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Beth Merchen teaches health classes to six- through eighth-graders in Moldova, Kristen Larson served in Ecuador from 2000 to 2002, Andrew Hamilton is teaching finance, business communications and American culture to students in Ukraine
0,1236174.story?coll=dp-news-local-wbg, Beth Merchen teaches health classes to six- through eighth-graders in Moldova, Kristen Larson served in Ecuador from 2000 to 2002, Andrew Hamilton is teaching finance, business communications and American culture to students in Ukraine
W&M's international focus sparks volunteerism
The college ranks among those that send the most volunteers into the Peace Corps.
BY SANDRA YIN
Published April 20, 2004
WILLIAMSBURG -- Two years ago Beth Merchent traded in her health care administration job in America for a life without indoor plumbing in Eastern Europe.
The 1980 graduate of the College of William and Mary now teaches health classes to six- through eighth-graders in Moldova, a developing country nestled between Romania and Ukraine. Living in Moldova has opened her eyes.
"I naively expected everyone in Moldova to be miserable," she wrote in an e-mail from the former Soviet republic. She has discovered that is not the case.
"Because they have so little here - no computers at home, no video games, no movie theaters, no Burger Kings, no malls, anything I do with them - be it play a game or have them write with markers -is truly appreciated."
Merchant is one of 51 William and Mary alumni serving in the Peace Corps. Among medium-sized schools with undergraduate populations of 5,001 to 15,000, W&M ranks No. 5 nationally for the number of Peace Corps volunteers sent out this year. That's no surprise to Mary Schilling, W&M's director of career services. The college has contributed more than 400 volunteers to the Peace Corps since 1961, and this year's enrollment is 28 percent higher than in 2003.
"The college of W&M in the first place attracts students who are interested in volunteerism, public service, government and global awareness," she said. "Once those students get here, their interest in international activities is reinforced."
International relations is a popular academic major. A university office helps link students to volunteer opportunities in the neighborhood in Williamsburg. Some of those same students then become interested in serving in the Peace Corps.
Their interest mirrors a national trend. More than 7,500 Americans currently serve in the Peace Corps. That is more than in any other year since the organization's inception in 1961. Volunteers serve in 71 countries in projects related to agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS education, information technology, business development and education.
Interest is surging because of a rise in civic consciousness since 9-11, a sagging economy and bi-partisan support for increasing the number of volunteers, said Peace Corps spokesman Sara Johnston.
The volunteers leave their mark on the communities they visit in ways large and small.
When 1999 W&M graduate Kristen Larson served in Ecuador from 2000 to 2002, she started a community bank for 35 women who each saved 50 cents a week. Some got loans to buy farm animals, string to make bracelets or leather scraps to sew into shawls.
Larson noticed that these descendants of the Incas weren't eating many vegetables because they were too expensive in the local markets. To help boost locals' nutritional intake, the biology major helped families grow carrots, radishes and beets.
After majoring in both French and international relations, 2002 W&M graduate Debra Stanislawski thought a stint in Cameroon was the next step. In the Peace Corps she teaches English and AIDS awareness to people who are on track to become primary school teachers.
Andrew Hamilton is teaching finance, business communications and American culture to students in Ukraine. The 2002 W&M graduate, who majored in finance, runs an American culture club and volunteers at a local orphanage. It's all part of his efforts to counter stereotypes of Americans, he wrote.
In place of creature comforts, other cultures often emphasize human relations more than the American culture that holds sacred self-reliance and going it alone.
Privacy is hard to come by. "Someone always knows where I am or where I have gone," notes Stanislawski.
In time, she realized that the standards of friendship are different. People she befriends expect her to stop by their homes and share meals several times a week.
Aliah Carolan, a 1999 W&M graduate who served in Paraguay from 1999 to 2003, wrote in an e-mail, "I think many people go into the Peace Corps thinking that the most rewarding part will be having an impact on other people's lives, but really I think it is the impact on our own lives that is most important."