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Students learn to lead in the Peace Corps

Published: Thursday, July 7, 2011

Updated: Thursday, July 7, 2011 01:07

Many college students seek out opportunities to develop real-world skills with internships and part-time jobs. But only a select few take their knowledge around the world by volunteering for the Peace Corps.

Established in 1961 with the passage of the Peace Corps Act, the government-run volunteer program aims to offer U.S. aid to foreign countries, often contributing to economic and social development.

While they may volunteer to help others, Peace Corps volunteers say it is also a one of a kind opportunity to build leadership skills while providing aid to those in need.

USF student Stephen Comier plans to do just that.

Comier, a graduate student studying public health, was selected this past year to serve in Cameroon beginning Sept. 15. His first three months will consist of training so that he and his fellow volunteers can communicate effectively and become culturally aware of the area.

Comier said he doesn't know exactly where in Cameroon he will end up, but is eager to team up with like-minded people to prevent disease and promote immunization.

"I won't know any specifics until I move into my community and become established," he said. "I could be digging latrines, I could be helping to run anti-malaria campaigns — or both."

After completing two years of course work, Comier will enter the Peace Corps as part of his "international field experience" requirement for his degree in global health practice.

He said he considers it "an honor" to join Mattessich and Schweizer as someone given the opportunity to travel, teach and learn along the way.

USF doctoral student Ryan Schweitzer also benefited from the Peace Corps when he worked in water sanitation in the Dominican Republic from 2006 to 2009. Schweitzer, who studies environmental engi- neering, said he did work that extended beyond nuts and bolts.

"It's not so much that we're talking about technology or design, it's about behavior change and getting people to buy into the ideas," he said. "It was a crash course in social marketing and community development. Adult education, that's where the Peace Corps is very beneficial."

Schweitzer, who just returned from conducting research through the University in the Dominican Republic, said the biggest challenge was bridging the cultural gap to communicate effectively with Dominicans in his assigned community. He said his community was very poor and the average education level was second grade.

"You have to modify all your teaching techniques," he said. "In the U.S., we are used to PowerPoints and lectures, so it takes a degree of creativity to operate in these situations."

Schweitzer said the people in the area didn't lack intelligence, just the kind of resources the U.S. provides to its citizens.

"These people knew what needed to be done," he said. "We just facilitated the process that helped them reach their community potential."

Molly Mattessich, who also worked on water sanitation in Mali from 2002 to 2004, said the freedom the Peace Corps gives its volunteers to manage their responsibilities was essential to her current success.

"The Peace Corps provides very unique, hands-on experiences that apply to a lot of different careers," Mattessich said. "Especially those that involve leadership and business."

Mattessich works as manager of the National Peace Corps Association's (NPCA) online initiatives. This nonprofit organization helps keep past volunteers connected to their experience while also encouraging others to serve.

Last month, the NPCA released a list of successful business leaders who served when they were students. Notable volunteers include President of Ralph Lauren Home Collection Frank Guzzetta and founder and CEO of Netflix Reed Hastings.

Though she was assigned to a water sanitation team, Mattessich wasn't just filtering water. She adapted her goals to cater to whatever the village needed, helping her team develop a cost-effective business plan to replace the village's defective pumps and wells.

Mattessich and Schweitzer said that the Peace Corps typically looks for applicants who genuinely care about helping others but still embody a creative and entrepreneurial spirit.

Those interested in volunteering can learn more by visiting the USF Peace Corps Office, located in the Center for Global Solutions Room 101, or by going online to global.usf.edu/peacecorps.php.

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