When Ada Sheng ’98 signed up to join the Peace Corps in Nicaragua, she wanted to see the world outside of the Ivy League. But a small piece of Yale followed her to Nicaragua, where she ran into her classmate and fellow Peace Corps volunteer, James Tong ’98.
“I remember running into him there and asking, ‘What are you doing here?'” she said.
In a recent Peace Corps ranking, Yale placed 20th among colleges with 5,001 to 15,000 undergraduates for the number of alumni volunteering with the federal organization in 2005. But the University — which enrolled 5,242 undergraduates in 2004-05 — had 27 volunteers last year, and if it had been ranked with colleges with fewer than 5,000 undergraduates, it would have tied for second place. Alumni who were Peace Corps volunteers said they think the program’s popularity at Yale is linked to a general interest in international issues and community service on campus.
Yale’s 2005 Peace Corps participation places it in the middle of the Ivy League, behind Cornell University, the University of Pennsylvania, Brown University and Dartmouth College, and ahead of its other peers in the Ancient Eight.
Philip Jones, the director of Undergraduate Career Services, said more than 100 Yalies apply to the program every year. Together, the Peace Corps and Teach for America are the most popular first destinations for graduating students, he said. Jones said he thinks the Peace Corps appeals to students with a background in community service, and many students use the program as a chance to do humanitarian work before proceeding to graduate school or a career.
“I knew that ultimately I wanted to spend time in graduate or law school, but I was ready to do something in the real world after four years at Yale,” said Bill Day ’87, who volunteered in a Moroccan village on the edge of the Sahara Desert.
Several former Peace Corps members said Yalies’ high participation in volunteer activities in New Haven might play a role in leading people to apply for the program. Day said the Peace Corps was the “ultimate volunteer opportunity,” building on the work he did in New Haven as a volunteer at the Yale-New Haven Hospital emergency room, an elementary school, and as a handgun control activist.
Melanie Bondera ’90 said that when she joined the Peace Corps to volunteer in Sierra Leone, the program was the most popular employer for Yale graduates.
“I associated this with Yale’s bent toward creating individuals who pursue public service as opposed to purely profit,” she said.
Sheng said she thinks the residential college system may encourage people to join the Corps, since students are encouraged to mix with the wide range of personalities placed randomly in each college.
Andrew Burtless, a New York-based Peace Corps recruiter who works with applicants from Yale, said the University has historically been a strong recruiting ground for the program. Word of mouth and name recognition on campus are strong, he said, and many students already have an interest in international affairs.
Peace Corps volunteers are sent to sites with a specific mission, such as environmental work or health care, but most of the Yale alumni described participating in a number of different projects over their two-year enrollments.
Naomi Shinoda ’03, who finished her service in the Republic of Palau last November, said she worked with community leaders to improve water quality, taught children how to isolate DNA from bananas, and put together a third-grade curriculum on solid waste and recycling awareness. Her work was adopted into the third-grade curriculum by the ministry of education in Palau, so it will be taught every year, she said.
In addition to working on AIDS education and agriculture, Bondera said, she helped establish credit cooperatives for a Women’s Vegetable Project with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in Sierre Leone. But when she returned to the country two years later to do her master’s thesis on the women’s success, she said, the program had fallen apart because of a “traditional witch hunt” by local young men.
Although all of the former volunteers contacted for this story called the experience rewarding, several noted that the difficulties of life in developing countries are real. To get to the high school where he taught English in Morocco, Day said he had to cross a river by donkey cart because there was no bridge. Maxime Ko ’99, who volunteered in Senegal, said she came back from the program with several illnesses and nutritional problems.
“I think it is important to set expectations about how big a toll it is on your body,” she said.
After leaving the Peace Corps, Yale alumni pursue a wide variety of paths. Day is now working as a trial lawyer on issues of employment discrimination. Sheng is a clerk for a federal district judge in Boston and plans to pursue a career in international law or development. Bondera and her husband operate a small farm on the Big Island of Hawaii, and Shinoda plans to study infectious diseases at a school for public health.
Shinoda said the pace of life abroad was much slower than it is in the United States, which she thinks “fosters impatience.”
“I’ve learned a lot from my two years abroad,” Shinoda said. “Most of all, I’ve learned to be patient.”