National Recognition Again for WIU Peace Corps Fellows Program in Community Development; Program Recently Honored in Innovative AmeriCorps Program Report
May 7, 2014
MACOMB, IL – Kara Garten's ideas about her future have shifted a bit since she's been in Western Illinois University's Peace Corps Fellows Program (PCF) in Community Development. Garten, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in San Juan Comalapa, Guatemala (2006-08), is a master's candidate in Western's graduate geography program and is currently serving in an economic-development internship in LaSalle, IL.
"My goal in studying geography was to pursue a career in community planning, specifically in the area of disaster preparedness," Garten explained. "However, given the type of work I've been doing in my internship—and the fact that I've enjoyed it—I feel completely confident that I could just as easily apply, and be considered, for jobs in economic development. The PCF program has equipped me with skills and experience that will give me a competitive advantage when it comes time to look for a job," she added.
Garten's experience in the Peace Corps Fellows Program in Community Development is one the many reasons the program—which is part of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) at WIU—is included in the 2014 edition of "Transforming Communities Through Service: A Collection of the Most Innovative AmeriCorps State and Volunteer Generation Fund Programs in the United States." Published by America's Service Commissions (ASC) and Innovations in Civic Participation (ICP), the report highlights 28 "innovative" AmeriCorps State and four Volunteer Generation Fund programs from 21 states.
John Ceglarek, a graduate student in Western's recreation, park and tourism administration program and a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served in Ukraine (2008-10), said his own time in the PCF program has afforded him important professional opportunity, as well. Currently serving as an intern with the Petersburg (IL) Chamber of Commerce, Ceglarek's "big" project right now is planning the June 28 "Abe's River Race," which he describes "as one of the longest canoe/kayak races in Illinois" and is slated to run on the Sangamon River that runs through Petersburg.
"A master's degree is, of course, the ultimate goal, but the continued opportunity to gain and improve skills throughout my program is an integral part of my graduate education experience," he noted.
A History of Partnerships, Projects and Progress
The foreword in the 2014 edition of "Collection of Most Innovative AmeriCorps State and Volunteer Generation Fund Programs in the U.S." commemorates the 20th anniversary of AmeriCorps and state service commissions created two decades ago as a result of the 1993 National and Community Service Act. The PCF Program will also mark its 20th year at Western this year, which PCF Program Manager Karen Mauldin-Curtis said PCF staff and students (or "Fellows") will celebrate in September.
"We will be participating in a statewide AmeriCorps celebration on Sept. 12 in Springfield and will tie our own 20th anniversary celebration to 20 years of national service," she noted.
The recognition in the 2014 edition —the second time by the ASC/ICP; WIU's PCF program was also recognized in the 2010 edition of the report—and the anniversary celebration spotlight how the program's model continues to be innovative and sustainable. Each student accepted to the program is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV), and in the program, each pursues a master's degree. After an academic year of courses and a service assistantship, the student then serves in an 11-month internship position in an underserved rural community in Illinois.
"The program offers our students the opportunity to enhance their graduate studies with significant hands-on experience in rural community development. As a result, our Fellows graduate with both academic and applied skills and are competitive in the job market. The program also allows rural communities to advance local community and economic development goals by tapping the unique skills and global perspectives of RPCVs. It broadens student and community perspectives—a win-win situation," Mauldin-Curtis added.
Since it was established in 1994 through the IIRA and grant funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the PCF Program in Community Development (among the first of its kind in the Paul D. Coverdell Peace Corps Fellows Program Network) has expanded to serve students' and communities' needs. Yet the program has also kept to its core mission of providing service and learning.
"Over the last two decades, the PCF program has experienced a great deal of growth. We started by partnering with the departments of geography, economics and business administration, and then we added health sciences and political science, as well as recreation, park and tourism administration. Most recently, we expanded our academic partnerships to add the departments of educational and interdisciplinary studies (EIS) and sociology. This enables us to offer a greater variety of a choices to incoming Peace Corps Fellows, and in turn, has allowed us to serve rural communities in new ways by expanding the academic preparation of our students," Mauldin-Curtis noted. "Additionally, we have been fortunate to expand our financial base over the years and have been able to leverage resources at local, regional, state and federal levels. Each of these changes has created new opportunities for us to enhance our capacity and expand our reach and impact."
As of Spring 2014, Mauldin-Curtis said 10 students are currently in different stages of the PCF Program in Community Development.
"Some are in the field, serving in full-time graduate internships and AmeriCorps service assignments, and we have a few on-campus completing graduate coursework and serving part-time AmeriCorps assignments, in preparation for their full-time internships/community-based AmeriCorps service next year," she noted.
The communities the students serve in, over the years, have been located all across rural Illinois. At this point in time in the program, Mauldin-Curtis said student interns are serving in communities that have recently been engaged with another IIRA program.
"We have been placing Peace Corps Fellows in communities that have recently completed the MAPPING the Future of Your Community Program, which is IIRA's strategic visioning and planning program for rural communities. This year, that includes the communities of LaSalle, Petersburg and Durand. We also have one Fellow serving with the MAPPING program itself, specifically to follow up with individual communities on small projects," she explained.
The students' work in these communities focus on a few key tasks: implementing each community's MAPPING Action Plan; recruiting/managing local volunteers to meet local needs; and building local capacity to sustain projects over time.
"We're having great success with this model and will continue to build on this partnership in the years to come," Mauldin-Curtis said.
For more information about the Peace Corps Fellows Program in Community Development, contact Mauldin-Curtis at (309) 298-2706 or at K-Mauldin-Curtis@wiu.edu. Download "Transforming Communities Through Service: A Collection of the Most Innovative AmeriCorps State and Volunteer Generation Fund Programs in the United States" at www.icicp.org/2014/04/transforming-communities-through-service-2/.