One month after graduating from Harvard in 2001, Victoria Chang GS found herself in a classroom in West Central Africa teaching teenagers how to use birth control.
The Peace Corps had taken her to Gabon for two years to serve as a community health educator, an experience she said eventually led her to Princeton.
"I was based in the village talking to young moms and pregnant women about maternal/child health," Chang said. "I also did presentations for youth about HIV, AIDS and reproductive health."
Though the work was hard, Chang said the need to disseminate health information inspired her to make the best out of her situation.
"[In Gabon,] sex is a taboo subject. But kids are kids everywhere. They just want to ask questions. I loved giving these presentations and opening up the floor so that kids could ask me questions," Chang said. "They want this information, and they really can't get it elsewhere."
Chang is one of multiple Wilson School graduate students who devoted two or more years of their lives to the Peace Corps before coming to Princeton. Of the approximately 60 first-year graduate students pursuing MPAs, three are former Peace Corps volunteers.
"People who serve in the Peace Corps are very likely to be looking for careers that relate to development work," said Karen McGuninnes, associate dean for graduate education of the Wilson School. "I think it indicates a dedication to public service, and that's what we're looking for in our graduate students."
Randall Blair GS agrees. Blair said he considers his Wilson School graduate studies as a way of "applying the perspective and intuition you get on the ground, but now attacking the problems on a higher level."
Blair, who is currently in his second year of the MPA program, spent two years improving rural health and sanitation in El Salvador with the Peace Corps.
"Seeing the hardships the people go through more than motivated me to go into public policy," Blair said. "[I'm] looking for the best way to solve their problems, but this time through policy."
Though the Peace Corps has provided some MPA students with life-altering experiences, few graduating seniors commit to the program after graduation.
According to the exit survey collected during senior checkout in May, only two or three undergraduate seniors typically indicate that they have accepted offers from the Peace Corps.
Career Services Director Beverly Hamilton-Chandler said this number is low, in part due to the length of the Peace Corps application process. Seniors who intend to serve in the Peace Corps may not know if they have been accepted by the time the survey is taken.
The two-year Peace Corps commitment also may serve as a disincentive for students. Blair, however, said the commitment was not a roadblock for him.
Annette Richter '00 is one alumna who joined the Peace Corps after getting her undergraduate degree from the Wilson School with a certificate in Latin American Studies. Richter served for two years in Honduras, where she worked as an economic development volunteer.
"Most people, when they go to the Peace Corps, they have a lot of culture shock," Richter said. "But having done a lot of Latin American studies ... I had a really good mindset on how to interact with the people and, language-wise, I felt able to communicate."
Richter is a member of the TigerNet Alumni Peace Corps listserv that advises Princetonians who are interested in volunteering or about to serve.
"Usually when someone goes to the Peace Corps they have a lot of questions, and the best and really the only way for people to get answers is by asking those who have done it before," Richter said.
Despite its potential usefulness, Richter said that the discussion forum is typically inactive, partly because few undergraduates enter the Peace Corps right after graduation.
"Once I investigated what it was all about, the two-year commitment didn't seem like a big hardship," Blair said. "They came to interview us, and I was sold from the get-go."
But many volunteers face conditions that require some adjustments on their part.
"I lived in a Soviet apartment building; the heat was spotty — when it came on," said Katherine Brouhard GS, who spent two years in Kazakhstan teaching economics and English to Russian high school students. "After you have these sorts of experiences, you can approach things and say this is very difficult, but I know I can handle it."
Chang considers her time in the Peace Corps very well spent on a more personal level. Without the experience, she said, she probably would not have pursued her MPA.
"The Peace Corps is grassroots. It's really living and interacting with the people that you're helping," Chang said. "I didn't think about doing this as a career until I did the Peace Corps. It gave me that commitment and passion in working with people."
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