Cal State Fullerton tops Peace Corps volunteer list

(Originally published in The Daily Titan Thursday, April 19.)

Children make a map mural in Nicaragua. Photo courtesy of Olenka Langen.

The Peace Corps recently named Cal State Fullerton the worldwide organization’s top volunteer-producing Hispanic Serving Institution.

Among universities that cater to Hispanic students, CSUF leads with 27 undergraduate alumni currently serving as Peace Corps volunteers. The rankings, released April 3, put four other Cal State Universities in the top 10: Northridge has 24, Los Angeles has 11 and San Bernardino and Fresno each have eight.

The U.S. Department of Education defines Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) as institutions having a student body of at least 25 percent Hispanic students. The department awards research grants to support Hispanic student education, according to the department’s website.

“This is actually the first year that we’ve released the rankings for the HSIs, so it’s really exciting,” said Erin Durney, a Peace Corps public affairs assistant.

The Corps has been counting its top volunteer-producing small, medium and large universities for about 10 years, she said of the organization.

This is not the first time CSUF has been awarded a distinction for serving Hispanic students.
CSUF ranks first in the state and fifth in the country for awarding the most bachelor’s degrees to Hispanic students, according to a Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education study released in May 2011. The university has a 32 percent Hispanic population, according to census data taken in fall 2011.

Peace Corps volunteers serve abroad for 27 months, with the first three months set aside for training and 24 months for service. The program is free and volunteers receive free travel expenses and a stipend for housing. Volunteers are given $7,425 after their 27-month service, according to the organization’s website.

The Corps has 9,000 current volunteers across 75 host countries, Durney said. About 600 of these volunteers are Hispanic.

CSUF graduate Olenka Langen, 27, who served in Nicaragua and Ecuador for the Peace Corps, said the organization’s diversity attracted her.

“(It’s) a multicultural organization (and) they focus on spreading diversity within us and through us into other countries, but also that we work together to get to know each other and how we all are different,” said Langen, who is half Peruvian.

Langen, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in child and adolescent development in 2007 and received a teaching credential in elementary education in 2008, became fluent in Spanish to teach science and environmental studies to children in Nicaragua. She also helped the children with public service projects like planting trees and painting murals of the world map.

The experience continues to help her today as a substitute teacher in Garden Grove and Buena Park, she said.

“Having the (ability to speak) Spanish now helps a little because I can talk to some kids, like one kid in my class just started school and he doesn’t speak English,” Langen said.

While the organization has diversity, improvements can be made, said Heather Johnson, 26.
Johnson, who graduated from CSUF in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, said that out of the 100 volunteers in her group in Ukraine, only five were Hispanic.

“I think having more Hispanics would give other countries a better understanding of America,” said Johnson, who is Mexican American.

CSUF graduate Kelly Belz, who has been working in HIV prevention in Ethiopia since May 2011, said her work in the Peace Corps goes beyond helping people.

“(It is also) a way to gain working experience and help you on your career path,” said Belz by email.

Belz plans to get her master’s degree and work for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or a related global field after her service, she said.

“Someone once told me that to a lot of companies, two years of (serving in the Peace Corps) was as good as four years (of) real work experience,” Belz said.

The map took three months to complete. “I went back after 18 months and saw that the map was still there and to the community stood as a token of pride,” Olenka Langen says.

President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961. It has since allowed more than 200,000 Americans to serve in 139 host countries.

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