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Western Illinois University graduate students enrolled in the Peace Corps Fellows Program in Community Development recently attended the 24th Annual Rural Community Economic Development (ED) Conference, which is organized by the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at WIU. The Peace Corps Fellows pictured attending the ED Conference are Cheng Lun Chu Tarantola and Hannah Adeponu (L to R) in the center. Other students pictured are: Brittany Rhodes (left of Tarantola) and Heath Boomhower (right of Adeponu). Photo by Larry Dean, WIU Visual Production Center.
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Peace Corps Fellows Bring Real-World, Community-Development Experience to Rural Illinois

May 3, 2013

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MACOMB, IL — Graduate students enrolled in Western Illinois University's Peace Corps Fellows Program in Community Development stand out in the job market, so much so that the program achieved a 100 percent job placement record among its 2011 and 2012 graduates. Not only can the former Peace Corps volunteers apply what they are learning in their advanced studies, but they also offer rural Illinois communities a host of workplace experience and bring with them opportunities typically not offered through many programs.

The program—which started in 1994 via the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (housed at WIU) through a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant—provides the returning volunteers the opportunity to each earn a master's degree with an emphasis in community development, while also applying the substantial work skills he or she developed as a Peace Corps volunteer.

As part of their degree plans, Peace Corps Fellows each serve in an 11-month internship, during which they gain practical experience while leading community-development projects in rural Illinois towns. Field Fellows serving their full-time internships also attend the Economic Development Conference sponsored annually by the IIRA. Held in March, the two-day conference provides an opportunity for additional training and networking with professionals and colleagues within the community-development field.

According to WIU Peace Corps Fellow Cheng Lun Chu Tarantola—whose graduate studies are in recreation, park and tourism administration and who is serving her internship part of the program in Shelbyville, IL—the opportunity, provided via the IIRA, to attend the 24th Annual Rural Community Economic Development was of great benefit to her.

"The ED conference was a good experience for me, and I learned a significant amount from this conference. It was refreshing to hear about successes in this field," she said. "Overall, it was a rich educational opportunity for me, as well as for the City of Shelbyville."

Through the Peace Corps Fellow Program at Western, Tarantola is also a full-time AmeriCorps member. According to Peace Corps Fellows Program Manager Karen Mauldin-Curtis, the Fellows become AmeriCorps members at the onset of their internships, making them eligible for education awards that can be used to pay back students loans and/or pay for future educational expenses.

Tarantola said she is currently working to develop the city's historic district and is also creating a brochure about Shelbyville to be used by the tourism office and local realtors.

Another full-time AmeriCorps member and Peace Corps Fellow, Hannah Adeponu is completing her internship in the Village of Martinsville (IL) while earning her master's degree in political science. She said the IIRA ED Conference was very useful to her work there, as well.

"One concept I found especially useful demonstrated the benefits of collaboration," Adeponu explained. "Some of the practices mentioned are already used in Martinsville, but I would like to focus more on building institutional capacity."

According to Adeponu, she also learned at the conference that converting local assets into opportunities might be a useful approach for the Martinsville community.

"The speaker suggested that even ideas that may initially get some negative buzz can be wildly successful in the end," she said. "There will always be some negativity in community development, but through perseverance, well-planned initiatives can bring new outlooks to small communities."

Downtown revitalization is among Adeponu's internship duties, along with business retention and expansion, special event planning and assisting with housing and education projects.

"We are very pleased to offer this opportunity to our Peace Corps Fellows as part of the program at no cost to them," Karen Mauldin-Curtis noted. "Other Peace Corps Fellows who attended the 2013 ED conference included Heath Boomhower, serving in Findlay and Windsor [IL], and Danielle Hoekwater, serving at St. John's Hospital in Springfield (IL)."

Through Western's Peace Corps Fellows Program in Community Development, students can pursue master's degrees in the following fields: business administration (MBA); economics; educational and interdisciplinary studies; political science (public administration); sociology; recreation, park and tourism administration; geography (regional planning); or community health and health services management.

Mauldin-Curtis added the Fellows Program has placed interns in more than 100 rural Illinois communities since its inception and has received numerous awards for providing exemplary service.

"Any small town, group of towns, local, county or regional agency is eligible to host a Fellow," she said. "A competitive process matches a community's goals with the skills and professional aspirations of the Fellow."

To learn more about the Peace Corps Fellows program, contact Mauldin-Curtis at (800) 526-9943.

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