It has been 50 years since former President John F. Kennedy signed legislation to create the Peace Corps, providing Ohio State and its many former Peace Corps volunteers a reason to celebrate.
OSU’s Office of University Outreach and Engagement will host a celebration and unveiling on Tuesday at 3 p.m. at the Ohio Union’s U.S. Bank Conference Theater. OSU President E. Gordon Gee will be in attendance, along with prior Peace Corps volunteers, including former Gov. Bob Taft and state Rep. Ted Celeste.
Peace Corps officials would not disclose what would be unveiled.
The Peace Corps is a group of American volunteers that reach out to the world to help build healthy communities, according to the Peace Corps’ website.
OSU has 68 members in the field serving their 27-month tour of duty. In the 2011 ranking of large colleges in the nation with people in the field, OSU ranks 16th, said Phil Saken, program director for the office of the senior vice president of outreach engagement at OSU.
Over the past 50 years, OSU has had a total of 1,576 volunteers, ranking the university at 10th overall among large colleges, Saken said.
The bulk of OSU volunteers are involved in the field of education, which is the largest area of the Peace Corps work, Campbell said.
OSU has many former Peace Corps volunteers on its staff whose direction in a career was formed by their volunteer work. Campbell said OSU boasts at least 35 professors who are return Peace Corps volunteers.
One such volunteer is Jesse Kwiek, an assistant professor in the College of Medicine.
“I graduated from the University of Rochester in 1995 with a Bachelor of Science in microbiology. I graduated in May and within a month I was on an airplane to Malawi in Sub-Saharan Africa. I was a secondary school science teacher. I taught biology, chemistry and physical science to a non-government funded boarding school. We had about 600 students in only four classrooms with no walls and no lab resources,” Kwiek said. “It is one of the poorest countries in the world.”
Kwiek said his work in the Peace Corps is something he thinks about quite often.
“I am a professor here now and I study HIV and I actually still work in Malawi. Throughout my training, my post-bachelor’s degree training and post-doctoral degree, I’ve been working with Malawians on HIV and malaria-2 infectious diseases which are quite prevalent in Malawi,” Kwiek said. “Malawi is in my mind. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been back there at least five times since I left in the mid-’90s. It was right in the middle of the HIV epidemic when I lived there and that’s currently the focus of my research.”
Jack Campbell, Peace Corps coordinator for OSU, said to be a qualified member of the Peace Corps one must be 18 or older, in good health and a citizen of the United States. Additional prerequisites include having a scarce skill, such as an academic background in agriculture, business, education, environment or health.
Another area taken into consideration is proficiency in a foreign language. Students that speak a second language are more likely to be nominated to serve than those who only speak English.
Students that do not have a scarce skill are still considered for service as liberal arts candidates.
“We use (the candidate’s) volunteer experience to get them into Peace Corps and we tell them how to go about using their volunteer experience,” Campbell said.
Kristen Mallory, a graduate research associate in the Office of Health Services, is another former Peace Corps volunteer. She graduated from Miami University (Ohio) with a bachelor’s in exercise science in 2007 and joined the Peace Corps shortly after.
“I was given an assignment to work in the rural coastal province of Ecuador. And I was basically sent out in the middle of the jungle alone to work with these people,” Mallory said. “So the beginning was really hard, because I didn’t know Spanish that well. Little by little, it took about four months to know the language.”
Mallory said her group developed projects involving diabetes and chronic diseases and worked to educate rural communities.
“We gave health education at the high schools, especially reproductive health, teaching about HIV and AIDS,” Mallory said. “We worked with malaria prevention, nutrition and pretty much any kind of health initiative that was needed at the time, we would bring to these rural communities.”
Mallory found her time in the Peace Corps to be so worthwhile that she stayed a year longer than her two-year tour to promote health.
“So now I’m getting my master’s in public health. That was inspired by being a community health volunteer in the Peace Corps,” Mallory said.
The level of interest in the Peace Corps is rising at OSU.
From September 2010 to June 1, OSU looks to nominate as many as 70 members to serve as volunteers, more than the usual 50 applicants per year. Most of the students that apply at OSU are nominated to serve.
Campbell said the increase in volunteers is due to bigger on-campus presence than in years past. The group is making itself better known by having more information sessions, attending a larger number of career fairs and having a greater online presence, including a Facebook page, Campbell said.
“We have a good caliber of students that apply,” Campbell said.