MU attracts Peace Corps vets with Fellows program

Peace Corps Fellows program funds postgraduate studies of returning volunteers.
Monday, February 16, 2009 | 7:55 p.m. CST; updated 10:04 a.m. CST, Tuesday, February 17, 2009
Jen Keller, top second from right, poses with her village's women's association after dyeing cloth for the group to sell.

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About the Peace Corps

A general information meeting session will be held from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the MU Career Center on the lower level of the Student Success Center.

Students can also contact campus Peace Corps Representative Tony White at 884-2003 or at

About Peace Corps Fellows/USA and the fall semester volunteerism class

Visit or contact any current Peace Corps fellow through the "Current fellows" link.

To apply to the program, contact Don Spiers or one of the participating departments.

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COLUMBIA — When the Peace Corps sent Nate Jensen to a tiny West African village in 2005, a parasitic plant known as striga or witchweed was plaguing farmers.

Intensive cultivation in Mali encouraged by haphazard westernization and international market forces had given the small green nutrient-thieving plant the upper hand.

In the village of Missadiebougou, it had been a long, frustrating battle between the parasite and nutrient-rich millet.

Armed with nothing but a physics degree and a desire to help, Jensen, now 29, offered veteran farmers struggling to adapt to a global economy one thing they couldn't get for themselves: access to the latest research and knowledge.

"I was the Internet for these guys," Jensen said. "They used me instead of Google."

In Mali, Jensen's main function was to transfer knowledge from the outside world to Missadiebougou.

Now, he and several other returned Peace Corps volunteers have come to MU to transfer the knowledge and perspective they gained in Mali, Kyrgyzstan and Lesotho to the campus community and city as a whole.

"Maybe I can't apply all this practical stuff I learned in Mali," Jensen said, "but it changed my perspective." That new perspective — on agriculture, economics, development, the discomfort of camel-back riding and a sea of other subjects — is what Jensen hopes to share.

He and other volunteers say they were lured to MU by the university's reputation and participation in the Peace Corps Fellows/USA program. Each year, MU funds the postgraduate studies of five newly returned Peace Corps volunteers who, in exchange, provide the campus with a vital human resource and create a service project to benefit Columbia.

"Our first priority beyond academics is internationalizing the campus," Jensen said.

In a class next fall, fellows will encourage local volunteering and draw parallels between Columbia and the developing world in three areas: youth and poverty, community and public policy.

"It's really important to foster a spirit of community service and a spirit of volunteerism," said Peace Corps fellow Jen Keller.

Two service-learning trips are tentatively scheduled for the winter of 2009-2010 and the following summer.

"Somebody offered me the opportunity to go abroad and I want to be able to offer that to other people," Keller said.

Keller and Jensen met while volunteering in Mali from 2005 to 2007. In the time since, the pair has operated a community-supported agricultural organization and managed an estate in Vermont, where they will be married on May 30.

Both said the fellows program was a major factor in their decision to attend MU. Teller is studying public policy and regional development with an emphasis on Africa at the Truman School of Public Affairs. Inspired by his Peace Corps work, Jensen is studying agricultural economics.

Professor Don Spiers said the fellows also plan four lectures on international issues and cultures each semester. Spiers, the Peace Corps Fellows program coordinator at MU, volunteered for two years in Venezuela in the mid 1970s.

He said the campus Peace Corps community dreamed of bringing the program to MU since it began in the mid-1980s, but it wasn't until Brady Deaton became chancellor in 2004 that the program became a possibility. According to Spiers, the chancellor understands the program's value firsthand: Deaton joined the Peace Corps in 1962, its second year, and taught vocational agriculture in Thailand until 1964.

"Brady Deaton was instrumental," Spiers said. "We didn't even think about getting the program going until he became chancellor."

The first class of fellows at MU started in the fall of 2007. To be eligible, the Peace Corps volunteers had to be accepted both by theprogram and their specific department.

Currently, 472 fellows are studying at 51 universities nationwide. According to Spiers, MU's program offers more funding and a wider range of study areas than most partner schools. Participating departments include geography, social work, agricultural economics, rural sociology, political science and the Truman School of Public Affairs.

Andy Craver, 29, taught in the Issyk-Kul region of Kyrgyzstan from 2004 to 2006. As a result of his volunteer work in Central Asia, Craver now studies rural sociology and plans to write his thesis on land management practices in rural Kyrgyzstan. Craver said he came to MU because of the fellows program and the university's strong rural studies department.

The fellows program "is a really great opportunity to work with really great people and get a higher education and keep learning about what you're interested in," Craver said.

In exchange for 10 hours per week of community service work, MU pays half of the students' tuition and stipend — about $7,000, Spiers said. The other half is provided by partnering departments in the form of an assistantship.

"Departments are interested in these people because they're very good graduate students," Spiers said.

In addition to major service projects, fellows donate their time as guest speakers in classes and events at MU and local high schools, Spiers said. Fellows also help with Peace Corps recruiting and other activities on campus.

"Whenever I need help, they're the first ones I call," said Tony White, MU's Peace Corps representative. White and his wife volunteered with the Corps in Armenia from 2001 to 2003.

"People come out of Peace Corps much different than they went in," White said.

According to Spiers, the program is beginning the process of raising additional funds to expand the number of fellowships offered and hopes to partner with more MU departments.

Julie Driver, the National Peace Corps Fellow Program manager, will visit the campus in March to review the program and meet with any departments that might be interested in sponsoring fellows, Spiers said.

President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961 to provide technical assistance abroad, help the world understand Americans on a personal level and to help all Americans understand the world better. It is this last mission that MU's Peace Corps fellows aim to fulfill.

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