Stevenson Center Fellows are required to serve in a social service program such as the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps in order to join one of the graduate programs, so that they gain a wealth of experience before joining the program and refine that experience while earning a master’s degree. One Paul D. Coverdell Fellow in this year’s cohort is Jeffrey Walsh.
Walsh started his life of service in the 1990s as a member of the military. He spent eight years in the U.S. Army Medical Corps in multiple roles, including as a pharmacy technician and an emergency room medic. This experience solidified his love for helping people and set him on the path to his placement in the Peace Corps.
“I would say my time in the military was a positive experience,” Walsh said. “I enjoyed my time serving my country, taking an oath, and carrying it out. People going from the military to Peace Corps isn’t too uncommon, as each cohort has about 30 or 40 members, and at least one of them is usually a former service member, so I was that service member for my cohort.”
Walsh’s time in the military and his additional background as an English teacher in Thailand and China made him qualified for his eventual placement in Maphoitsile, South Africa, a small town near the Kalahari Desert where Walsh worked as a teacher for grades four through seven.
“I worked on and completed a number of projects while I served in South Africa,” Walsh said. “I held an event in honor of Nelson Mandela, with one of the keynote speakers being a village councilor who actually served as a freedom fighter alongside Mandela, which was a huge honor. I was also able to start a small library of about 2,000 books while getting some of the kids to act as little librarians, and they’d have these little library cards. I wasn’t able to change the world, necessarily, but I got to change that little part of the world.”
Walsh’s projects also were prompted by the Peace Corps, including the Mother Bear project, which focuses on gifting hand-knit bears to children affected by HIV/AIDS in emerging nations. Another project that Walsh had a hand in involved Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the famous anti-apartheid activist who worked alongside Mandela and founded the Desmond Tutu Foundation.
“Our kids didn’t have desks at the school. There were some desks, but there weren’t enough for every kid. It was a small town of about 1,000 people, but there were around 500 kids,” Walsh said. “I wrote a personal letter to the Desmond Tutu Foundation, and then on November 1, 2017, two large trucks came all the way from Cape Town with 500 desks for the school.”
“The desks weren’t traditional desks that you sit in front of, they were more like laptop desks,” Walsh said. “They had the kids’ lessons printed on them, and they were all colorful, and so the children’s eyes would be naturally drawn to these desks and the lessons on them. One teacher there used the desks as artwork on the wall, and when the students needed them, they would get taken down and used by the kids.”
After his service in South Africa and another stint of service in AmeriCorps in Montana, serving as a liaison for veterans working their way through Veterans Affairs or finding them alternatives if they didn’t want to work through the VA, Walsh found himself in Illinois. He decided to pursue a new degree from Illinois State University through the Stevenson Center.
“I joked with people in the past that ‘my degree is from 1986; it’s expired,’ but there’s an element of truth to that,” Walsh said. “I wanted a new skill set, and I thought it would be good for me to be a part of a cohort again, because it’s important to have that support, especially because I needed help navigating stuff like Zoom classes and the different portals college students use.
“My cohort, along with the staff at the Stevenson Center, has been so supportive, and the experience has been wonderful. It really set in for me something that I noticed when working in Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, and that’s that there really is no age limit. The mother of Jimmy Carter worked in the Peace Corps in her 60s, and I wasn’t even the oldest person in my cohort when I was pushing 50. I may be a non-traditional student, but I think that there are really no age limits in things like this.”
Walsh is a graduate student pursuing a degree in political science. Per the applied community and economic development curriculum, Walsh will spend his second year doing development work in the United States.
The Stevenson Center has more information about its academic programs.