Giving back while earning

Peace Corps program allows grad students to earn a degree while helping others

Graduate student Rebecca Haagens, a Chico State alumna, is getting ready to head to Mali. Haagens is taking part in a Peace Corps program that combines her graduate studies with volunteerism.

Graduate student Rebecca Haagens, a Chico State alumna, is getting ready to head to Mali. Haagens is taking part in a Peace Corps program that combines her graduate studies with volunteerism.

PHOTO courtesy of rebecca haagens

Starting in January, Chico State graduate Rebecca Haagens will spend more than two years in one of the poorest countries on earth. She will be living in the West African nation of Mali as a Peace Corps volunteer. For the 2004 grad, it’s an almost perfect fit.

How perfect? Even the French major she fulfilled as an undergraduate will be useful, since French is the official language in Mali.

She also majored in biology at Chico State and then went on to work toward a master’s degree in international environmental policy at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, a graduate program affiliated with Middlebury College in Vermont.

Thanks to an expanding Peace Corps program, Haagens will be helping the citizens of drought-prone Mali to better feed themselves. She will teach them to use sustainable farming, food production and efficient food storage techniques. Her biology and international environmental-policy training will come in handy.

Nearly half the population in Mali lives below the international poverty line, earning less than $1.25 a day. Haagens is eager to help a country whose inhabitants badly need it.

“Mali is prone to droughts, so they need steady, long-term sources of food,” Haagens said.

“I like the fact that I’ll be doing work related to my graduate degree. Many other volunteer programs have you do work that’s irrelevant to your major.”

Haagens will continue to be enrolled at the MIIS and take graduate courses there while performing her Peace Corps work in Mali. This is made possible because the Peace Corps Master’s International Program allows graduate students to help needy countries while earning credit toward their advanced degrees.

Earlier this month, it was announced that the federal program is now available to Chico State graduate students majoring in education and teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). It was already operating at 60 colleges before this latest expansion. After acceptance, Chico State grads can start their duties in the fall of 2011.

Participating students will spend 27 months in a host country abroad. While there, they will help the local population in areas such as education, business, health, agriculture and the environment. Grad-school students normally take two years of studies to graduate, said Peace Corps Public Affairs Specialist Nathan Sargent. But with the new program, they typically will study for a year, followed by their Peace Corps service and a culminating semester before getting their degree.

“Though it takes students longer to graduate, it’s a win-win situation,” Sargent said. “Needy countries get skilled volunteers, and Chico State will attract students with international interests, which enriches the campus.”

All travel and living expenses are covered, and students receive a stipend of $7,425 as a reward upon completion.

Interest in the Peace Corps overall has been increasing during the last decade, Sargent said. “We now have more Peace Corps volunteers in the U.S. than we’ve had in 40 years.”

Chico State Regional and Continuing Education staffer Tom Alden volunteered with the Peace Corps in Thailand from 1973-75. He is excited to hear about the new, expanded offering. Alden said the corps is a great source for forming long-term friendships, but explained that it is not all easy. It can be difficult for volunteers to adjust to the native culture, he said. He cited the treatment of women in Muslim cultures as a particularly hard way of life for volunteers to understand. But he said the Peace Corps is a great way to attract students who want international experience.

There are many Peace Corps social and reunion events held in and around the Chico State campus throughout the year, he noted.

“The Peace Corps is a positive, life-changing experience for virtually everyone who joins,” Alden said. “You always get back more from it than you give.”