U recruiter sees rising Peace Corps interest

Robyn Repya

Before attending graduate school at the University in biological sciences, Michael Lopez committed two years of his life to volunteer service, which included living in a hut in West Africa and working with AIDS patients.

Five years later, Lopez is back with the Peace Corps, but now he’s stationed in a much different environment.

As a University representative for the Peace Corps, Lopez works with a transient population of people with low income and uncertain futures.

He focuses on recruiting students and providing them with information and advice on Peace Corps opportunities.

It’s not the Third World, but there are still challenges in the wilds of academia.

The work is paying off. More and more University students are joining the Peace Corps, including 46 so far this year.

The Peace Corps ranked the University 13th among the top 25 colleges and universities in student participation since January.

“I was concerned after Sept. 11 that interest would go down, but it’s gone up,” Lopez said.

The University has incorporated the Peace Corps into a forestry graduate program called the Masters International Program, Lopez said, which more easily allows a student to do field work with the group.

He also said after President George W. Bush mentioned the Peace Corps in his State of the Union address, people have been more interested in committing to three months of training and two years of service.

“Building bridges between communities is more important than ever,” Lopez said.

He made the commitment in 1995, after graduating from the University of California-San Diego and spent his Peace Corps tour in West and Central Africa working with AIDS patients.

“The experience itself really made me aware of the importance of reaching out to different people,” he said.

In addition to preparing him for graduate studies, Lopez said, his Peace Corps trip created lifelong bonds.

“The villagers love the volunteers so much they name things after them,” such as vegetables and even their children, he said.

Lopez said his encounter with African cultures also altered his view of American society.

“You have to pick up your speed quick,” he said of returning to the United States. “You miss not having to look at your watch.”

Lopez said the Peace Corps needs volunteers from the computer technology industry to help provide Internet access in poor countries, but it is also looking for people from several areas of expertise.

Joshua Woodward, a water resource sciences graduate student, joined the Peace Corps and is departing for Bulgaria in June.

“The Peace Corps seemed like a really good way to be working on issues in water and forestry but still be primarily serving other people,” he said.

Woodward said both his twin brother and his girlfriend are in the Peace Corps. He said he’s encouraged by their experiences, though he expects his trip to Bulgaria will be different than theirs to West Africa.

“Students are just not as interested in jumping into a career, and I guess the generic term would be ‘settling down,'” Woodward said.

Big factors in his decision to join, Woodward said, were that he has no financial obligations and no commitments anchoring him in one place.

“I have total freedom to be able to do things like this,” he said. “I want to start broadening my expertise and trying to find something that connects with people a little more than what I’ve been doing.”

Woodward said he expects to work in a national park or forest as an information specialist, possibly focusing on wolf management.

During University professor John Vreyens’ first tour with the Peace Corps, he helped cattlemen form a co-op in Africa’s Congo from 1984 to 1987.

For his second tour in the early 1990s, Vreyens traveled to Senegal to help women grow rice by introducing new varieties and farming techniques.

“I really enjoyed working in the communities and working with the farmers,” he said, “I’ve been back once to visit my village.”

Vreyens said he was not only the first American to have ever lived in the community, he was also the only person in the village who could read and write in French – the language of local government officials.

Vreyens said he now teaches a class about methods for change in developing countries, and he uses his Peace Corps experiences as examples.

He said although he has noticed travel abroad gaining popularity among students, many still aren’t sure they can make the long-term commitment.

But Vreynes said the experience is about volunteers learning their limits – like “finding out you can live without television, and maybe you don’t need electricity.”