First graduate of URI Peace Corps Prep program serving in South Africa

Central Falls resident works at center for orphans, vulnerable children

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URI graduate and Peace Corps volunteer Joseph Gomes, center, in black shirt and glasses, gathers for a photo with villagers in South Africa. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Gomes)
URI graduate and Peace Corps volunteer Joseph Gomes, center, in black shirt and glasses, gathers for a photo with villagers in South Africa. (Photo courtesy of Joseph Gomes)

KINGSTON, R.I., July 5, 2018 — Joseph Gomes, 25, of Central Falls, had never traveled outside the United States before he joined the Peace Corps in January 2017 and headed to South Africa to begin two years of service as a health volunteer.

“As a Rhode Islander, I had taken distance for granted,” Gomes said, “Peace Corps has given me an opportunity to raise awareness about Rhode Island and to identify it on the map.”

When he graduated from URI in 2016, Gomes became the first URI student to complete the Peace Corps Prep program, which prepares undergraduates for international service through coursework, faculty advising, and volunteering. Gomes credits the URI program, the only one of its kind in the state, with emphasizing the importance of forming strong bonds in his new community. “Through the requirements, I learned that the work that you may be doing is a big part of Peace Corps, but also another important factor is the cross cultural exchange, and just having an opportunity to establish relationships that may not have happened if you didn’t join,” Gomes said.

“Our URI Peace Corps Prep Program, which helps prepare students for global service work, has graduated 16 students since we began in 2016,” said Nancy Stricklin, assistant to the provost for global strategies and academic partnerships and administrator of URI”s Peace Corps Prep Program. “Joseph’s experience being accepted into the Peace Corps and now serving in South Africa is an excellent illustration of the program’s benefits. We are so happy to hear about his experiences and look forward to inviting him back to URI to speak to our students upon his return.”

After an intensive three-month training period, Gomes was sent to work at a drop-in center for orphans and vulnerable children in a small village in the hills of South Africa, where he teaches nutrition and gardening classes, facilitates literacy and life skills programs, and supports local staff in project management. In addition to his regular weekday classes, he takes part in community events ranging from baby showers to barbecues, and has formed close friendships despite the initial challenges of navigating a new language and culture.

“One of my greatest bonding moments with some of my co-workers was trying to introduce them to coffee milk, which they all thought the strangest thing ever,” he joked.

Gomes encourages other Rhode Islanders who are interested in the Peace Corps to “learn to be comfortable with the unknown,” and to be flexible and adaptable in seeking a volunteer assignment that makes the best use of their specific skills. “The amount that I have given to my community is miniscule compared to what they have given me,” he said, adding that being in South Africa has made him feel fortunate for what he has, including a fresh appreciation for his Cape Verdean heritage.

Rhode Island ranks number four among states with the highest number of Peace Corps volunteers serving per capita, with 45 residents serving worldwide. URI has ranked among the top 25 volunteer-producing colleges and universities for the past three years. For more information about Peace Corps service, and a list of volunteer opportunities, please visit www.peacecorps.gov.