Seven Bowdoin alumni are currently serving in the Peace Corps in Cambodia, Cameroon, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Ukraine and Zambia. This is half the number it was in 2008 when Bowdoin ranked 24th on the Peace Corps’s list of the top 25 small schools with the largest number of volunteers.
“I don’t think it’s something that is endemic to Bowdoin right now,” said Peace Corps Recruiter Robert Orton in a phone interview with the Orient. Orton has been recruiting at Bowdoin for just over a year and says that Bowdoin’s failure to make the list is probably due to the college’s small sample size.
“I would be thrilled if we could get Bowdoin back onto the list of top colleges by 2015,” Orton said.
Orton works with Meg Springer, assistant director at the Career Planning Center, to address the questions of students interested in applying to the Peace Corps. Both Orton and Springer draw on their own experiences as volunteers in the Corps.
Springer—who has been working at Bowdoin for five years—often reflects on her time serving in Thailand as an English teacher and community development leader.
“Not a day goes by in my life that somehow my Peace Corps experience doesn’t impact me—whether it’s the way I see the world, the way I treat someone, the way I see something, the way I respond,” she said. “It’s just amazing how, 20 years later, the impact is still there.”
One of the seven Bowdoin alumni currently serving abroad is Shanthi Purushotham ’12 who has been living in Ethiopia for about a year. After graduating, Purushotham moved to Singapore to work for the PR agency Ogilvy in their medical communications division.
After spending a few months there, Purushotham wanted a change.
“I didn’t want to be in an office—I really wanted to be connecting with people,” she said in a phone interview with the Orient.
Purushotham had originally applied to the Peace Corps fall of her senior year, and when her application was finally accepted, she left Singapore for Ethiopia. There, she works as a community health volunteer with a focus on HIV/AIDS and economic empowerment.
“If you don’t know much about the Peace Corps, when you see a volunteer you think that person is saving the world,” she said. “But I think people don’t realize how difficult it is to be a volunteer.”
Purushotham has faced many challenges from the members of the rural community she is trying to help. Even still, her work has many rewarding moments. Using $5,000 from the Peace Corps, Purushotham has helped people with HIV/AIDS to start new businesses in their community.
“I was astounded by how motivated they were and how they grabbed the opportunity,” she said.
Other Bowdoin alumni and past Peace Corps volunteers have had similarly rewarding experiences during their years abroad. Helen Pu ’10 worked in health education while serving in Cambodia. She remembers the young women she taught at a girl’s empowerment summer camp who worked so hard to improve their own lives. Pu describes one girl who, on top of attending high school, fitting in extra classes and helping on her family’s rice farm, struggled with domestic violence.
“She was brave enough to share it in one of our sessions to all of the girls in the group,” said Pu in a phone interview with the Orient. “I’m so proud of her.”
Pu chose to apply to the Peace Corps as an opportunity to travel abroad, but she was also influenced by the College’s commitment to service.
“Bowdoin emphasizes service as not just a thing you put on your resume, but something you do your whole life,” she said.
Rachel Munzig ’10, who served in Paraguay in environmental conservation said she thinks that Bowdoin students are often drawn to the Peace Corps for the same reasons they are drawn to the College.
“I think it’s sort of a self-selecting process,” she said. “Bowdoin is really small so you have that feeling of community, and the Peace Corps is a similar community.”
Munzig is still actively involved with the National Peace Corps Association. This week, she traveled to Washington D.C. for National Peace Corps Advocacy Day to speak with congressmen and senators and request their support of the Peace Corps.