Montanan Article

UM Launches Peace Corps Prep Program

*Article from the Montanan

UM has partnered with the Peace Corps to offer the first Peace Corps Preparatory Program at any public university in the country.

Implemented this past spring, all UM students now have the opportunity to earn a Peace Corps Prep Program certificate, which will help them gain an advantage in the Peace Corps' highly competitive application process. The program is designed to increase volunteer effectiveness and better equip students interested in serving low-income countries.

The idea to start the Peace Corps Preparatory Program at UM originated in the School of Business Administration, with Professors David Firth and Cameron Lawrence. Within the management information systems major, there are various tracks students can take, such as consulting, marketing, development, or entrepreneurship. The professors wanted to offer another option.

"We knew the Peace Corps needs people who understand business, particularly information systems and technology," says Firth. "So we thought if there was a specific track for that, we could help more business students achieve what they want to do."

Firth contacted the Peace Corps about the idea, and officials there were excited. The University spent nine months developing the program, which caters to students across campus, not just in the business school.

"It's a fantastic opportunity for UM students," Firth says. "I don't think there is any better way to spend the time when you are twenty-one or twenty-two than in the service of others. The program gives students an avenue to serve other people and, in the process of that, find out who they are."

UM has a long-standing relationship with the Peace Corps, having produced 765 Peace Corps volunteers, including thirty-three Griz alums currently serving. Additionally, per capita, Missoula ranks first in the nation among metropolitan areas in producing Peace Corps volunteers, making UM a natural choice for the preparatory program.

UM's bid to be the first public university to offer PCPP gained traction when its popular international development studies minor was linked to Firth's initiative.

Recognizing the academic quality of the IDS curriculum and the expertise and experience of its core faculty, the Peace Corps agreed to award the "generalist" PCPP certificate to any UM student who successfully completes requirements for the twenty-one-credit minor. More than 200 UM students from twenty-plus majors have elected to pursue the interdisciplinary minor during its six years of existence.

Peter Koehn, founding director of UM's IDS program, has long advised students committed to sustainable international development and has taught a foundation course in development administration at UM and several African universities.

"What was lacking at UM for decades was a full and coherent curriculum and formal recognition of our students' undergraduate academic preparation," Koehn says.

Now, with the IDS minor and the new Peace Corps Prep certification options, Koehn anticipates that UM undergrads opting for one or both will be "academically prepared and competitive for challenging overseas assignments with the Peace Corps or other development agencies."

The Peace Corps agreed that UM's existing IDS program provided an ideal administrative home for the prep program. The IDS steering committee, in consultation with faculty who teach appropriate courses in each area, and Tenly Snow, the campus Peace Corps representative, established seven tracks for students interested in earning a "specialist" certificate that parallels the Peace Corps' primary recruiting areas. The seven tracks are: agriculture and forestry; business and information technology; education; environment; health; youth and community development; and civic engagement.

Students must complete twelve credits to qualify for each specialist certificate. UM faculty, including Firth and returned Peace Corps volunteers Teresa Sobieszczyk and Curtis Noonan, will serve as track advisers to guide students in course selection and confirm that they merit award of the specialist certification.

The prep program is off to a fast start. About half a dozen graduating IDS students received the generalist certification this past spring, and Koehn anticipates the first specialist certificates will be awarded this academic year.

"Given our unique position as the first public university to offer the Peace Corps Prep Program certification, the array of academic options we now have available, the quality of the academic preparation we provide, and the outstanding faculty who are involved in teaching our development-focused courses," Koehn says, "I fully expect UM to be a national draw for students interested in international development and Peace Corps experience."