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Peace Corps Volunteer experiencing life in Ukraine

Emily Blankenberger in Ukraine

Emily Blankenberger (right) is as a community and economic development Peace Corps Volunteer in Rivne, Ukraine.

Emily Blankenberger is using her interdisciplinary education from the Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. Placed with an ecology nonprofit, Blankenberger is focusing on organizational development to make a lasting difference.

A native of Flossmoor, Illinois, Blankenberger chose Illinois State University after high school because she appreciated the access to diverse educational resources and the small-school atmosphere. She wrote an undergraduate thesis on nutritional anthropology, assessing cultural food patterns.

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“I loved the idea of food and culture,” Blankenberger said. “When you think about it, your family probably has a dish or there’s something that you love to cook. There’s a lot of comfort that comes with that.”

Blankenberger met her goal of a broad undergraduate education, graduating with a degree in anthropology and family and consumer sciences with a sequence in food, nutritionn and dietetics, as well as a minor in peace and conflict resolution. She was a resident assistant for the Leadership and Service floor and helped design a sustainability garden.

Originally not planning to go to graduate school, Blankenberger met Dr. Frank Beck, director of the Stevenson Center, at a study abroad fair and began a conversation. Blankenberger came by the Stevenson Center to learn more about the programs available.

“I walked into the Stevenson Center and I said ‘You know, I really know nothing about this, I really don’t know what you guys do here,'” Blankenberger recalled.

Emily Blankenberger in front of power point slide

Blankenberger is working on a variety of community engagement projects.

Beck acquainted Blankenberger with the Center’s multiple graduate programs and its commitment to community and economic development through practical means.

Blankenberger is an applied economics graduate student through the Master’s International program, in which students serve two years with Peace Corps after one year of classes. Peace Corps ended the Master’s International program nationwide, but the Stevenson Center still offers an array of graduate programs and an undergraduate program, Peace Corps Prep.

Having taken only one economics class as an undergraduate student, Blankenberger chose to “go for something new.”

“There’s such a sense [at the Stevenson Center] that they want you to succeed, they want to better the world, you can feel it in the room.” – Emily Blankenberger

“To me, you really make big impacts when you are able to understand as much as you can,” Blankenberger said. “Economics was totally outside my comfort zone.”

Blankenberger found a welcoming support network at the Stevenson Center and people who shared her passion for community and economic development.

“There’s such a sense there that they want you to succeed, they want to better the world, you can feel it in the room,” said Blankenberger.

Blankenberger is now a community and economic development volunteer in Rivne, a city of 250,000 roughly three hours away from Ukraine’s capital city, Kiev. She works with a local ecology nonprofit called Ecoclub, which strives to provide effective sustainability methods. A recent Ecoclub project involves making apartments and condominiums energy efficient.

Primarily, Blankenberger works on Ecoclub’s organizational development, including fundraising and strategic planning. She also is involved in secondary projects, such as Technovation, which teaches girls to code and create an app to solve local problems.

Blankenberger has integrated well into her new community, having lived with a host family for the first six months of her stay in Ukraine. Rivne is walkable, and she buys seasonal vegetables at the local bazaar.

Picture of Ukraine city

Emily enjoys learning about Ukrainian communities by exploring on foot.

“For the most part, life here and food here is really fresh,” Blankenberger said.

Blankenberger has formed bonds with the “106-year-old grandmas” selling produce at the bazaar.

“We’ll go and buy potatoes and any other fresh vegetables from these women who are growing them, and so there’s just such a connection to the land and there’s a connection to who grew your food,” Blankenberger said.

Blankenberger has over a year left in her service, but for now, she feels she is exactly where she needs to be.

For additional information on Peace Corps, contact campus recruiter Hunter Ryan.

Sarah Aten is the Stevenson Center’s public relations intern.¬†