”

The 63-year-old Gomez is a Peace Corps veteran herself, having volunteered for three years starting in 1999 to serve in Armenia near the former Soviet Union. Gomez described it as a life-changing experience. “My experience helped me to understand the other side of the planet,” she said, “learning about the people and the culture. I liked doing fund-raising over there. We worked on community projects to try to get people doing things together that really integrated the community. I was able to show them how we work in America.”

David Briery, public affairs specialist for the Los Angeles region of the Peace Corps, said little has changed about the organization over the past 46 years, including its mission. “The Peace Corps has three goals,” Briery said. “The first goal is to meet the needs of the country that’s invited us there. The second goal is to learn the culture of another country. The third goal is to bring knowledge of that country and its culture back to America.”

Shane Walker, now a UCSD physics faculty member with a fellowship who teaches classes and does research, wasn’t a student at UCSD when he went into the Peace Corps, but ended up there after his service was completed. He said it was an experience that really helped mold his character. “It’s a good way to learn about another culture,” he said, “learn a new language and do something for the world, broaden your horizons.”

Walker served in Cameroon in West Africa. He said he learned how to work cooperatively with people there. One of the most important lessons he learned was that progress takes time. “Americans are very goal-oriented,” he pointed out, “but a lot of the secret of success in Peace Corps is just taking small steps, not expecting too much. Things move very slowly when you live in another place and it takes time to give of yourself, and be accepted into another culture as a citizen of the world.”

The Peace Corps is a very attractive alternative for people just finishing school, who are looking for enrichment before starting out in their career. Said Walker: “If you don’t know what to do next, you’re at a crossroads, you can’t go wrong going to the Peace Corps. People are wonderful around the world. You learn, for the most part, that we’re all the same in a lot of the basic ways.”

Jeremy Parker, 31, a UCSD grad student who served in Niger south of Libya in the Peace Corps from 2000 to 2004, did agricultural work in that country, before subcontracting to help eradicate guinea worms, a parasitic worm preying on people in that country. He lived in a camel herding village in the Sahara. He said the experience taught him a lot about himself. “I learned to be humble and self-sufficient,” said Parker, who met his future bride, who was also a volunteer, while he was in Africa. “I wanted to go change the world, but I got changed by the world. I learned how to manage a camel. I learned how amazing and self-sufficent people are in the world, and how many sides there are to every story.”

Asked whether he’d recommend the Peace Corps to others, Parker said, “One hundred million percent. The Peace Corps isn’t for everyone, there’s a 50 percent attrition rate because you’re living in villages far away from hospitals, or roads or anything. But it’s probably the most amazing thing they’ll ever do.”

Peace Corps traces its origins to a rainy early morning in 1960, when then-Senator John F. Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country by living and working abroad. Since then, countless lives have been touched and changed by the tens of thousands of volunteers who have answered that call and served in the organization.

Coming from all walks of life and representing the rich diversity of the American people, Peace Corps volunteers range in age from college students to retirees. Whether counseling teen-agers in Belize in Central America, launching an Armenian computer center or promoting HIV/AIDS awareness in Malawi in Africa, volunteers work in a wide variety of areas -and no two days are ever the same.

For further information on UCSD’s Peace Corps program and volunteers, contact Julie Sammons at the UCSD Career Services Center, (858) 534-0147.