AmeriCorps is an organization whose name and mission draws 75,000 people each year in the name of strengthening U.S. communities. One of those AmeriCorps members is Kendra Shaw, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer who is completing her master’s degree in political science through the Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development. Shaw is serving as an AmeriCorps member with the Berwyn Development Corporation (BDC) while completing the professional practice required for her degree program.
When she finished her B.A. in international relations and Spanish at the University of Indianapolis in 2017, Shaw was interested in serving, but she had little idea how to do so. “At that time, I had an innate drive to help others, but I was unsure what life after college would entail. Essentially, I had a variety of passions that didn’t seem to fit a career,” she said.
After she applied to the Peace Corps on the “spur of the moment,” Shaw was invited to help teach English in Niquinohomo, a small Nicaraguan town. Unfortunately, her service was cut short due to circumstances beyond her control. Back in the U.S., Shaw reflected on her experiences in her Nicaraguan community, on the “complex and systemic issues in immigration, education, volunteerism, and rural development.” She concluded: “I knew that I needed more training and further hands-on mentoring in other contexts to better articulate and grasp the issues, as well as potential solutions.”
This realization led Shaw to pursue graduate study in political science as a Peace Corps Coverdell Fellow with the Stevenson Center at Illinois State University. She was drawn by the structure of the program, blending the theoretical with the practical. “Essentially, the intense year of intellectually-stimulating discussions followed by an 11-month (internship) seemed ideal. I could take what I learned from my courses and immediately apply it to my placement,” she said.
After an intense year of on-campus study, Shaw was paired with the BDC, which improves “the climate for local businesses and residents.” As an AmeriCorps member and a Stevenson Center Fellow, Shaw plays a key role in the BDC’s work of “facilitating relationships with local business owners, conducting community-wide assessments, as well as staying informed on legal and economic updates.”
Shaw’s role could best be described as a community development specialist: “In general, I support the efforts of the economic development division. For example, I have co-conducted business corridor walks to check in on businesses. This helps us keep track of any changes in the area. I have also had the opportunity to participate in non-profit roundtables in which community leaders exchange knowledge and ideas.” Currently, Shaw is using her language skills to reach out to both English- and Spanish-speaking business owners in Berwyn to offer help, especially during this difficult time. “I love speaking to local business owners about available resources, especially because almost all businesses have been heavily impacted by the (COVID-19) pandemic,” she said.
As an AmeriCorps member serving during an unprecedented public health crisis, Shaw has had to adapt, especially with learning specialized words in Spanish and working remotely at times. She also considers herself fortunate given the difficult economic situations others have had to face. “I can’t really complain because I am blessed to have this opportunity. I am still able to gain an education and hands-on skills while others are having to close their businesses,” she said.
Although Shaw has just started her 11-months of service at the BDC in August, she already has goals that she wants to achieve: “I would love to continue … facilitating meaningful partnerships that could identify the barriers to participation and access to resources for segments of the population. I would also appreciate the chance to support the BDC’s efforts in crafting corridor-specific strategic plans as supplements to the community-wide plan. It is exhausting and futile to ‘change the world’ by oneself. Instead, it is better to spark conversations, bridge gaps, and encourage connections. I hope to do all these here in Berwyn.”
When asked if she has any advice to those who may want to join AmeriCorps or Peace Corps, Shaw was clear in her message: “I strongly encourage you to do what you can now to volunteer in different settings, work environments, or contexts. Don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone. Give yourself space to learn and grow. Always ask more questions. You never know what experience may spark a new passion, skill, or research interest. This new interest, along with your specific skill set, could result in a beautifully energetic and effective journey as a Peace Corps or AmeriCorps volunteer.”
The Stevenson Center welcomes AmeriCorps Alums, returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and those with similar experiences to its interdisciplinary graduate programs. Master’s degrees with generous financial support are available in anthropology, applied economics, kinesiology and recreation, political science, and sociology. Want to learn more about becoming OR hosting a Stevenson Center Fellow? Contact us at StevensonCenter@IllinoisState.edu or (309) 439-7090.
Dani Park is the Stevenson Center’s public relations graduate assistant.