Six USF College of Public Health students have volunteered for Peace Corps duty this summer, a record number for the college. Each will undertake a 27-month assignment of personal sacrifice, with personal hardship a distinct possibility.
Founded and established by executive order of President John F. Kennedy in 1961, the Corps assigns duties unknown to volunteers until after they have committed themselves to serve.
Congress confirmed Kennedy’s order with the Peace Corps Act of 1961. The act was issued with a compelling mission statement:
“To promote world peace and friendship through a Peace Corps, which shall make available to interested countries and areas men and women of the United States qualified for service abroad and willing to serve, under conditions of hardship if necessary, to help the peoples of such countries and areas in meeting their needs for trained manpower.”
The record half-dozen carrying the USF Health banner abroad this summer are part of the Peace Corps Master’s International option, which allows students to combine Peace Corps service with their master’s studies.
“They will not have earned their degrees until they’ve completed 27 months serving in the Peace Corps,” explained Barbara Kennedy, MS, MPH, PCMI co-director. “Anthony Nguyen is our only MSPH PCMI student. He will be working on the thesisrequirement while in the field.
“The others are MPH students. These students will satisfy the fieldexperience and special projectrequirements while volunteering. In the case of all the PCMI students, the Peace Corps assigns their projects. The projects take priority over academic work.”
Jesse Casanova, MS, COPH coordinator of international programs, has also been PCMI coordinator for about six months.
Before joining COPH nearly a year ago, he was head of Peace Corps Response in Cameroon, with frequent trips to Senegal part of the equation.
The Corps veteran spoke recently about his service, only some of which will parallel what his charges will experience.
“There are two different things,” he explained. “One is Peace Corps, another is Peace Corps Response. With the Peace Corps, you really don’t get to choose your assignment. The assignment is given to you based on your qualifications and the needs of different areas.”
Health and security assessments factor in, as well, he said, and even the time of year of the application plays a role in selecting the best volunteer to suit the need.
“So, that first time out, you really don’t have much of an option. If you don’t like where you’ve been placed or invited to go, you can always decline it, and then just say, ‘I’ll wait ‘til the next opportunity.’ But then, you’ll be waiting for an open slot. So it could be a month; it could be a year.
“Response,” he said, “is a little different, because you apply to specific programs in specific countries. So you can choose where you go.”
Casanova served in both. His first 27-month adventure was in Togo as a natural resource management adviser.
“I was in a small community in the middle of absolutely nowhere,” he said. “It had about 200 people, mud huts, the whole works.”
Also an HIV/AIDS prevention worker, he coordinated a project in which a dozen volunteers rode bicycles over dirt trails to deliver talks to other rural communities in the region.
“Peace Corps Response, for me, was a lot different,” he said. “As a regular Peace Corps volunteer, I was in the bush doing community-based work. With Peace Corps Response, my responsibilities were a lot more broad. They were more focused on the national level, so I worked with the directors of the WHO; I worked with the Ministry of Health; I was part of the U.S. Embassy Health Team in Cameroon, where I was a point person for malaria; I was coordinator between some of the organizations and the global funding in Geneva. So, it was a lot higher level of work that I did. I lived in the capital city in a boarding house. So,” he concluded with a laugh, “it was a completely different experience.”
Peace Corps – the take-what-you’re-offered variety – is the program PCMI students join. Because they’re in degree programs, time constraints almost mandate acceptance of the first offer.
“It really is up to the student” whether to pass on the first offer, Casanova said. “We recommend that they don’t, solely because, assuming the Peace Corps aspect of the PCMI program, they’ve finished with all of their coursework.”
Only field experience and special project remain for the MPH student at that point, he said, or the thesis for an MSPH student.
“So it’s really time-sensitive that they go when they’re invited to go. They could choose not to, but then, of course, they run into the risk of it taking longer than it should, which means they would have to do a regular field experience and a regular special project rather than doing them as Peace Corps volunteers.”
They also would miss out on the college paying for those nine credit hours of their education.
Still, a couple have declined the first offer or passed altogether, Kennedy said, and two had medical separtations before finishing their assignments.
“It’s called early separation,” she said, “and it’s a definite no-no.”
But as with anything, benefits have to be balanced with risks.
“Any form of international travel has its risks associated with it,” Casanova said, “both in health and safety, even if it’s to Western Europe, simply because the cultures are vastly different – more so when you’re going to developing countries, and especially if you’re going to certain places in Africa, Latin America, Southeast Asia, where you have much higher rates of diseases like malaria, dengue. So these are very relevant, very real factors,” he said, “but the Peace Corps puts a lot of emphasis on safety and security, both physical and mental, for the volunteers.”
Specifically, the Corps is careful, he said, to make certain that every volunteer has access to U.S.-based medical care, as well as safety and security officers. Once the volunteers have arrived at their assignments, they are out of USF’s and COPH’s hands and entirely the responsibility of the Corps and the U.S. Embassy, which gets involved especially if an evacuation need arises.
Because volunteers are asked to be self-reliant even under the watchful eyes of the Corps and the embassy, three months of intensive training precedes the two years of service.
“The Peace Corps provides them with really extensive language and technical training, depending on what sector they’ve been assigned to,” Casanova said.
After training, volunteers are sworn in by the host nation’s U.S. ambassador with the same oath administered to new military personnel and the President. Then the real fun begins.
“I think it’s a fantastic program,” Casanova concluded, “especially for individuals who want to work overseas. More often than not, when you look at requirements for employment, you’re asked for a history of foreign service, and Peace Corps provides that to you. But beyond that, it provides students the ability to cross-culturally adapt, to learn flexibility, to learn another language.”
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A little about each of the six COPH students leaving this summer for Peace Corps service follows. Their aims for serving are as noble as the Corps’ mission statement.
St. Petersburg native Michelle Balut departs Sept. 3 for Fiji, where she will be a health empowerment facilitator. Last summer, she was a student volunteer with Feeding America’s summer food service program, which provides free meals and snacks to children in low-income families during the summer months.
“I hope to create a health behaviors intervention that is culturally appropriate and will better the lives of the community I will be living and working in,” she said. “Even if I improve the life of just one person, it will all be worth it.”
As an undergraduate, she majored in anthropology/archeology and minored in maritime studies.
All of the volunteers will be making personal sacrifices to serve the Corps, but perhaps none more than Balut.
“I’m most worried about leaving my family behind,” she said, “especially my dog, who will be turning 17 in October.”
Anabel Fernandez was born in Havana, Cuba, and came to the United States with her parents in 1997 at the age of seven.
“What I ultimately hope to accomplish in the Peace Corps is to help empower members of my community to improve their own lives through the knowledge of public health,” she said. “I want to actively engage my community in participating in prevention practices, and thus provide a greater sense of ownership over their own health outcomes.”
Fernandez will leave in September to serve as a public health educator in Peru, where she will work in rural communities with low-income families, specifically those with children under age 5. She already has been a health volunteer in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and has been a volunteer certified HIV counselor and tester for the past three years at the BRIDGE Healthcare Clinic, a free, student-run clinic on campus. For the past year, she served as co-director of HIV testing services at the clinic.
“I have absolutely no reservations in joining the Peace Corps,” she said. “I am very excited for this new adventure ahead and am approaching it with flexibility, an open mind, and an unwavering positive attitude.”
Annastesia Mims said her passion for public health is “gender equality for global access to health, primarily focused on access to health for women and other gender minorities. Gender minorities include individuals who are intersex, transgender, gender non-conforming and others. The college has allowed me to explore these concepts by giving me the freedom to develop my own projects and papers around them, including the rights of LGBT incarcerated youth, gender dysphoria, personalized cognitive counseling and teen sexual health education.”
The native of Beech Island, S.C., will serve the Corps in Swaziland, Africa, where she will work in a community HIV/AIDS program. She has been a member of the Preconception Peer Educators and has worked as an HIV outreach specialist at DACCO, Inc.
Anh Thy Nguyen (he goes by “Anthony”) is another student who is no stranger to volunteerism after serving with the USF Health Services Corps and working as an intern at Moffitt Cancer Center. A biological sciences major as an undergrad, he plans to earn a doctorate in infectious diseases and continue his work with cancer as a professor. His Peace Corps assignment will be in malaria prevention and community health in the African nation of Togo, a long way from his hometown of Lincoln, Neb.
“Public Health interests me because the field focuses on solving health issues from a broad population perspective that is unique from clinical health professions,” he said. “The college provides many opportunities for international study and work to understand issues that affect many people in different parts of the world.”
“Everything about public health speaks to me,” said Sierra Petrosky. “It’s all about creating healthier, happier communities. What’s not to love?”
Shipping out to Benin, West Africa, may be her biggest and bravest move to date, but it’s by no means her first major relocation effort.
“None of it was easy, honestly,” she says of her move to Tampa from Cottonwood, Az. “Moving to a new state where I didn’t know anyone, paying out-of-state tuition, working full time, studying full time. Should I continue? But looking back, I know I made the right choice to come here, and I am definitely a better person for it.”
What does she hope to accomplish in the Corps?
“Whatever I’m able to! My assignment is in maternal and infant health, specifically focused on nutrition. I know there are already a few projects going on there, so I also hope to expand and improve those.”
Like many preparing for life-changing adventures, she is not without her reservations.
“I’m nervous to be away from loved ones for so long,” she said. “It’s definitely going to be a huge transition. But I know the other volunteers will be going through the same thing, so I will at least have people to talk with about any stress or homesickness.”
“I want to further develop my understanding of how global health works in a real-world setting,” said Kristen “Tenni” Surles, a native of McMinville, Tenn. “I am nervous about spending two years in another country, but I am also incredibly excited to start this new part of my life.”
Surles majored in anthropology and minored in history as an undergraduate. She leaves on August 19 for her assignment in the Dominican Republic.
Story by David Brothers, photos courtesy of Natalie D. Preston and Michelle Balut, USF College of Public Health