UW-Madison celebrates 58 years of Peace Corps service

Next Friday, March 1, it will be 58 years since President John F. Kennedy first established, by executive order, an international service organization for the United States. Now its own federal agency, the Peace Corps has facilitated the service of some 200,000 eager volunteers in more than 100 countries across the globe, almost 40 percent of whom have served in African nations. In fact, the first Peace Corps volunteers to set foot on foreign soil did so in Ghana in 1961.

The University of Wisconsin–Madison has developed deep connections to the Peace Corps program since its inception. In 2011, the African Studies Program hosted “Peace Corps and Africa: 50 Years,” an event honoring the university’s half-century of dedication to service. More than 2,900 alumni have served, making UW-Madison the second largest provider of volunteers from large universities of all-time and #1 for the last two years. Two particularly notable examples of alumni volunteers are former Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle and his wife, Jessica Doyle, who served together in Tunisia from 1967-1969 after graduating from Madison.

Photo provided by Kate Schachter

The African Studies Program reached out to Kate Schachter, campus Peace Corps recruiter, to explore why so many UW–Madison graduates have gone abroad to fulfill the national Peace Corps goals: to provide service abroad, to learn more about cultures and communities different from their own, and to promote understanding of the United States internationally.

There is no stronger advocate for the merits of the Peace Corps than Schachter. She served in Ghana from 2004–2007, in Georgia from 2016-–2018, and in numerous leadership positions with Returned Peace Corps Volunteers in the meantime.

She argues that the unique advantage of the Peace Corps over other international internship or volunteer programs is the commitment of time and complete immersion you must make in order to participate. Because you are given the unique opportunity to deeply surround yourself with an unfamiliar culture and lifestyle for so long, your perspective on service and the world has no choice but to change.

In answering the question ‘why Madison?’ Schachter noted that Peace Corps recruitment is active on the UW–Madison campus. Even more influential, though, is the importance the university places on international global awareness, global citizenry, and community service. These traits are reflected not only in opportunities such as the International Internship Program, the Morgridge Center, and Badger Volunteers, but also the Wisconsin Idea, the guiding principle of the university that encourages the use of education beyond the boundaries of the classroom. Almost 90 percent of UW-Madison students that pass through her recruiting office already have some form of volunteering, internship, or study abroad experience under their belt, Schachter said.

Photo provided by Leah Walkowski

For example, Leah Walkowski, a graduate student at the Notre Dame’s Keough School for Global Affairs, recieved her bachelors degree in anthropology from UW–Madison in 2013 and studied abroad in Kenya before deciding to serve in the Peace Corps. Although Leah first came to Madison interested in biomedical engineering, she soon realized this was not the path for her. She switched her major, began a Global Health certificate, and started down the pre-med track. Her initial plan was to study abroad and conduct research in Latin America.

After coming across the MSID-Kenya study abroad program, however, she was incredibly intrigued by the program’s focus on cultural immersion and noticed upon deeper exploration that many of the classes for the African Studies Certificate intersected with those of both Anthropology and Global Health. At that point, everything “seemed to truly fall into place.” Her “mini-Peace Corps experience” living in Kenya for that semester pushed Leah to apply for the actual Peace Corps after graduation, making her assignment to a post in Northern Uganda more than fitting.

“I was so excited to go back to East Africa and apply my academic and practical experiences to a new context,” she said. “I do not think I fully appreciated the amazing resources that Madison has in African Studies until I left campus, arrived in Uganda, and realized not everyone had the same access or opportunities.”

UW–Madison also has hired on numerous former volunteers as faculty and staff, further strengthening the presence of the Peace Corps and the values of international community and service on campus. For example, former UW-Madison chancellor and current United States Representative Donna Shalala served in Iran from 1962-1964, and Associate Director of the African Studies Program Aleia McCord served alongside Ms. Schachter in Ghana from 2004–2007.

But why does the university’s link to the Peace Corps remain so strong? Why do Badgers continue to celebrate this upcoming week with so much fervor? The glowing reflections of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers might give a clue for those who have not yet served.

For Kate Schachter, the Peace Corps drove service to become a major focal point of her life. Her experiences have sparked a desire to work in places where she knows she can make a difference, she said, and truly changed her as an individual.

“It taught me to observe, to listen, to ask questions, to hold off on making judgments just because something is different from my norm,” Walkowski said. “It taught me to smile, to laugh, to make mistakes, to fail, and to keep on going.”

“I can’t even begin to capture the many ways that Peace Corps shaped my professional and personal trajectory,” Associate Director McCord added. “I came back to the USA a more empathetic, compassionate, patient, self-reliant and resilient person. I learned how to really listen to people. I learned how to ask for and accept help. I learned how to lead and also how to follow.”

If you are interested in learning more about Peace Corps service or upcoming Peace Corps Week events, please reach out to the Campus Recruiting Office (peacecorps@international.wisc.edu or 608-262-1121) or visit their webpage.

Published by Rebecca Hanks. The contents of this article belong to the African Studies Program and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.