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AU embraces Peace Corps

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While Jason Rhoades was a student at Michigan Technical Institute in 2006, he joined the Peace Corps and earned graduate school credit working on reforestation and renewable energy projects in Armenia. The experience was the best possible combination of education, work and service for Rhoades, and it launched him into a Ph.D. program in environmental studies at Antioch University New England.

Leaders at Antioch University thought that kind of opportunity ought to be available to other students as well, and last summer joined ranks with hundreds of other universities around the country to begin offering credit for Peace Corps service toward a Master’s International degree. At AUNE, the Master’s International program is in environmental studies.

Now AU is going ahead of the pack. Last month, the university signed a partnership with the Peace Corps committing to expand its Master’s International program to all five campuses across the country, start the first Ph.D. program with Peace Corps credit, expand Peace Corps scholarship opportunities, and be the first national university Employer of National Service by hiring Peace Corps and Americorps alumni.

According to AU faculty member Alan Guskin, the partnership is the natural evolution between two organizations whose values so clearly intersect. When Guskin was a student at the University of Michigan in October 1960, then-presidential hopeful John F. Kennedy came to make a stump speech about the need for international collaboration and “things that sounded like the Peace Corps,” Guskin recalled in an interview last week. Guskin liked the idea, got hundreds of students to sign a commitment to volunteer to serve, and organized a student group to meet Kennedy three days before his election victory to hold him to his ideas. Three months into his presidency, Kennedy founded the Peace Corps.

Guskin went to Thailand with one of the first groups to serve in the Peace Corps, returned to earn a Ph.D. in social psychology and started a career in higher education, eventually serving as president of Antioch College and then chancellor of Antioch University from 1985 to 1997.

“Antioch is very committed to experiential learning and service, and there is a natural alignment between the Peace Corps’ interest in creating a better world and Antioch University’s interest in educating students to be active in creating a better world,” said Guskin, who currently teaches in AU’s Ph.D. program in Leadership and Change.
The partnership also makes sense because the kind of people that are drawn to the three-month language and cultural training and two-years of in-country service the Peace Corps requires, “tend to go back to school after they complete their service to get master’s degrees to work in the foreign service or for NGOs,” Guskin said.

According to Guskin, AU Chancellor Felice Nudelman deserves a lot of credit for forging the partnership with the Peace Corps. Nudelman saw the strong historic and cultural connection between the two organizations as an opportunity for “a really comprehensive collaboration,” she said in an interview last month.

“As a university that embraces service and integrates social, economic and environmental justice themes into all of our academic programs, expanding our offerings for present and future Peace Corps volunteers and becoming a Peace Corps Employer of National Service perfectly aligns with our mission and vision,” she said. “Blending Peace Corps service with graduate and doctoral degree studies and experiential learning opportunities prepares students to truly be effective global citizens empowered to make a difference in the lives of others.”

Last fall, AU New England launched the first Master’s International degree program in the environmental studies department. According to Rhoades, the first three students enrolled in January and will spend the first two semesters completing initial coursework before launching into their two years of Peace Corps service, set to begin this winter in places such as East Africa and South America. Having earned up to 12 credit hours and an $8,000 Peace Corps stipend on their return, they will take the remainder of their coursework and write a thesis to complete the degree.

The first Ph.D. program associated with the Peace Corps was launched earlier this year in the environmental studies department of AUNE. Meanwhile the university will work over the summer and beyond to develop master’s degree opportunities in other departments across the other campuses in the sectors of environment, agriculture, health and education.

Rhoades anticipates that the hands-on Peace Corps experience will engage students in their academic material, and help them to synthesize the knowledge for use as a thesis. Rhoades went through the process himself, realizing only after going abroad that Armenia had a deforestation problem and a lack of research driving land management policies. So he dug in, taking soil samples from deforested areas and analyzing the composition for use in future policy making.

“I knew I would be working with real issues in partnership with the community, and I was more engaged in the material because I knew I would have to apply it,” Rhoades said.

AU’s partnership with Peace Corps also expands the Peace Corps’ Coverdell Fellowships beyond AUNE to all five campuses. Coverdell Fellows are Peace Corps alumni who receive a 25 percent reduced tuition in exchange for service to underserved communities in the U.S. The grant could be useful to students in many programs across the university, including education, applied and clinical psychology, the MBA program, etc., Rhoades said.

In addition to its commitment as an Employer of National Service, the Coverdell grants gives an educational advantage to the kind of students the university wants to attract.

“We’re excited about helping these returning volunteers who have such a breadth and depth of experience,” Nudelman said.

Rhoades agreed the partnership would grow the university in the right ways.
“We’re getting these amazing people who enrich the intellectual and cultural vibrancy of the community with an engaged, global perspective,” he said. “It’s directly furthering AU’s values of promoting environmental and social and economic justice.”

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