From serving under-resourced communities in northern Kazakhstan as a Peace Corps volunteer, to being a key decision-maker at a nonprofit organization in Colorado, Daniel Wienecke, M.S. ’07, has seen the full spectrum of opportunity that comes from being an alum of the Stevenson Center.
“I entered my first year on campus with an open mind, eager to learn about many of the ‘big picture’ topics related to community development,” Wienecke said about the unique environment at the center. “I was very excited that the program had the perfect combination of academic theory and ‘roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty’ practice. Probably the biggest, most humbling, eye-opener was the sheer realization of how little about the topic I had actually known beforehand.”
Wienecke graduated from Illinois State University’s Peace Corps Master’s International program in 2007 with a master’s degree in political science. Prior to graduation, however, Wienecke was thrust into an environment completely dissimilar to his own. Serving in northern Kazakhstan for his Peace Corps experience required Wienecke to fully immerse himself in a new and exciting culture.
“I started my service in Kazakhstan in the spring of 2005,” Wienecke said. “I was part of a cohort of fellow Peace Corps volunteers who were the second group in the country whose work sector and theme was NGO Management. The Peace Corps staff in Kazakhstan gave us two months of language, cultural and job training before sending us to serve at various nonprofit organizations throughout the large country. I was placed at a youth development nonprofit in a city which was a 40-plus hour ride from where our training took place! Despite the long train trip, I fell in love with the city I lived in, my local friends and colleagues, and the work I did there.”
Wienecke was tasked with several different and challenging community development projects.
“My main responsibility at the nonprofit I worked at was to organize seminars, leadership development courses, and English clubs for high school and university students,” Wienecke said. “I had a lot of freedom to pursue side projects. Through this, I was able to teach courses at a university, volunteer weekly at an orphanage, help other nonprofit organizations with their projects and events, and be a frequent guest speaker at schools, universities, and organizations throughout the city interested in meeting an American in person and learning about U.S. culture.”
Even with a year of graduate study followed by Peace Corps training, Wienecke noted that his first year as a Peace Corps volunteer was a struggle at times. The true value, according to Wienecke, came after gaining new experiences with the people of Kazakhstan.
“From speaking to former Peace Corps volunteers, both prior to my departure and after my return,” Wienecke said, “a common theme I have heard from volunteers is that the first year is dramatically different from the second one. While in Kazakhstan, I actually felt like I really hit my stride shortly after passing the one-year mark. At this point, I had the confidence in myself, the improved language abilities, and the level of comfort to try new projects with the help from local friends and students.”
As uncomfortable as settling into a vastly different set of values and beliefs may sound, Wienecke quickly realized the impact his time in Kazakhstan was having on his colleagues and friends there.
“The project I am most proud of is organizing weekly visits to an orphanage for children with disabilities,” Wienecke said. “I had started by going to this orphanage on my own a few times when the thought occurred to me that I could recruit and mentor high school and college students I knew through the English clubs and university classes I taught. Over time, I gave more leadership opportunities to the students and was able to empower them to come up with activities and games to involve the children at the orphanage.”
Through the Peace Corps Master’s International program, the Stevenson Center has given dozens of graduate students the opportunity to serve communities in some of the most underserved and under-resourced parts of the world. As a member of this group, Wienecke credits the multifaceted and hands-on training he received from the faculty and staff at the center with where he is today.
“I’m very happy with and proud of the path life has taken me down and a large part of this comes from following my curious instincts, and to the leadership and direction I received from the Stevenson Center,” Wienecke said. “I have a passion for connecting people of different cultures and ideologies and setting up the space for engaging dialogue. My classroom discussions, graduate assistantship at a local nonprofit in Bloomington, and informal discussions with my classmates really exposed me to new ideas, best practices, and unknown challenges I had never known about nor given serious consideration to beforehand.”
In his current role at WorldDenver, Wienecke manages the International Visitor Leadership Program, which provides short-term visits to the U.S. for current and emerging foreign leaders. These visits reflect the International Visitors’ professional interests and support the foreign policy goals of the United States.
Wienecke has been able to seamlessly incorporate the lessons and practices he received from his experience at the Stevenson Center into his current position.
“In my studies, travels and work at WorldDenver, the lesson is the same: Every community has a complicated, diverse set of needs,” Wienecke said. “While there are not always easy solutions, the first step is acknowledging the importance of being aware of these various needs and attempting to think of creative solutions.”
Having been out of Peace Corps for some time, and having finished his rigorous graduate coursework, Wienecke realizes the importance of accepting and, more importantly, addressing the needs of the global community.
“The main thing I want people to know about Peace Corps is that while there are certainly main commonalities from country to country, every experience is different,” Wienecke said. “Returned Peace Corps volunteers love nothing more than to share their stories, and since there are so many different experiences out there, my advice to everyone (regardless of whether you are considering becoming a volunteer) is to sit down and listen to the story of a returned Peace Corps volunteer.”
If you are interested in joining your love of people and graduate study, visit the Stevenson Center, to expand your impact on the world.
Brad Johnson is the Stevenson Center’s public relations intern.