Serving the Community: Speaks with the University of Colorado Boulder

The University of Colorado Boulder was recently ranked #1 in the nation for undergraduate alumni serving as Peace Corps volunteers after two years in the #2 slot. The university is #5 for all-time number of Peace Corps alumni. We recently caught up with Peter Simons, Director of Boulder's Institute for Ethical and Civic Engagement, to find out how this institution has cultivated such a remarkable culture of service.

By Megan Driscoll

Peter Simons, University of Colorado Boulder This year, CU Boulder was ranked #1 in the nation for undergraduate alumni serving as Peace Corps volunteers, and you have a long track record of providing many Peace Corps volunteers. What do you think it is about CU Boulder that encourages volunteerism among its graduates, particularly for the Peace Corps?

Peter Simons: In fact, we had one of the first groups of volunteers when the Peace Corps was formed in 1961 under President Kennedy.

What is it about CU that has cultivated such involved graduates? I think its three things. First, we tend to attract a lot of students who are interested and invested in being engaged in their communities and contributing to the common good. Out of 30,000 students, we currently have at least 13,000 engaged in some way in their communities. In terms of the Peace Corps, we also tend to attract a lot of students who want to be civically engaged specifically in developing countries.

Another factor that's pushed us to the #1 ranking is that the university has increased its emphasis on civic engagement for its students over the past five or so years. I run something called the Institute for Ethical and Civic Engagement (IECE), the Peace Corps group is under us, and we were formed to be a catalyst on campus, a facilitator and a strong proponent of making civic engagement a key part of the education of our students here, and to help the university fulfill its civic mission of serving society.

This has helped us build up a reputation for service. We were named in 2008 by the Federal Government as one of the three best schools in the country in community engagement. So there's an atmosphere that's being created here that's important for students to be engaged in their communities. And I think that pushes the Peace Corps with it as we move along.

The third factor is that we happen to have very good Peace Corps coordinating staff here. They're all return Peace Corps volunteers, very committed and enthusiastic about serving in the Peace Corps and what an incredible experience it is both for the students and the communities in which they're working.

We even have freshmen coming in who come to our Peace Corps information sessions and they're four years away from graduating, which is when they'd be considered for the Peace Corps. But they're coming to meetings because they want to get information about what it takes to get into the Peace Corps.

E-P: Although people tend to think of Peace Corps volunteers as fresh out of college, your website indicates that many of your alumni volunteers are much older. Can you tell us about some of these folks, and what motivates them to stay involved?

PS: There are a couple of things. One, like a lot of universities, our student body is changing and the average age of students is getting older. So we have a growing population of older students and those older students are also attracted to being in the Peace Corps.

We also work on recruitment in the community. We have an arm of our recruiting office working with Peace Corps regional recruiters and we work with venues in the community that let us put on monthly general information sessions. So we're not only working with students here on campus, but we're also working in the community and we're attracting older citizens who want to be in Peace Corps.

The third thing that's just beginning is that Peace Corps has a program called the Masters International for students who want to combine graduate study and Peace Corps service. We were accepted as one of the initial schools to develop this program.

For Masters International, we currently offer four areas of study, geography, environmental studies, business and education. Students, who tend to be older, spend the first year on campus taking core courses, then enter the Peace Corps for 27 months. The final year of the program is back on campus for more coursework and the thesis, all of which is related to Peace Corps service.

E-P: Does the university maintain strong ties with alumni in order to bring them back into volunteering?

PS: We rely heavily on RPCVs, or Return Peace Corps Volunteers. We have a network in the Boulder area and we use them a lot in recruitment activities here at the university.

There's also a greater Denver group of RPCVs that's very active. They have their own organization, they put on dinners, they work with different universities and they have service projects that they all do together. We work some with that group as well.

E-P: What Boulder services and programs besides the Peace Corps are run through the IECE?

PS: We do a lot of work with faculty in order to provide them with resources, which tends to be money, to develop courses that integrate civic engagement and service learning. The goal is to help them teach courses where students are both learning the content area of a course and are also out in the community applying what they're learning by helping in some capacity with an organization. For example, a student in an adolescent psychology class might work for in-school and after-school programs and other adolescent-serving agencies.

We also have model projects where we pinpoint a department, college or program on campus that has a lot of promise to really integrate service into its broader curriculum. We look for programs that have strong leadership and a core faculty who want to do this, as well as some matching money funds.

We have six model projects right now in a variety of schools at Boulder that are really trying to integrate civic engagement into their curricula. Individual course development is great, but it's scattered here and there. You have a course in biology; you have a course in engineering. The model projects are much more intensive, really integrating civic engagement throughout the curriculum for all students in the department.

We also do a lot of education and training of faculty and staff around civic engagement and service learning and integrating it all into the curriculum and co-curricular activities.

Then we have a variety of other programs, such as an outreach program called Public Achievement that's based on a model from the University of Minnesota. We recruit CU students and they enter into a service learning class or course in which they learn about education, democracy in schools and educational theory. During this process they're trained as coaches to work with underserved populations in the Boulder County area. They coach middle and high school students on how to be civically engaged. They focus on issues that are relevant to the kids, and the kids develop projects with the CU students that impact those issues.

Another part of the IECE is a scholarship program called the Poksta Scholars, funded by a foundation in Denver called the Poksta Foundation. Students receive up to $5,000 a year, but it's not a traditional scholarship. Rather than simply getting a monetary award for something like a great GPA, these scholars enter into something like a contract. Each student develops a cutting-edge civic engagement project in the community in exchange for the scholarship money.

This is just one of the programs that the IECE coordinates to help finance students pursuing civic projects. We've found that most summer internships and similar opportunities are unpaid, which means that students who need to support themselves often miss out on these opportunities. So we put together PIIEs - Public Interest Internship Experiences - in order to provide pay for students who are interning in nonpartisan public or nonprofit agencies. Like the Poksta Scholars program, the PIIEs give students a chance to follow their passion and still earn a reasonable salary.

Teach for America is yet another program run by the IECE. Like Peace Corps, Teach for America is a private nonprofit that's officially affiliated with the university. In fact, I believe that CU Boulder is the only university with an official affiliation with Teach for America. We help educate and recruit students for them.

We also offer the Serving Communities Award. Every year we give out awards to an undergraduate, a graduate student, a faculty member and a staff member who exemplify civic engagement and the civic role of a citizen.

Our final program, which just joined the Institute, is the Student Worker Alliance Program, or SWAP. It's a student-initiated program that works with service workers here on campus teaching them English as a second language, GED preparation and document preparation.

Peace Corps, University of Colorado Boulder

E-P: What service-oriented programs are offered at Boulder outside the IECE?

PS: There are a lot. Engineers Without Borders was founded here, and the engineering department also runs a certificate program called Engineering for Developing Communities that does similar work.

There's also a service learning office that does work similar to the IECE, helping faculty and students bring their expertise to the community. For example, we have a two-year certificate program called Invest Community Services in which students take courses and apply their learning in the community.

Much of our work is guided by the Flagship 2030 plan, which was developed a couple of years ago by our then-chancellor. The document created a vision for what we want to look like in 2030, and two of the highest priorities within that plan are civic engagement and internationalizing the campus. This means getting more students into academic work overseas and bringing more international students to CU, and the Peace Corps really helps us with both civic engagement and internationalization.

E-P: Is volunteering required of current students?

PS: No, it's not, but we did just receive an application from our business school (the Leeds School of Business) to make service a graduation requirement within the business school. They're trying to make social responsibility an emphasis there.

The College of Architecture and Planning is also just beginning to get off the ground of making it a requirement for all students. But among the entire university, there is no policy to make it a requirement. It's something that we'd like to do.

E-P: In what other ways are ethics and service promoted through the curriculum at Boulder?

PS: We're currently floating a policy change to add a service learning or civic engagement designation to these types of courses when students search for them. That way, rather than having to learn by word of mouth, students who are interested in these types of courses can just find and sign up for them.

We're also working on a policy to get those courses tagged on transcripts so that graduate schools and employers can see that our students have been out in the community doing work.

Finally, we're trying to add civic engagement to the list of things for which faculty members are rewarded. Faculty here are currently rewarded first on research, because we're a research university, second on teaching and third on service, but service in this case typically means service to your profession or department. So we're trying to add academic work in the area of civic engagement - we call it scholarship engagement - to the rules of promotions and rewards.

E-P: What advice would you give to a self-learner who isn't enrolled in a college or university but would like to get involved in service?

PS: There are two really important things. First, determine what you're passionate about. This may take some trial and error, but spend some time getting your feet wet in different areas to figure out what you're really passionate about. Because unless you're passionate about it, you're not going to spend the time out there doing the work.

Second, look for a local volunteer resource center. Almost every community has one, be it through a local college campus or municipal government. These organizations can help you find the right opportunities and get your foot in the door at agencies you're really excited about. It's also a good idea to use the business contacts you already have to break into the volunteer network.

E-P: Finally, I'd like to give you the opportunity to share anything you'd like about Boulder alumni's participation in the Peace Corps and the culture of service and volunteerism at Boulder.

PS: For us, in the five years of the IECE running the Peace Corps program, I've never met a return Peace Corps volunteer who hasn't said it was the most amazing experience of their lives. We've had students who've come back and switched majors and careers, going from English to pre-med because they were inspired by the healthcare and HIV/AIDS work they did in Africa.

Not only are you doing good work, but you're also building skill sets that you don't get in the classroom. For students who are graduating, it really gives you a leg up. The experience can be great and life-changing, and it can also help you in your job search - for most employers, having served in the Peace Corps is a major plus. We've seen it over and over again with students here.

Finally, we're very pleased that we've moved into the number one spot and that we have a lot of students here who want to serve in the Peace Corps.

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