May 08, 2009

A familiar path for many volunteers

For nearly half a century, The Peace Corps has had a synergistic relationship with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. UNC consistently has been among the top 10 universities whose alumni join the Peace Corps. In 2008, UNC had the seventh highest number, with 77 recruits.

But it’s a “two-way street.” Many Peace Corps volunteers come to UNC after completing their field work — often attracted to the Gillings School of Global Public Health’s outstanding faculty and research in several key areas, including health education, health policy, environmental sciences and engineering, maternal and child health, epidemiology, nutrition and public health leadership. Many former volunteers say their assignments opened their eyes to public health needs, and their own need for better education and training if they are to make a greater difference in the world.

“The public health school here at UNC has a lot in common with the Peace Corps,” says Chris Deery, current master’s student in maternal and child health and former Peace Corps volunteer in Niger. “Both the School and the Corps strive to take everyone’s best interests into account. They both try to serve the underserved and be the voice for the voiceless.”

Deery says that being at UNC has inspired him, just as the Peace Corps did. “Professors really care about the people they’re working for,” he says. “You can see through their teaching and service that public health is their passion.”

Marc Jeuland, a doctoral student in environmental sciences and engineering, was drawn to the School through the work of a particular professor while he was still a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali. Jeuland credits Dr. Dale Whittington with showing him how water and sanitation services can best be delivered to the poor.

“Stated simply, the lack of sanitation makes people sick,” Jeuland says, “and that’s something I want to change. The School’s efforts in this area have made a profound impression on me. Dale’s work in household surveys is particularly inspiring because… the survey…gives each person who participates a voice,” even those who are poor and otherwise powerless.

Chinyere Alu came to the master’s program in maternal and child health after her service in Malawi. People in Malawi had placed a great deal of confidence in her ability to find solutions for their problems — more confidence than she had in herself, given that she was learning on the job. She persisted, though, and was thrilled with her relative successes. “I thought, ‘This is the power public health professionals have to make change in the world. This is what they do every day. This is rewarding.”

The School’s long history of local and global engagement — and of a faculty whose experience and expertise so deeply enrich students’ learning — are two of the many reasons Peace Corps volunteers find their way back to Carolina’s school of public health.

“Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy. There will be no salary, and allowances will be at a level sufficient only to maintain health and meet basic needs. Men and women will be expected to work and live alongside the nationals of the country in which they are stationed – doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language.“But if the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying. For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps – who works in a foreign land – will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace.”

– President John F. Kennedy on March 1, 1961, after signing order to establish the United States Peace Corps

— Linda Kastleman

Faculty, staff, students and alumni of the School have served in the Peace Corps around the world. Read their stories here, compiled by Linda Kastleman.

View Peace Corps photographs on Flickr.

See videos about the Peace Corps / public health connection at YouTube.

Join our Peace Corps discussion on LinkedIn.

Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit