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Peace Corps Fellows Program in Community Development Celebrated 15th Year in 2009

December 22, 2009

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MACOMB, IL -- "The Peace Corps represents some of, if not all, the best virtues in this society. It stands for everything that America has ever stood for -- it stands for everything we've ever stood for and hope to achieve in the world. " -- Sargent Shriver, First Peace Corps Director

Founded in 1961, the Peace Corps is on the precipice of an historic milestone, one that will likely review the almost 50 years of not only extolling the virtues that many feel embody the United States of America, but also of actually putting those virtues into practice across the globe. As the national Peace Corps program readies to celebrate its golden anniversary in a little over a year, the Peace Corps Fellows Program (PCF) in Community Development at Western Illinois University caps it 15th year in 2009 and can tout similar accomplishments. After 15 years, the program's alumni and current Fellows can recall how the PCF Program in Community Development has helped them achieve a master's degree and required them to explore the theories of community development. They can also look back at how they were able to put theory into practice and survey how their service and knowledge has contributed to the development of rural communities across Illinois.

The Mission
A unit of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs (IIRA), which is housed at Western, the PCF Program in Community Development provides former Peace Corps volunteers the opportunity to pursue a master's degree with a specialization in community development, explained Karen Mauldin-Curtis, who has managed the program since 2004.

"Students, referred to as 'Fellows,' can pursue an advanced degree in one of six fields of study offered at WIU," noted Mauldin-Curtis. "After each Fellow has completed his or her coursework, they then each serve an 11-month internship in a rural community in Illinois. The internship provides the students with practical experience as they help lead community development projects in the town or county in which they are serving. Since the program was established 15 years ago, we have had more than 89 Fellows serve in towns and counties in Illinois."

Currently, the master's degree offerings via the PCF Program in Community Development include business administration (MBA), economics, political science (public administration), recreation, park and tourism administration, geography (regional planning) and health sciences. Mauldin-Curtis also noted that she and her PCF and IIRA colleagues are always in the process of looking at the possibilities for adding other fields of study offered at Western to the program.

"We could anticipate a Peace Corps Fellows program that, perhaps, is involved in bilingual education. We also are looking into the area of information technology," explained Chris Merrett, director of the IIRA. "For example, we might be looking at how a Peace Corps Fellow could work in a small rural community to better deploy information technology to help the community move forward with its economic and community goals," he added.

PFC Partners: Past and Present
Established in 1994, the PCF in Community Development at Western was the very first community development program in nation, noted John Gruidl, the program's founding director and professor of economics at Western.

"In the beginning, we had a combined program with Illinois State University," said Gruidl "and we started it with a three-year $300,000 grant award from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. Because we so strongly believed in the possibilities for the program, we actually started it before we were notified we had been awarded the grant funding. Fortunately, the grant funding came through, and what worked better than we had expected was how the Peace Corps volunteers' experiences were so transferable to the communities in rural Illinois. Their skills, in terms of working with people and of organizing and implementing projects, are highly applicable to the Fellows' internship positions. Although the context -- from serving in a developing country to serving in a rural Illinois community -- is very different, the process of bringing people together to implement a common vision for the community is very much the same."

WIU's PCF program is now solely housed within the IIRA and is no longer offered in conjunction with Illinois State University, but it now partners with AmeriCorps, a program of the Corporation for National and Community Service.

"We are very proud to be part of AmeriCorps," noted Mauldin-Curtis. "Since 2003, the program has received grant funding from the Serve Illinois Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service. Through our continued partnership and funding via AmeriCorps, we are able to improve the program's level of service to communities in Illinois and provide our students with an opportunity to participate in national service."

In addition to working with AmeriCorps and the IIRA, the PCF Program in Community Development at WIU also works with such partners as Rural Partners, The Illinois Private/Public Partnership for Rural Community Development (, United States Department of Agriculture -- Rural Development (, the University of Illinois - Extension ( and, of course, the Peace Corps Fellows/USA program (

The Fellows
Illinois communities in which Peace Corps Fellows/interns served in 2009 include Casey, a community near Charleston in the southeastern part of the state; Cass County, including the communities of Virginia and Beardstown; and Carbondale, where Fellows served in that community's arts organization (Carbondale Community Arts) and a region-wide healthcare organization (Southern Illinois Healthcare). Additional communities served in 2009 include Fulton County and Macomb (i.e., the West Central Illinois Arts Center and Western Illinois Regional Council).

Just before the conclusion of her internship in Casey and of her work with that community's development group, Casey in Action, this summer, Traci Heffelbower, who earned her master's in recreation, park and tourism administration, talked about her experience of serving in her assigned community.

"I am sad to be leaving. It's amazing just how comfortable you can become with a community and how good the people are. I know that it will be hard to find this level of trust with another community," she noted. "I will also really miss the support of the PCF program at Western. Being able to talk with anybody, from either PCF or the IIRA, at any time, to give me support, to bounce ideas off of or to troubleshoot problems I may be experiencing, is an amazing resource."

Heffelbower has since moved on from Casey to pursue other opportunities in the southwestern part of the U.S., but Casey in Action is still reaping the benefits of its work with Western's PCF Program in Community Development, as the City of Casey recently hired Nicole Weigand, a 2009 WIU PCF alumna who earned her master's degree in geography and served her internship at Carbondale Community Arts, as the economic development director.

Weigand's internship with Carbondale Community Arts provided a new and exciting opportunity for the PCF program, noted Mauldin-Curtis.

"The Illinois Arts Council was interested in piloting a new program that promoted community development with an arts focus. Having a full-time Fellow allowed them to do more with programming, outreach and education. We hope to continue this direction, as the arts can provide communities with innovative ways to help bolster and facilitate economic and community development in rural towns and cities in Illinois," Mauldin-Curtis added.

Another Fellow, Kyle Turk, who earned his MBA and served his internship in a countywide position in Cass County, noted that the diversity of that particular area in Illinois -- which has a growing Hispanic population -- provided an intriguing opportunity for him.

"There was a strong need for somebody with Spanish-language and cross-cultural skills, and that really appealed to me," noted Turk, who served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mexico. "Being from Corpus Christi, Texas, which is 85 percent Hispanic, I was well-acquainted with the type of diversity that exists now in Beardstown."

Turk noted that among the best aspects of the program is that it provides hands-on opportunities for the returning Peace Corps volunteers who are accepted into the program.

"In addition to the internship, each Fellow also serves in a graduate assistantship that engages the Fellow in some sort of community or economic development work," he explained. "There is tremendous support available not only from your Peace Corps Fellow colleagues, but also from the PCF staff, the IIRA staff, as well as the AmeriCorps program with which WIU's PCF program partners. While working both in my assistantship and internship, I felt that I wasn't out there 'swimming alone.' I could access those resources to help me through the process."

15 Years and Beyond
As the Peace Corps Fellows in Community Development enters its 16th year in 2010, the PCF staff and IIRA staff can look back with a sense of pride and accomplishment. Over the years, not only has the program grown, served as a unique and significant resource for communities across Illinois and continued to thrive, but it is also among the nation's top Peace Corps Fellows/USA graduate programs. According to Casey Lowman, a representative from the Peace Corps Chicago Regional Office, earlier this year, WIU's PCF program was ranked ninth among the more than 50 schools that participate in the program, as at the time of the ranking, the program had 12 returning Peace Corps volunteer Fellows/USA students enrolled.

"When you look back and take stock of all the stories and overall impact and feel good about that, and you know that there are a number of opportunities ahead, you know you are in a good place," Mauldin noted.

A cohort of eight new enrollees were welcomed in 2009, and five Peace Corps Fellows will begin the internship component of their Peace Corps Fellows Program in Community Development in 2010.

Returning Peace Corps volunteers interested in the WIU/IIRA program have until March 1, 2010, to apply. Applications from communities interested in hosting a Fellow for the
11-month internship requirement are accepted on an ongoing basis.

For more information, contact the Peace Corps Fellows Program in Community Development staff at (309) 298-2268 or visit

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