Ever since he can remember, Blankenbicker had wanted to join the Peace Corps. He recalls asking his parents about the organization at a young age after hearing the name mentioned.
“They very simply told me it was when volunteers went to live in foreign countries to help out. This sounded really cool to me then, and I have wanted to do this ever since,” said Blankenbicker, one of 380 URI alumni who have served in the Peace Corps.
While attending the University of Rhode Island, he studied abroad in Australia for a semester at the University of Queensland, which furthered his desire to encounter new cultures and volunteer for the Peace Corps. Blankenbicker’s interest also increased throughout the completion of his geology major.
“During my time at URI, I realized that there is so much out there in the world, and part of this realization came from my geology professors. They had traveled to a variety of places for research and came back with great stories, not just about the research, but also personal stories about the people and communities with whom they worked,” recalled Blankenbicker.
Blankenbicker graduated in 2004 with a degree in geology and geological oceanography and a minor in math. He received his master’s degree in geology from Michigan Technological University through a program called Masters International, which allows volunteers to finish their graduate thesis while serving in the Peace Corps. Before going to Guatemala, Blankenbicker took one year of coursework through this graduate program, which included a class on living and working in a developing country.
While overseas, Blankenbicker served as an environmental educator in the school system, initially teaching students about the environment and eventually about science as a whole. He worked with students in grades pre-kindergarten through 6, their ages ranging from 4 to 14. Blankenbicker also helped the teachers, leading workshops about environmental education, self-esteem and teamwork. All of the teaching was conducted in Spanish, which made the experience both rewarding as well as challenging.
“I had to learn other ways to communicate, such as images and just being very active with my body and hands. I also helped come up with fun and creative projects for the students, like making kaleidoscopes and hot air balloons out of tissue paper. Sometimes I would lose their focus, but their teachers were there to get them focused again,” recalled Blankenbicker.
According to Blankenbicker, another challenge was getting the students to and from school with the limited transportation system, which usually consisted of an occasional truck or tractor.
“As you explore different cultures and areas of the world, you can really begin to explore yourself as well,” said Blankenbicker.
He also worked in a Guatemalan volcano observatory, where he and other local observers monitored the activity of the volcano Santiaguito by assessing possible geological hazards. Blankenbicker traveled to the observatory each day with a number of other Guatemalan workers and therefore got to know them very well. After spending over two years in Guatemala, Blankenbicker was reluctant to return home.
“I was very sad because I didn’t know when, or if, I would ever see my friends again. It hit me as I was getting seated on the plane…it was very hard,” recalled Blankenbicker.
Blankenbicker is now an educator at the Museum of Science in Boston where he explains science and technology through a variety of live presentations. His wife, Allyson, is now a regional recruiter for the Peace Corps.
Snell had always been interested in service, but was initially intimidated by the two year Peace Corps commitment. When she graduated from Beloit College in Wisconsin, she decided to join AmeriCorps VISTA instead, which is a volunteer program within America. Snell met a number of returning Peace Corps volunteers while serving for a year in New Mexico. After speaking to them about their experiences, Snell decided to join the Peace Corps, and served with her future husband from 2006-2008. She was able to receive her graduate degree from the University of Southern New Hampshire through the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program, which, like Masters International, combines Peace Corps experience with a graduate degree. Once Snell had begun this life-changing journey, she knew she had made the right choice.
“The best part about volunteering with the Peace Corps was the individual relationships I made with the families. The cross-cultural experience and deep connections made the world feel like a small place,” recalled Snell.
Each Peace Corps member serves for 27 months. The first three months are for training that is specific to the culture of each country and includes a safety and security session. According to Snell, the robust training is the reason this organization is able to send its volunteers into a variety of environments.
The Peace Corps was one of the first acts signed into law by former President John F. Kennedy in March 1961. Now, there are more 200,000 volunteers, all of whom are U.S. citizens. In 2011, the organization celebrated its 50th anniversary.
“URI students in particular should apply for Peace Corps service because we are always seeking skilled and competitive applicants to dedicate 27 months of their life in service to others overseas,” said Snell.
As of September 30, 2011, there were 14 URI alumni volunteers in six different sectors in 10 different countries. These sectors include agriculture, education, environment and health, in countries like Cambodia, Cameroon, Panama, Peru, Uganda and Zambia.
“URI students are very community-oriented and tight knit, even though it’s a big school. They seem very aware and thoughtful of citizens. It is clear that the spirit of service is alive and well on campus,” said Snell.
The majority of the Peace Corps programs require volunteers to have a four-year degree and a minimum of 3 to 6 months of experience. Applicants without a college degree are required to have at least 3 to 5 years of experience in a field involving agriculture, forestry, or business development. For those interested in joining, Snell can be reached by phone at (617) 565-6216 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Victoria Antonelli, an intern in the Communications and Marketing Department at URI, wrote this article.
Adam and Allyson take a break from their Peace Corps volunteer work in Guatemala. Photo courtesy of Allyson Snell