For Illinois State junior Jacob Van Wolvelear, a single walk through Festival ISU changed his life.
Van Wolvelear stumbled upon the Friends for Peace registered student organization (RSO) during the fall 2018 edition of the festival. Shortly thereafter, he began attending the group’s biweekly meetings, and today is the Friends for Peace vice president.
“I didn’t even know what it was, but it sounded interesting,” said Van Wolvelear, a renewable energy major. “So I just walked up and started talking to them.”
A group of students who were part of the Peace Corps Prep program at Illinois State founded Friends for Peace in 2017. They started the RSO to support one another in meeting the prep program requirements. The RSO and prep program have a symbiotic relationship: The prep program has requirements that participants must meet to earn a certificate from Peace Corps, and the RSO ensures that the students complete those hurdles by graduation.
“A lot of the requirements have to do with taking courses that make your development of intercultural competence stronger,” said Zoe Amundson ’19, who graduated in May after serving as Friends for Peace’s president.
The Peace Corps designed the prep program for students seeking to develop the core competencies needed after graduation: training and experience in a work sector, intercultural competence, professionalism, leadership, and language skills (optional). The prep program provides students with a competitive edge in applying to the Peace Corps and helps them learn what service is like.
Open to students in any major, the prep program launched in September 2016 in Illinois State University’s Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development. The Stevenson Center began in 1994 as a Peace Corps Fellows program for returning Peace Corps volunteers interested in pursuing an interdisciplinary, applied master’s degree with strong financial support. There are now about 45 students in the prep program and 13 students in the RSO.
Stevenson Center Senior Associate Director Beverly Beyer, M.S. ’03, said one of the best parts about Friends for Peace is that it provides students with leadership opportunities, a prep program requirement.
“Friends for Peace is important as a peer-to-peer connecting point for students who are interested in Peace Corps and careers in public service,” said Beyer. “There is that mutual support of someone who is a student with so many things going on. The RSO creates that shared community moving forward and toward goals of service.”
The Peace Corps’ mission is to promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals: “to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women, to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served, and to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” Volunteers assist their host communities according to one of the six job sectors in which they are trained: agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health, and youth in development.
Beyer, who is also a former Peace Corps volunteer, said Friends for Peace is particularly effective in helping students connect with past and present Peace Corps Redbirds. Through Skype, FaceTime, and in-person interviews, students have the opportunity to ask questions about living conditions, daily life, challenges, and triumphs. Having these opportunities to ask questions gives students insight into what they can expect when it is their turn to serve. They can also learn about the range of benefits volunteers receive during and after service.
“During the first three months, in addition to the language training, Peace Corps is training you in your actual work sector,” said Beyer. “There’s nothing really that can help you feel 100 percent prepared when you arrive in your community. The trainers do everything that they can in that three-month period to make sure that you have the basics to function. They don’t let you go to your site until you’ve met basic language requirements and you’re going to be functional for yourself and the community.”
There are currently 7,367 Peace Corps volunteers and trainees serving in over 60 countries. After three months of training, volunteers spend three months in their host countries to train and then spend two years serving at their permanent sites.
Friends for Peace helps students navigate the transition from college student to a more independent life as a Peace Corps volunteer. The organization prepares members by building confidence in their ability to do the type of work they will be doing in the Peace Corps.
“If you’re just going to another country that you most likely never considered going to, it’s hard to be prepared for that,” said Amundson. “If you have prior experience about culture and language, and have enough volunteer hours, it just prepares students more for what they could end up doing.”
Amundson, who majored in anthropology, intended to apply for the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and graduate school at the same time.
“I don’t expect to get into the Peace Corps the first time. That would be ideal, but because the application process is so extensive, I’m being realistic,” said Amundson. “I’m keeping my options open.”
Van Wolvelear plans to apply for the Peace Corps after graduation as well: “I hadn’t considered Peace Corps or even knew anything about it. Just by stopping by and talking to them (Friends for Peace), it kind of switched my postgraduation plans on their head.”
Thankfully for potential Peace Corps volunteers, Friends for Peace ensures they will have plenty of opportunities to accumulate at least 50 hours of volunteer or work experience in one of the six Peace Corps job sectors. For those interested in the agriculture and environment sectors, for example, every Friday, the RSO members volunteer at the Refuge Food Forest, a community garden that grows free produce for Bloomington-Normal residents.
Friends for Peace members also demonstrate their commitment to service through Bring It Back to Normal. At the annual event sponsored by the Center for Community Engagement and Service Learning, students give back to the Bloomington-Normal community by cleaning windows, raking leaves, and completing other spring chores for local residents.
“We like to volunteer and help out around campus when we can,” said Van Wolvelear. “It’s nice to stay involved and keep our environment clean.”
Despite developing from the prep program, Friends for Peace is open to any student, and members do not have to be planning to serve in the Peace Corps. The organization is always looking for more service-minded individuals to join.
“Friends for Peace really is open to anyone even if they’re not wanting to do Peace Corps,” said Van Wolvelear. “You’re not doing Peace Corps stuff in the club. You’re just hanging out, volunteering, and getting engaged with your community. If that’s what people are into, then I would definitely recommend checking it out.”