Coverdell Fellow Brian Richardson shares how the Peace Corps changed him

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For returned Peace Corps volunteer and current USF College of Public Health graduate student Brian Richardson, the passion for helping others began at home.

He served for three years, first in Mali as a water safety and hygiene volunteer and later in Gambia as a health extension volunteer.

“My dad told me that before I could barely talk, I’ve always been trying to help people and I guess that’s never changed,” he said. “I grew up in south Florida and in my neighborhood there were a lot of people from Mali. They told me about the issues in their country and communities and I figured maybe there was a way I could go over there and help out.”

Brian Richardson (left) in the Kerr Amador Village, North Bank region with ‘Jarry.’ (Photo courtesy of Brian Richardson)
Brian Richardson (left) in the Kerr Amador Village, North Bank region with ‘Jarry.’ (Photo courtesy of Brian Richardson)

Richardson is part of the first-ever cohort of Paul D. Coverdell Fellows at the USF College of Public Health, a graduate fellowship program established in 2018 at the COPH awarding a $4,000 scholarship and out-of-state tuition waiver, which covers approximately 58 percent of in-state-tuition, to returning Peace Corps volunteers pursuing an MPH or MSPH degree.

“I’d be doing a great injustice to Mali, Gambia and my three years of service if I pinpointed a single defining moment as a highlight of my experience,” he said “Every day was a highlight, even the rough ones. My experience allowed me to establish familial bonds with people who viewed life from a genuinely different point of view than my own.”

Richardson, who is currently earning his degree epidemiology, said his time in the Peace Corps made him examine his values and slow down.

“The experience changed the way I interpret language, the things I value, and my opinions of culture and currency,” Richardson said.

When returning from the Peace Corps, he said applying to the USF COPH’s Coverdell Fellowship program was a “no brainer.”

“USF boasts one of the best public health programs in Florida,” he said. “Florida is home. I’m a Florida man, not the internet meme one, but the one who wants to especially improve Florida communities, health and be close to his Grandma.”

Richardson poses in Gambia. Extended families commonly lived together in compounds. These were all the children in the compound where Richardson was living during the holidays. (Photo courtesy of Brian Richardson)

Richardson is also currently a full-time epidemiologist at the Pinellas County Health department in St. Petersburg, Fla and is expecting to graduate this upcoming summer semester.

He said he hopes to continue working with the DOH upon graduation and build upon his experiences in investigating infectious diseases, conducting surveillance activities, and collecting and analyzing data.

He will also continue to work toward the Certified in Infection Prevention and Control credential, “to better prepare myself to address challenges of patient safety, antimicrobial stewardship, healthcare associated infections and emerging infections; especially among diverse and underserved populations.”

Residents gather around a solar-powered water tap that was set to open for the first time. Richardson said the water was accessible from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. every day. (Photo courtesy of Brian Richardson)

He said for anyone considering the Peace Corps, to “just do it.”

“The Peace Corps slogan, the toughest job you’ll ever love,’ is so cliché but so true,” he said.  “The thought of leaving your comfort zone in the U.S. can be terrifying for some. Many volunteers experienced situations much tougher than they thought they personally were themselves. The experience revealed their strength and changed them in, mostly unexpected, marvelous ways. Be you and just do it.”

Story by Anna Mayor, USF College of Public Health