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Teaching overseas with Peace Corps

Villalobos and colleague

Alejandra Villalobos '14 (right) with her counterpart Catarina Ferrao in Mozambique.

Peace Corps volunteers serve communities worldwide in six different sectors, or kinds of jobs. The largest sector is education, which has given Illinois State graduates Max Plonczynski ’18 and Alejandra Villalobos ’14 the perfect setting to put their teaching skills to the test.

Max Plonczynski on-site in South Africa.

Max Plonczynski on-site in South Africa.

Plonczynski majored in technology and engineering education and is currently serving in South Africa as an education volunteer. Plonczynski started the Peace Corps Prep program during the second semester of his junior year and found that due to the rigorous education curriculum he had already met many of the Prep requirements. “My experience with Peace Corps Prep was great, and I was able to make contacts for life. It really gave me a starting point and direction on my Peace Corps journey,” he shared.

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Plonczynski absolutely recommends Peace Corps, and the Prep program to other education majors. The only thing Plonczynski wishes he would have done differently was to join the Prep program sooner! Fortunately, the education curriculum helped put him on the right path to earning his certificate.

“I don’t want to say the program is easy, because it’s not: You do have to work for it. But the way the requirements are set up, it makes it so courses taken for the education sequence could also be used to complete the Prep certificate,” he said.

Plonczynski encourages other education students to join the Peace Corps Prep program. The certificate can benefit people who do not necessarily go on to join Peace Corps, because other employers may seek similar qualifications and recognize the credential on a resume.

Through the Prep program, Plonczynski connected with the Stevenson Center, where the program started. “You will meet amazing people, and everyone at the center is there to help you on your journey to succeed. Not only that, but the staff is amazing, kind, and caring. You only have to spend five minutes in there to feel it.”

Peace Corps can be a meaningful and attainable next step even without the Prep program. Villalobos graduated before the Peace Corps Prep program came to Illinois State University.

In the fourth grade, she saw a presentation on the Peace Corps, and it stayed in the back of her mind. After a study abroad experience in her sophomore year, Villalobos started seriously considering joining Peace Corps. She began frequenting the Peace Corps table at events and attending the talks and panels by returned Peace Corps volunteers.

Villalobos studied Spanish teacher education with a minor in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) and a minor in Latino/a studies. She switched to this major after studying abroad and realizing how much she loved travel and cross-cultural experiences.  “As a child of immigrants, I understood education through a unique but shared perspective,” she said. “As a bilingual speaker with language rooted in culture, I understood communication differently. I wanted to explore that.”

“Take advantage of the Peace Corps Prep program! You need a community who truly understands the want and need to travel and learn and give.”—Alejandra Villalobos

After graduating, Villalobos served with Peace Corps as an English teacher trainer at a teacher’s college in Mozambique. “I left for service September 2015, was sworn in December 2015, and had my close of service November 2017. It was incredible. Not all roses, not perfect, lots of tears but also lots of successes. The small moments were just as valuable as the big moments.”

Villalobos described her three months of in-country training in 2015 as reminiscent of a summer camp, although a very busy and stressful one. Peace Corps trainees spent their mornings in language lessons, and in the afternoons they were divided into groups based on their teaching subjects. Villalobos lived with a host family during those three months, and she keeps in contact with them to this day.

“Our support net for service starts building the moment training starts; your cohort is your new family,” she said. “Peace Corps staff want the best for you since day one. It’s not just because they work for Peace Corps but because they see the value in the projects that we work on or begin and want to make sure we are ready to serve our communities.”

The norm in Mozambique was a one-year course for teacher certification that gradually changed into a two- or three-year program. And so today, all of Villalobos’s students are working as first- and second-year English teachers. She also completed a number of secondary projects related to literacy.

Villalobos highly recommends that education majors consider Peace Corps not only for the once-in-a-lifetime experience but also because there is always a need for hardworking and dedicated teachers overseas.

“The education program at ISU educates knowledgeable, passionate, and creative teachers; the world needs us. True education majors can make more impacts in very specific and unique ways,” she said. “Dedicating your whole day to your students, to their—collectively your—community, without worrying about bills or the peripherals of life is empowering and the dream situation for teachers.” Villalobos noted that Peace Corps “opens doors.” She is currently pursuing a master’s in international education development and just returned from an internship with UNESCO in Chile.

Non-education majors also qualify for Peace Corps service, in education and in the other five sectors as well. “Take advantage of the Peace Corps Prep program! You need a community who truly understands the want and need to travel and learn and give,” Villalobos said.

Megan Birk was the Stevenson Center’s 2018–2019 public relations intern. Shaylin Quaid is the Stevenson Center’s 2019–2020 public relations intern.