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How Illinois State’s Peace Corps programs can change everything

Lauren Karplus at work in a village

Department of Politics and Government graduate student Lauren Karplus has been serving with the Peace Corps in Swaziland, Africa, since 2012. Her work at a rural Swazi health clinic included facilitating projects with an HIV/AIDS support group to generate income and starting an HIV/AIDS support group for children.

Lloyd Banwart, M.S. ’12, uses data to make a difference.

Whenever a private foundation or the U.S. government sends money to help fight hunger in Africa, for example, they want to know if the money was well spent. That’s where Banwart comes in.

He had global development credentials long before he joined TANGO International as a research associate, working from 2005-2007 in the Philippines as a Peace Corps volunteer, followed by a 3,000-mile bike ride across Southeast Asia.

But he needed more than a stamped passport to jump-start his career. He needed hard skills and job experience. So he enrolled in Illinois State’s Peace Corps Coverdell Fellows Program, specifically built for former Peace Corps volunteers like him.

Banwart is one of 117 graduates of Illinois State’s two Peace Corps master’s programs, Fellows and Master’s International, which date back to 1994. Politics and Government Professor Emeritus Robert W. Hunt worked with Western Illinois University to launch the Fellows program—the first in the country to focus on community and economic development. It was followed three years later by Master’s International.

Today there are 30 to 35 active students at any given time, half on campus, half in the field. The 117 graduates so far are in addition to the more than 500 Illinois State alumni who have served in the Peace Corps separately from the Stevenson Center’s programs.

The programs bring together returned Peace Corps volunteers (Fellows) and those about to leave for their service (Master’s International), creating a unique cultural exchange where future global leaders learn from each other on campus.

Lloyd Banwart in the Phillipines

Lloyd Banwart during a tree-planting activity in the Philippines.

It’s perhaps the marquee example of how far Illinois State’s reach extends beyond Normal, or Illinois, or even the U.S. border, and how the big lessons students learn overseas pay off at home. Illinois State was No. 9 in the U.S. in the 2014 rankings of Master’s International graduate schools. ISU was in the top 10 nationwide in 2013 and in 2011 too.

“It’s been a long, rich history, and we have a lot of great students and alumni to be proud of,” said Beverly Beyer, M.S. ’03. She is associate director of ISU’s Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development, which oversees the Peace Corps programs.

At its core, Peace Corps is about change—for those in the communities it serves and the volunteers who describe the experience as transformative. Such has definitely been true for Banwart, who grew up on a Wisconsin horse ranch. His international know-how as a kid was limited to a Canada trip.

A semester abroad in England as an undergrad woke him up to the wider world. Eager for an adventure, he signed up for Peace Corps and volunteered in the Phillipines. Banwart was assigned to a local government unit working on planning and development issues, such as setting up markets for remote villages and helping a group of potters move from ground firing to a kiln.

Banwart returned home in mid-2008—not exactly boom time for the U.S. economy. When he landed at an arts nonprofit in Minneapolis, he realized he had a lot to learn. He chose Illinois State’s Peace Corps Fellows program in part because of its applied community and economic development sequence.

Those hard skills are put to use daily with TANGO, which evaluates the impact of international development projects. For a recent U.S.-funded food security project in Malawi, for example, Banwart traveled to the southeast African country to train 30 interviewers to deliver a 3,000-household survey. He received the data, analyzed it, and helped produce a report about the project’s effectiveness.

One of the best parts of Illinois State’s Peace Corps programs, according to Banwart, is that there are two of them—one for past and future volunteers. Both share the same curriculum for one year on campus before either shipping out (Master’s International) or starting an 11-month internship in the U.S. (Fellows). ISU is the only institution in Illinois to have both programs.

The dual coursework unites the two groups of students in their Community Project Design and Management course. They partner in studying big local issues such as recycling in Normal or the feasibility of a local cooperative grocery store.

“There’s just a great community of students here,” Beyer said. “The Stevenson Center brings together these like-minded students who care about international development, and the students really thrive when they’re here.”

Banwart took on a mentoring role with the younger Master’s International students.

“When you come back from Peace Corps, you want to talk about it all the time. But with a lot of people, their eyes just glaze over,” he said. “When you have people who are about to embark on the same journey, their eyes don’t glaze over.”

Kate Slisz in Botswana

Kate Slisz was assigned to the small village of Serinane, Botswana.

Kate Slisz was on the receiving end of that wisdom.

A Peace Corps Master’s International student in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Slisz serves as a school and community liaison in a rural Botswana village. Among her many jobs, she helps bolster the Peace Corps’ main mission in Botswana—combating the spread of HIV and AIDS.

Slisz was drawn to the Peace Corps idea since high school, but also wanted to attend graduate school. Her Peace Corps dream was further stoked when, as an undergraduate in Wisconsin, her study of sociology opened her eyes to a career path in community and economic development.

“It wasn’t enough for me to simply learn and be aware of disparities and inequalities,” Slisz said. “I wanted to be able to do something about them.”

She arrived in Botswana in September 2012, assigned to a village of 787 people called Serinane. Few homes have electricity or running water, and most families have a pit latrine in their yard. She misses hot showers now and then, but her mind is occupied with bigger moments—like when she opened Serinane’s first library, or organized a five-day camp focused on various life-skills and friendship for 32 boys and girls from six different villages.

“I’m constantly surprised by how little I miss my way of life in America,” said Slisz, who would like to get her Ph.D. and eventually become a college professor, though international development remains her passion.

Her year of coursework before heading to Africa helped her put theory into practice, but it was interaction with experienced former volunteers that was most beneficial. “Those conversations provided me with information and insight that I couldn’t learn in a classroom or from a textbook. They made me feel better prepared for the task ahead,” Slisz said.

Others have likewise found their way through the program. Jeremy Richart, M.A. ’07, was somewhat “lost” after finishing his undergraduate degree in Minnesota, lacking a career or strong sense of where he wanted to go. The son of a Peace Corps volunteer, he signed up and on extremely short notice was shipped out to Armenia in 2002.

Richart worked to instill more sustainable business practices in the nongovernmental organization where he was assigned. He spent his second year working on health programs and later served as a teacher in the capital city of Yerevan. The challenging living conditions and the solitude allowed Richart to better understand himself.

“When I came out, I had a sense of a confidence,” Richart said. “It’s like, ‘I can handle anything you throw at me.’”

Illinois State’s Peace Corps Fellows program in political science also helped Richart transition back into daily U.S. life. One of the big draws of Fellows, other than the full tuition waiver and paid internship, was its three-pronged approach to community development. Those three degree programs—political science, sociology, and applied economics—represent the reality of how global problems get solved. Work is consequently being done to extend the Fellows program to existing master’s degrees at ISU.

Jeremy Richart in Afghanistan

Jeremy Richart, right, during his year with the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan.

“It helped me continue what I had started in the Peace Corps—thinking outside the box, pulling in a lot of different information, and looking at a problem from all three of those angles,” Richart said.

His 11-month internship was with Mikva Challenge, an organization that helps engage low-income Chicago youths in civic discourse and politics. He coordinated election campaigns with 166 students and 26 teachers in 18 high schools, and also did a capstone project.

“You’d have a 16-year-old reeling off facts, left and right. They were more engaged with their schoolwork,” he said. “They could understand why certain things happened in the real world.”

Today Richart is a foreign service officer for the State Department, assigned to the U.S. Embassy in the country of Georgia. He works to shape how Georgians view the U.S. by giving interviews, engaging with press outlets, promoting cultural exchanges and managing the Embassy’s social media platforms. He’s also in charge of the Embassy’s American Corners program in Georgia, which installs American-style community centers in local schools or libraries to promote cultural understanding and educational opportunities between the two countries.

Richart’s time in Georgia follows a two-year assignment in Moscow, as well as a yearlong stint with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Afghanistan. “I like the idea of getting outside my comfort zone,” he says, “getting my fingers dirty, actively helping somebody at the grass-roots, ground level.”

It’s a call to action that ISU Peace Corps graduates are quick to hear and eager to answer.