Gabriela Cruz always knew that her mountain was waiting for her to conquer. She did not know where, and she definitely did not know that it was a literal mountain as opposed to a metaphorical one, but she felt it looming all the same.
Her mountain ended up being Peru’s Andes Mountains, where she lived for seven months during her time in the Peace Corps (PC). From September 2019 to March 2020 until the pandemic forced her home, Cruz caught a glimpse of what a future career in service could look like.
The PC is an organization that mobilizes volunteers to improve the conditions of developing countries by focusing on one of the six sectors — Agriculture, Community Economic Development, Education, Environment, Health and Youth in Development — where each volunteer finds their own mountain waiting.
The Peace Corps Prep (PCP) program was created by the PC to make well-rounded and competitive applicants out of those who are interested in joining the agency after graduation. USF is one of many schools nationwide to offer the PCP program, with approximately 200 students currently working to complete their certificates.
During the 2019-2020 academic year, USF was ranked No. 2 nationally by the PC in PCP certificate recipients, issuing a total of 49 certificates.
Cruz said she was not seeking a position within the PC when she first started college but found by chance that her interests within the health field closely aligned with the program.
“I was doing a lot of the [PCP] checklist without actually knowing that I was checking things off the list,” said Cruz, a graduate student at the USF College of Public Health. “For example, a lot of my courses were applicable to the sector I wanted to work in because I was a health science major so they were naturally built into the curriculum.”
The PCP checklist is the core of the program as it details each step that the participant must take to receive their certificate, according to Cruz. It includes volunteer hours, leadership experience, professional development workshops and sector-related courses, most of which she had already completed before the start of her program.
Senior Avalon Theisen was also among the students who completed the PCP program. She was pursuing the Global Citizens Project when she noticed that the foundations of both programs were practically identical. She only needed to complete the leadership and professional development requirements of the PCP, along with a few PCP specific courses, to complete her certificate.
Though her globally focused interests coincided with one another, her religious studies major did not correspond with any of the six sectors in the way that Cruz’s health sciences major did.
“My service sector was the environment, so I volunteered with several environmental nonprofits and took courses on environmental policy, nature spirituality and the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),” she said.
Many students are exposed to the PCP because of their participation in the Global Citizens Project like Theisen, according to Alexxis Avalon, USF World PCP coordinator.
“[The PCP program] is open to all undergraduate national and international students who co-enroll with the Global Citizens Project, wherein we are in alignment with the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” she said.
The courses Theisen took, along with the volunteering experience she accumulated with environmental nonprofits, are reflective of the requirements of the PCP program’s checklist.
To fulfill the volunteer requirement, both students traveled abroad.
“I did three medical mobile clinics abroad in Ecuador and Peru during three different spring breaks that were applicable as hands-on volunteer hours,” Cruz said.
All three of her medical mobile clinics were served with USF’s chapter of Medlife, a nonprofit organization that strives to provide medicine, education and development for low-income communities around the world. She was able to develop her Spanish language skills during her stay, which proved to be an important part of her application to the PC.
Instead of South America, Theisen traveled to Exeter, England, for a semester in 2019 and participated in the Exeter Grand Challenge, an activity in which student teams develop solutions for the SDGs based around the university.
“My team calculated the carbon emissions of meals sold in the [University of Exeter’s] cafeteria, then we rated the sustainability of those meals. From there, we created a labeling system so students could more easily choose greener meal options.”
Theisen said that her experience ended up being the best part of her PCP journey.
“That research was so exciting and impactful; it is my favorite PCP memory,” she said.
Theisen’s journey as well as her penchant for service are well known among PCP faculty.
“Avalon Theisen has an extensive history of volunteerism both locally and nationally,” Alexxis said. “She has served on many committees and raised awareness for many diverse programs. I am sure we will continue to see her represent USF well into the future.”
The sector-specific courses and volunteer experience make up two of the four major competencies that Theisen and Cruz were required to complete to receive their PCP certificates. The third competency was professional development.
The purpose of this requirement is so that participants improve their resume, interpersonal abilities and communication skills as they move toward a potential career within the PC.
The last competency that the program requires is a leadership role, which is an important aspect of the PC as volunteers are asked to go to foreign countries and lead others in facilitating change in the six sectors, according to Alexxis.
Both Theisen and Cruz had already taken on leadership positions prior to their start of the program. Cruz worked in the Office of Orientation and Theisen served as the president of the Religious Studies Club and the vice president of programming for the Sigma Kappa sorority.
They both felt that all of the requirements of the program made a difference in their lives. For Cruz, PCP aligned so heavily with her passions that the program felt intertwined with her educational career at USF.
“When I look at the checklist, I don’t see the prep program, I see my entire college education,” Cruz said.
Theisen also said she was happy to finally complete the program during her junior year. She intends to utilize the experience and leadership she cultivated in her future career as a university professor.
“The Peace Corps Prep experience was extremely rewarding. Completing PCP was fun in the moment, as I really enjoy learning how people live, their foundational beliefs and ways to make the world a better place,” Theisen said. “I can better show consistency, cultural competency, altruism and involvement when applying for scholarships, awards and graduate school.”
As a result of the experience, Alexxis said most participants feel that they have become more culturally competent by the time they finish the program.
“They find that they thrive in a world of diversity to share their skills, talents, and knowledge with others,” she said.
For Theisen, all students should get a chance to experience the opportunities the PCP has to offer.
“I would absolutely recommend fellow Bulls complete PCP,” Theisen said. “The process is rewarding and enjoyable. The program helps you develop transferable skills, like improved intercultural competency, planning, motivation, communication and consistency.”
Cruz said she was able to fulfill her desire to join the PC after graduation thanks to the program by serving as a community health facilitator in Peru. During her time there she wrote a blog titled, “My Mountain is Waiting,” in which she detailed her day-to-day experiences working with individuals in Peru and reflected on the effects her service had.
“It helped me build a solid foundation of what my future career interests will be based on and it allowed me to go into the Peace Corps, which played a large role in shaping me into who I am today,” Cruz said.