Western was ranked the number one producer of Peace Corps volunteers for 2013 among the nation’s mid-size schools — those with 5,000 to 15,000 undergraduates. There are 73 Western undergraduate alumni currently serving.
Peace Corps Acting Director Carrie Hessler-Radelet visited Western Tuesday, Feb. 5, to congratulate Western President Bruce Shepard and the university for its continued outstanding service.
“It’s important to celebrate,” Hessler-Radelet said. “We really rely on universities as one of our major sources of volunteers.”
Western was nationally recognized, along with the University of Washington and Gonzaga University, which were ranked number one for large and small universities, with 107 and 24 undergraduate alumni respectively. This is the first time one state’s universities have claimed all three number one rankings.
This recognition highlights Western for fostering a global mindset, commitment to the environment and openness to the idea of services to others, Hessler-Radelet said. It also gains the college positive national publicity.
“Having a sense of responsibility to the community and helping those who are underserved is an important part of what Western is all about,” Hessler-Radelet said. “And that’s entirely consistent with the Peace Corps.” There are a number of ways to have overseas experiences, Hessler-Radelet said at the event.
“The thing that is fundamentally different about the Peace Corps is the focus on integration in the community and the focus on building relationships,” she said.
The Peace Corps has three main goals for its volunteers: meeting the needs for trained personnel around the world, giving countries a better understanding of Americans and helping Americans gain a better understanding of people around the world, Hessler-Radelet said.
While the school was honored to receive the recognition, it was not surprising, Western’s President Bruce Shepard said during the celebration event on Tuesday. The values of Western and the Peace Corps are closely aligned, and Western students are often probable candidates for the Peace Corps service.
“Our students are really motivated by challenges, not scared off by them,” Shepard said. “They want to lead a purposeful life, they want to make a difference. They really understand that it’s not truly higher education unless it serves a higher purpose.”
As for the reason Washington state took all the top spots, “I think it has something to do with the good coffee,” Shepard joked.
“I don’t know if we’ll always be number one,” he said. “But you’ll always see us near the top.”
Western alumna and current Peace Corps volunteer Samantha Russell was Skyped into Tuesday’s event from her service location in Fiji to share some of her experiences. Russell graduated in March 2011 from the Huxley College of the Environment with a degree in marine ecology and environmental science.
“I’m really honored that Western is part of such an elite group of schools and universities that top the list for Peace Corps volunteers, and I’m really proud to be one of those volunteers,” she said.
Russell has been in Fiji for 21 months out of her 26-month program, and has requested a one-year extension.
“I am the last of a dying breed out here,” she said. “It’s sad to know as a volunteer that once I am done here with my service that this village won’t get another volunteer to carry out this work.”
Teaching people how to live sustainably and take care of their natural resources has become more important, she said. One project she works on with locals includes moving pigpens away from the oceanfront to prevent excess nitrogen from entering the water. They also work to build a healthy water infrastructure, which can help prevent water-borne diseases.
“You learn so much here,” Russell said. “You don’t come into a village saying ‘we’re going to do this and then this and then this,’ because they’ll look at you and laugh. And then you’ll fail three months later and they’ll say, ‘I told you so.’”
Listening to the requests of the locals with an open mind is the best way to be efficient, she said, and building relationships with people becomes a part of everyday life.
“I would never take back this decision for anything,” Russell said. “This has been the most rewarding thing I have ever done."