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Soon after beginning work, Tiffany Williams-Cobleigh, who is studying sociology in Western Illinois University's Peace Corps Fellows Program in Community Development, found many new opportunities to enhance her educational experience.
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WIU Graduate Student Experiences Community Development First Hand

September 5, 2014

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MACOMB, IL — It began with a simple assistantship, providing support to Cynthia Struthers, associate professor and the Rural Health Program manager for the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) at Western Illinois University.

Soon after beginning work, however, WIU sociology master's candidate Tiffany Williams-Cobleigh found many new opportunities to enhance her educational experience, regularly tapping into the numerous projects and initiatives underway both within the IIRA's walls and also within communities throughout Illinois.

A native of Towanda, Pennsylvania, Williams-Cobleigh says it came as no surprise to her friends when she announced to them her plan to join the Peace Corps following high school. Because she has always searched for opportunities to serve her community and contribute to those around her, Peace Corps volunteerism seemed like a logical first step in what she planned to become her life's work. After joining, she served in Rwanda, where she taught English to middle school children, as well as taught the teachers.

According to Williams-Cobleigh, following her service, she decided to pursue a master's degree at Western Illinois University because the Peace Corps Fellows (PCF) Program in Community Development offered at Western (through the IIRA) "fully immerses the student both in an academic and workplace experience." She said WIU's program provides an educational component along with an arranged internship, as part of the full package.

"Few of the available Peace Corps Fellows' programs offer the same work opportunities and dedicated focus on community development," she noted. "The opportunities for community volunteerism are varied and numerous, which fulfill my desire to serve and will also count toward the completion of my degree."

Williams-Cobleigh presently serves as an AmeriCorps volunteer for "Soup and More," a community dinner and local food pantry held monthly at the Macomb Presbyterian Church.

When asked if the program is meeting her expectations, Williams-Cobleigh said when she first read about it, Western's PCF Program in Community Development sounded great.

"Now that I have actually been involved in the program, all of the work experience, related coursework, trainings and conferences and internship experience have proven to be even more rewarding that I had imagined. It has been a wonderful experience in this exceptional program," she noted.

When Struthers unexpectedly broke her foot and was unable to return to work immediately, a survey Williams-Cobleigh was initially hired to assist with evolved into a much greater effort. To complete the work within the allotted timeline, Williams-Cobleigh was entrusted to manage the entire project. Although she noted it felt somewhat daunting, she said it provided her with a first-hand opportunity to work on a community development project from beginning to end.

"Tiffany joined the Institute and began her assistantship just as the Illinois Rural Youth Poll was gearing up," Struthers explained. "All of the research design work was in place, with the biggest task of soliciting participant school districts still to come. Very systematically she began telephoning the 317 school district superintendents on the list. When phone calling proved ineffective, Tiffany began e-mailing superintendents on the list. This required hours of being online, searching for the 'right' contact information. It was Tiffany's patience, persistence and good humor that allowed us to achieve our goal to survey 1,000 rural high school students. By the end of the semester she had contacted 362 district superintendents and dozens of high school principals by telephone, e-mail, or both, about participating in the study."

In addition to having sent 700 email messages and placing more than 300 cold calls to the superintendents and principals of Illinois rural schools, Williams-Cobleigh also entered data and helped to analyze the results. Assigned to interpret the open-ended survey questions, she read more than 10,000 responses and comments, which ultimately culminated in her presenting the findings at the International Community Development Society conference this past summer.

Just prior to the conference Williams-Cobleigh learned that changing circumstances required her adaptability once again, when her status as a co-presenter instead became that of sole presenter.

"I feel that I am prepared not only to create and conduct a survey for the communities I will work with in the future, but also that I will be able to interpret and present the results, which has expanded this experience well beyond the parameters of a typical class in research methodology," she noted.

Williams-Cobleigh was also given the opportunity to attend two conferences coordinated and conducted by IIRA staff as a part of her master's program.

"Being able to help IIRA staff prepare for the recent Community Development Institute planning and then to be able to also attend has been a great component of the program for me. I didn't realize until I attended the IIRA conference last spring there are so many facets of community development. I was surprised to meet such a large number of people working in some capacity of community development, which I was not even aware existed prior to these learning and networking opportunities. After having met so many professionals in my chosen field, I will feel comfortable with contacting any of them in the future when I am seeking employment myself," she said.

An opportunity to assist WIU Economics Professor John Gruidl, who manages the Community Development Institute for the IIRA, with the facilitation of a community development board game also provided a unique experience to Williams-Cobleigh. She became involved in the testing and development of the game when Gruidl invited her to play.

"Tiffany is always willing to go the extra mile to help with projects," Gruidl said. "This past spring, I needed help in facilitating a workshop with high school seniors and community leaders in an eastern Illinois community. Tiffany was not officially working with me and the workshop required a 4 a.m. departure, but she was still willing to help. She did a great job at the workshop and was positive and good spirited. Tiffany is the type of person I want to have on my team," he added.

"As an academic, it is gratifying to hear the master's degree program we offer returning Peace Corps volunteers will provide an experience unique to each Fellow's programs offered throughout the country," said IIRA Director and WIU Geography Professor Christopher Merrett. "It is also pleasing to me that IIRA community outreach is impacting the educational experiences and workforce preparation of our students. It comes full circle when both students and Illinois communities are benefiting from our outreach efforts."

Merrett added that he is impressed with Williams-Cobleigh's productivity. He noted that she has demonstrated the capacity to take on multiple tasks and complete them with her usual high standards.

"Her generous nature and tendency to seek extraneous work tasks have established her among the IIRA staff as a very capable, approachable and willing colleague. I have enjoyed having her in my classroom and as an employee, as well."

Williams-Cobleigh said she has felt very appreciated and valued by IIRA staff.

"If this first phase of the program has been any indication of things to come, I am very much looking forward to the next phase," she noted.

Williams-Cobleigh will begin her internship working for the city of Rushville (IL) in September and will complete her master's degree program next summer.

According to Peace Corps Fellows Program Manager Karen Mauldin-Curtis, for her, Williams-Cobleigh's experience is personally fulfilling because she strives to match each Fellow with an assistantship that provides the student with the best opportunity in his or her area of interest.

"I always hope when I place individuals that it will be a mutually rewarding experience for both parties, but I am pleased to say that Tiffany has articulated very well the elements of the ideal experience we endeavor to achieve with our program's assignments."

To learn more about the Peace Corps Fellows program at WIU, visit and watch the YouTube video about the program.

For more information, contact Karen Poncin at the IIRA at (309) 298-2622.

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