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Peace Corps Fellows Program Wins National Excellence Award
December 9, 2010
MACOMB, IL -- For many people living and working in rural Illinois, the Western Illinois University Peace Corps Fellows Program (PCF) in Community Development has provided meaningful and positive change in their communities. Since 1994, the program -- in collaboration with the community members and organizations it serves, as well as the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA) at WIU -- has been facilitating measurable results in community and economic development for rural citizens, government and community organizations across the state.
Last month, the University Economic Development Association (UEDA) recognized the WIU Peace Corps Fellows Program with the Award of Excellence in Community Development, which, according to PCF Program Manager Karen Mauldin-Curtis, acknowledges the impact of the program. She noted the winning award was presented to the PCF Program after a tough finalist competition in Reno (NV), where the UEDA recently held its national summit.
"It was an honor to represent Western Illinois University and the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at the summit and to bring back an award that recognizes them for their investment in rural communities," Mauldin-Curtis said. "It is also an honor to have our program recognized by our peers in a national forum. The recognition comes from a large and diverse group of UEDA-member universities."
According to IIRA Director Chris Merrett, the Peace Corps Fellows program represents just one of the many investments WIU makes in rural Illinois through the IIRA.
"In fact, our most successful communities take advantage of several of our programs -- from creating a strategic vision with our MAPPING the Future program, to developing a comprehensive transportation plan with our Rural Transit Assistance Center, to exploring opportunities in sustainable development with our Value-Added Sustainable Development Center, for example. Peace Corps Fellows often assist communities to implement projects they have identified with other IIRA programs," he noted.
Returns on Rural Investment
The UEDA recognition of the Peace Corps Fellows Program's contributions to rural Illinois follows the program's selection earlier this year as one of "52 of the most innovative AmeriCorps programs in the United States" by two national non-profit organizations, the Innovations in Civic Participation (ICP) organization and America's Services Commissions (ASC). Also an AmeriCorps program that utilizes AmeriCorps funds to deliver service in underserved Illinois communities, the Peace Corps Fellows Program's national level-acknowledgment -- in both instances -- reinforces the meaningful opportunities the unique program provides for rural Illinois and Western students.
"Our program was an excellent fit for the UEDA's community development category. We now have 16 years of experience delivering this program, and our track record demonstrates our model is working," Mauldin-Curtis noted. "The award and recognition also place the work we do in a larger context. Being recognized for excellence and innovation in the field of community development raises awareness of the practice and highlights a successful approach to addressing communities' needs for technical assistance and leadership."
Established in 1994 through the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs and grant funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the PCF Program in Community Development was among the first of its kind in the Peace Corps Fellows/USA Network. Over the years, it has continued to provide a means through which innovative community programs -- such as economic and business-development initiatives, recycling programs and health and wellness programs -- are initiated and sustained in rural communities in Illinois. In addition to helping the citizens in rural towns and villages in the state, the program provides an opportunity for Western students to utilize their Peace Corps experience -- all Fellows in the program are returned Peace Corps volunteers and serve as AmeriCorps members while in the program -- as well as gain new experience and obtain an advanced degree.
Each Fellow is pursuing a master's degree in business administration; economics; political science (public administration); recreation, park and tourism administration (RPTA); geography (regional planning); or health sciences while also serving in a graduate assistantship position in some aspect of community development related to his/her area of study. After the Fellow completes his or her coursework and assistantship, he/she then serves in an 11-month internship position in an underserved rural community in Illinois.
Road to the Summit
According to Mauldin-Curtis, in May, she and her fellow PCF program staff members responded to the UEDA's 2010 call for applications for its annual Awards of Excellence competition. To apply, Mauldin-Curtis had to summarize the program; describe who the program serves and how individuals and communities benefit from the service; and provide examples of innovative practices and measurable outcomes.
"We were notified of our finalist status in early August, and were asked to prepare a presentation for the final round of competition at the annual summit in Reno for early November. Finalists in each category had 10 minutes to present their programs and five minutes to answer questions from the audience and judges," she said.
Other finalists in the UEDA's Awards of Excellence community development category included the University of Texas at Arlington for "The Collaborative Partnership -- an Open Data Exchange for the Economic Development Community," as well as New York State's Small Business Development Center -- "Organization of Latino Entrepreneurs (Ole)." Mauldin-Curtis noted that competing at such a high level not only validated the PCF program and its work, but also provided the opportunity to learn from formidable competitors.
"I was very impressed with the breadth and depth of the programs we were up against," she said. "In fact, I came home with ideas from each of them that I hope to make available to our students and communities. The opportunity to explore ideas with others who understand the nature of the work (its challenges, possibilities, etc.) is a valuable part of the experience at the summit," she added.
Other UEDA Awards of Excellence 2010 categories and winning universities included:
- Business Assistance and Entrepreneurship Winner:
Mississippi State University -- "The Role of the University's CAVS Extension in Supporting Rapid Commercialization and Manufacturing of Military Vehicles at the Navistar Defense Plant in West Point Mississippi"
- Partnership Development Winner:
Iowa State University -- "Iowa State University College of Design and the Sioux City Partnership"
- Economic Development & Public Policy Research Winner:
University of Nevada, Reno -- "A Cross-Border Application of the Community Business Matching Model for Economic Development Planning: An Application in the Colorado River Region"
- Technology Commercialization Winner:
Lehigh University -- "EcoTech Marine"
For more information about WIU's Peace Corps Fellows Program in Community Development, contact Mauldin-Curtis at (309) 298-2706 or at K-Mauldin-Curtis@wiu.edu, or visit the PCF program website at http://peacecorpsfellows-wiu.org/
More information about the University Economic Development Association is available on its website at www.UniversityEDA.org.