Within the brick buildings and shaded walkways of the College of William and Mary’s campus beats a desire to leave the comfort of familiar faces and the traditional classroom experience.
While universities often foster curiosity about the world at large, many William and Mary students choose to volunteer abroad to explore it.
William and Mary ranked No. 4 among medium-sized schools — those with 5,000 to 15,000 undergraduates — in producing Peace Corps volunteers in 2019. They have been listed among the top 25 schools for 11 consecutive years. There are currently 40 William and Mary graduates volunteering in countries around the world.
The Peace Corps sends Americans to work in communities around the world to develop sustainable solutions to challenges in education, health, community economic development, agriculture, environment and youth development.
“When a university fosters a sense of volunteerism and community outreach among their student body, those students tend to seek out opportunities to give back after they graduate,” wrote a Peace Corps spokesperson in an email. “William and Mary has been highly ranked on Peace Corps’ top volunteer-producing list for more than a decade, proving that the school’s commitment to public service and international engagement is as strong as ever.”
Sarah Kyle is one of those students. She will walk across the graduation stage on Saturday with a degree in English and head to pre-service training in September to start work in the youth development sector in Morocco, North Africa.
“For me, it’s more about the experience and being abroad and doing something. I’m really excited to not only learn a new language and try new foods and the things that seem obvious when you travel, but to meet new people and really live in a community and a different culture,” Kyle said. “America is very unique in a lot of the ways that we work and prioritize things in life. I’m excited to see a different perspective on that.”
Kyle will join more than 660 alumni from the college who have served since the Peace Corps was founded in 1961.
Alumnus Akshay Deverakonda, a 2015 William and Mary graduate, is serving in The Gambia, West Africa, for his third year, in an extended service from his original 27 months. With his double degree in environmental science and biology, he works in the agriculture sector.
As a student, Deverakonda was part of William and Mary’s Sharpe Community Scholars Program, which seeks to connect curriculum with real-world community action and research. His interdisciplinary studies in environmentalism, agriculture and international development led him to want to see how those areas interact abroad.
“I wanted to learn, really. I loved my academic, in the classroom experience with learning more about these respective fields, but I wanted to have more on-the-ground experience, learning more first hand how people interact with these systems,” Deverakonda said. “I’m interested in how science connects with people.”
He now works in the country’s urban capital, but spent his first two years of service in the rural interior of the country. He worked with agricultural development, planting trees, a community garden and supported malaria prevention projects. He helped build his villages’ capacity by teaching them mapping and GIS software so they could map out their own projects.
“I think a big challenge is making sure things happen while at the same time making sure we’re not the center of attention,” Deverakonda said. “It’s not our job to be changing things. It’s our job to be transferring skills, building capacity and supporting Gambians who will then go on to be the ones to change their own communities.”
Alumna Wesley Ng, a 2011 graduate, served in Cameroon, Central Africa in the health sector. She now attends medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and offers advice to students considering their own service with the Peace Corps.
“I think the first thing is, make sure that you want to do it 1,000 percent. I’m in medical school right now and it’s hard, but Peace Corps is by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Ng said. “I think it’s incredibly rewarding, but if you’re not doing it for the right reasons, I think it can be super difficult on some of your hardest days.”
William and Mary’s Office of Community Engagement offers a program called Branch Out Alternative Breaks, which are service trips that allow students to engage in social justice projects with a community partner organization, either locally or around the globe. Ng participated in several alternative breaks and said her trips and the guidance from the office prepared her for her Peace Corps service.
Melody Porter, the office’s director, said many students come to the school with an interest in volunteer work, so the office can’t take all of the credit. But it tries to present students with the best community engagement opportunities, as well as educate them on the realities of global problems.
“They (students) do research on the social issues that are affecting the agencies they’re working with,” Porter said. “Learning about what do those issues look like, how do they play out in the community, how do they play out in other communities, what do we need to know about them in order to be effective in our service so that they have sort of a basic understanding, rather than going in and being like I’m here to help and I don’t know anything.”
Melissa Palacios served in the Peace Corps after she graduated from the college in 2001 and returned to William and Mary in multiple positions, now as the school’s project and communications manager of information technology. Aside from meeting her husband during her service in Honduras, she said the Peace Corps gave her skills she uses in her career.
“The people you meet, the situations you encounter, the differences from one culture to another, force you to adapt, learn and grow,” wrote Palacios in an email. “I developed soft people skills, learned to take initiative and managed several large-scale projects while I was abroad. These are all experiences that have helped me immeasurably in my career at William and Mary.”
Deverakonda and Ng agree progress in some countries is slow, and what could be accomplished in a month in the states may take a year abroad. But the Peace Corps helped them learn to roll with the punches, and has shaped each of their futures.
“That ability to step back and take a look at the bigger picture and also a way to see how different fields come together, I think that was a big part of my William and Mary experience I took to Peace Corps,” Deverakonda said.
Kyle said she hopes the Peace Corps will give her clarity about her future, as well. Whether that means extended service, grad school or nonprofit work.
“I definitely want to take away that global mindset. You always come away with not only learning about another culture but learning how to integrate that knowledge into your own life,” Kyle said. “I want to know options moving forward — what I can do after Peace Corps. Having this experience, how that will translate into a future job.”
Interested in Peace Corps?
Visit peacecorps.gov for information about what Peace Corps does and how to join.
William and Mary’s Office of Community Engagement has information at wm.edu/offices/oce on local, national and international volunteer opportunities.
Martin can be reached at (757)-243-3685, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SaraRoseMartin.