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Two UMass students dedicate themselves to service upon graduation

(Robert Rigo/Collegian)

The Peace Corps, an organization dedicated to sending young volunteers to the developing world, announced the University of Massachusetts is among its top volunteer producing institutions. UMass ranks first among all New England schools and No. 21 nationally among universities with 15,000 undergraduates.

Last year, 37 alumni served in Peace Corps positions around the world as 1,302 graduates have participated in the program since its inception in 1961. Beyond those numbers are the hundreds of alumni that have volunteered with similar organizations like AmeriCorps, the Peace Corps domestic equivalent.

Two UMass students will be dedicating themselves to service upon graduation, and each described their decision to join their respective program.

Jacob Ford, a senior microbiology major, will be volunteering with the Peace Corps in Panama. After three months of highly intensive training, Ford will be imbedded with an indigenous community for two years as a part of the Peace Corps’ water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) program.

Ford said his work will consist of three parts.

“Building water sanitation and hygiene systems such as lateens or rain water collection systems, public health education and perhaps most importantly, forming water committees within the community to continue these polices once I’m gone,” Ford said.

Ford indicated that although his experience in the Peace Corps is not atypical, volunteers in the WASH program in particular serve the most underserved communities.

“Water sanitation and hygiene workers are usually the first to get to develop the community,” Ford said. “Then other workers get sent in if that is successful.”

“I won’t have electricity or running water or any other modern amenities,” Ford added. “I most likely won’t have a toilet that I flush. That’s a little scary thinking into the next two years.”

Despite this, Ford is excited about his placement in the WASH program.

“They are good at pairing people,” he said. “I trust the system. I think the reason I was chosen for Panama is that I have a background in microbiology; they wanted someone with building experience.”

Ford has done extensive work building houses for Habitat for Humanity through a program called Bike & Build.

The AmeriCorps is the Peace Corps’ domestic counterpart, setting volunteers up with non-profit organizations across the United States for one year’s worth of service responding to disasters, alleviating poverty or providing educational opportunities.

Rebekah Kohls, a senior business management major with a concentration in sustainability, is one of the volunteers.

Upon graduation, Kohls will be serving a 12-month term in the AmeriCorps Vista program, working within an organization called Literacy First in Austin, Texas.

Literacy First is a highly successful partnership between the University of Texas at Austin, Americorps and the community, which provide early assistance to low-income students.

“[The organization] puts mentors into schools, specifically to help reading, writing practice,” Kohls said. “I’ll be in some sort of elementary school doing a lot of bilingual tutoring.”

For Kohls, the decision to join AmeriCorps was not only about the opportunity for service, but also the adventure.

“Even though I will be in the U.S., I expect it’s going to be a very different place,” she said. “I’ve lived in Massachusetts my whole life so it’s going to be exciting.”

Both Kohls and Ford have taken on immense challenges in their decision to volunteer with their respective organizations.

“I was weighing between a very nice offer from Amazon and my AmeriCorps offer,” Kohls said. “I could start making money, I could start entering the business work or I can take a step back and do some self-discovery and giving back.”

Though Kohls ultimately decided to take on a year of volunteer work, she conceded, “not everyone has the time to take another year of not earning money. I think it’s a very privileged thing to be able to do.”

In addition to the aforementioned change in lifestyle, Ford will have to learn a new language.

“[I will be] going through super intensive language training, five or six days a week for six or seven hours of training a day,” Ford said.

Ford faces the challenge of minimal communication with those back home. He explained that he is close with his sister, and that she is not happy about his decision to go. However, his family knows it will be a good experience for him.

Despite the challenges, each has compelling reasons to serve.

“There is an altruistic element there, a tradition of service,” Ford said. “I feel like I always grew up in a family that valued helping others.”

“I’m a microbio major, but [the] long-term goal is to go do research on infectious disease, and ideally I’d like to work on tropical diseases,” Ford added. “I think to do effective science and solve problems you have to experience how it effects communities.”

“I think it’s an important opportunity to spread good American values, especially right now,” Ford said.

Kohls explained her decision to serve was because of the unique opportunities for volunteerism in the years following graduation.

“I don’t think I’ll have an opportunity like this in the future, so I don’t want to pass it up now,” Kohls said. “I don’t know exactly what I want to do next. I need a year to sort of find myself. I think it’s going to be a lot of self-discovery and a lot of giving back to the community.”

Kohls also explained that she believes her time volunteering will prepare her for her career.

The Corporation for National and Community service (CNCS) found in its 2017 “Alumni Outcomes Study” that across a variety of metrics, those who served in AmeriCorps saw positive impacts on their career path and community participation.

“Do AmeriCorps if you can,” Kohls said. “It’s a really great program.”

Both Ford and Kohls stressed their time at UMass as important preparation for their service.

Ford said the important opportunities for personal development on campus including his time as a tour guide, as a resident assistant and as a student in the iCons program.

Kohls added that she feels the diversity of the UMass campus has her prepared.

“During my work in Austin I know I will work with a lot of people from different backgrounds, and UMass has prepared me for that,” Kohls said. “I lived in a neighborhood where I wasn’t exposed to a lot of other backgrounds, until I came to the university.”

Noah Kouchekinia can be reached at nkouchekinia@umass.edu.

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