Teaching English and building a school in Tanzania in 2015 was the first step in Heather Lake’s transformation from an uninvolved teen to an engaged, globe-trotting leader who’s about to enter the Peace Corps and work in the tiny, remote nation of East Timor.
“The dedication of the students in Tanzania really inspired me and made me value the education I was getting at FGCU even more and look for opportunities to give that back to others,” says Lake, who traveled to the East African nation with the FGCU Growth International Volunteer Excursions (GIVE) program. “I decided to join the Peace Corps, and it pushed me to look for opportunities to grow skills. It transformed my whole experience at FGCU.”
While Lake was self-motivated enough to track down the academic courses, service projects, student organizations and leadership development programs that would help her grow into a good Peace Corps candidate, she also took advantage of assistance provided by FGCU’s Office of International Services. To further help aspiring changemakers like Lake, the department is launching a multi-pronged Peace Corps Prep Program to groom undergraduates for international development fieldwork and potential Peace Corps service.
Depending on how many apply, about 20 students are likely to be accepted into the inaugural group, which begins in January 2019. Applications are due Nov. 19 to International Services.
Students can learn more about requirements online or at these upcoming information sessions:
- Sept. 13, 12-1 p.m. in Cohen Center Room 213
- Oct. 3, 10 a.m.-2 p.m. during the Study Abroad Fair in the student plaza/breezeway
- Nov. 5, 12-1 p.m. in Cohen Center Room 213.
Through interrelated academic courses, service-learning, hands-on field work and professional development, students admitted to the prep program will gain training and experience in a specific work sector based on their major. They’ll also increase foreign language proficiency, enhance intercultural understanding and build leadership skills. The program prepares them to work in one of these typical Peace Corps focus areas: education, health, environment, agriculture, youth development or community economic development.
“Completing the prep program does not guarantee admission to the Peace Corps. However, it does give the student a competitive edge,” says International Services Coordinator Charlotte Bingham, who prepared FGCU’s detailed application to host the program. The Peace Corps is selective about approving such programs.
“It is very competitive — not every institution offers this,” Bingham says. “They’re looking for schools that make programs accessible to all students. They look at how well connected we are with other departments and how we are tied into diverse programs.”
In Florida, only six other university and college programs are authorized, according to the Peace Corps website. In its favor, FGCU offers many degrees that fit Peace Corps priorities, such as health, education, business, sciences, social sciences and environmental studies. The university’s commitment to service-learning and community engagement, leadership development programs, international education and foreign language instruction help nurture the global perspective that Peace Corps work requires, says International Services Director Elaine Hozdik.
“The combination of these opportunities for students matches well with Peace Corps goals and needs and provides our students an additional career option valuable for international development work such as Peace Corps, NGOs and government programs or other domestic career choices,” she says.
President John F. Kennedy established the government-run service program in 1961, and more than 230,000 Americans have volunteered in 141 countries. Since FGCU opened in 1997, 34 alumni have served in countries that include Bulgaria, Thailand, Ethiopia, South Africa, China, Fiji, Ghana and Honduras. Two are currently volunteering in Panama and Eswatini, according to the organization’s press office.
Bingham says Peace Corps information sessions held this summer during Eagle View Orientation were consistently full.
“Any time I’ve mentioned the prep program, students get excited,” she says. “There are a lot of benefits to serving in the Peace Corps. Nowadays there are so many businesses and jobs that have their foot in the global market. If you have international experience it’s very helpful.”
Lake, who graduated in spring with a double major of marketing and political science, joins the Peace Corps in October well prepared and with plans to pursue a career in international marketing after her two years in East Timor. She studied international business abroad for a summer semester, completed the Emerging Eagles leadership program, represented FGCU as an Eagle International Ambassador, received the Presidential Leadership Certificate and served as president of the International Business Association.
Over the course of three years, she made herself a better Peace Corps candidate and believes the new prep program will make that even easier for those who follow in her footsteps.
“A program like this will help streamline the process for students,” she says. “There are so many opportunities at FGCU, and this will direct them to programs and classes that will benefit them,” Lake says.
Where’s East Timor?
Heather Lake (’18, Marketing and Political Science) is probably getting that a lot lately as she prepares to join the Peace Corps and live there for the next two years. Officially known as Timor-Leste, it’s an island nation in Southeast Asia at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago and northwest of Australia. Area-wise, it’s slightly larger than Connecticut and has a population of about 1.3 million.
As one of more than 50 Peace Corps volunteers there, Lake will help communities with economic development projects.
“I will be working with schools and community programs, help young adults prepare for jobs, and also train older people to create new jobs, create business plans and better understand business practices and money management,” Lake says. “I’ll help kids a lot with English, too.”
Lake chose Timor-Leste as her destination because she thought it would best fit her business background and “it looked like a cool place.” She’s already traveled more than most of her peers, to France, England and the Netherlands.
“After getting a degree, I didn’t necessarily want to go into a job right away,” Lake says. “I want to help people, travel, have a grand adventure. I’ll still be learning things I would be learning here as an intern and will have the added benefit of working in a different country. Coming back, I’ll have a lot more skills than I would have coming right out of college into a workplace.”