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By Stephen Collins '74
Each spring the Peace Corps releases a list ranking colleges and universities by the number of their alumni serving as Peace Corps volunteers. It's a list publicized "to recognize the schools and the contributions they're making to public service," according to James Arena-DeRosa, manager of the Peace Corps' New England regional office.
Colby, a rich lode of volunteers for many years, has climbed steadily in recent rankings and is now second in the nation on the list of colleges with undergraduate enrollments under 5,000. With 22 graduates active in the Peace Corps this year, Colby is tied with Middlebury and has just one fewer than Tufts. That's a substantial contribution to the Peace Corps' mission "to promote world peace and friendship," particularly from a school with substantially fewer students or graduates than either of the other list-leading institutions.
The list has been tallied for about a decade, and a cumulative list of active and former volunteers released several years ago put Colby in the all-time top 20.
Those with a longer view will tell you the ranking is merely a modern manifestation of an ethos that goes way back at Colby. Jean O'Brien Perkins '46, who was a Peace Corps volunteer in her mid-70s, said that "at Colby there was always a sense we should give back to the community and to a larger community."
"That was the general attitude of everyone in the school," she said, referring to the Colby of more than 50 years ago. "My father went to Colby and it had been his attitude, too," she said. In the less-secular world of her father's generation the parallel experience was missionary work, which is a strong thread in the fabric of Colby's history.
Colby's emphasis on international study contributes to its over-representation in the Peace Corps' ranks as well. Colby ranks near the top of another annual list of the numbers and percentages of students who opt to study abroad. Arena-DeRosa sees how the College's global interests funnel alumni toward the Peace Corps. "Any student that goes abroad for part of their education, it just sparks that interest in internationalism," he said.
For Colleen Spindler-Ranta '99, travel abroad was a big attraction for volunteering. She spent her junior year in Sweden and knew she wanted to travel more and to learn about other cultures after graduation. The Peace Corps had the best combination of travel and compensation, so right after earning a degree in geology she signed on to go to Bulgaria to do environmental education in the town of Dobritch.
Jennifer Pope '96 was an international studies and French double major at Colby who spent a term in Caen, France, and then studied Latin American economics and development issues with Professor Patrice Franko (economics). Eager to immerse herself in a developing country, she found the Peace Corps offered the best package of safety, compensation and opportunities to learn. The Corps sent her to Mali (almost literally to Timbuktu), where she helped women get started in small enterprises that allowed them to start a nursery school. "What I took away from it was a different perspective on life," she said. She says she gained "a great appreciation of what we have in the U.S., particularly as a female."
For Perkins, who had raised a family, retired from teaching and lost her husband, the Peace Corps was an opportunity to see another country and culture, not as an "ugly American passing through" but as a partner. "You can do just so many of the Elderhostel things before you say, 'I want something more,'" she said.
And she got something more. She taught English in Sevlievo, Bulgaria, and she still corresponds with Bulgarian friends and enjoys reunions with other Peace Corps volunteers she met there. The thing she is most proud of is a library that she established and continues to support in Sevlievo.
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