Master’s International Program Links Peace Corps Service to Graduate Programs

Posted: October 27, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

master's international student
Adrianne Brakefield (in blue shirt), is a political science graduate student enrolled in Mason’s Master’s International program who teamed up with Habitat for Humanity volunteers while she was completing her Peace Corps assignment in Romania.
Photo courtesy of Adrianne Brakefield

By Leah Kerkman Fogarty

“Some people dream of being president while growing up,” says Adrianne Brakefield, a Mason graduate student in political science. “I dreamt of being a Peace Corps volunteer.”

Thanks to an innovative program at Mason, Brakefield was not only able to achieve her lifelong goal when she returned from 27 months in Romania last summer, but she was able to earn her master’s degree in political science at the same time.

The Master’s International program is a partnership between 54 universities across the United States and the Peace Corps. Through the program, students are able to simultaneously earn a master’s degree while serving their two-year commitment to the Peace Corps. Mason’s program has one of the highest enrollments of any participating college.

“It allows students the best of both worlds,” Brakefield says. “The Master’s International program allowed me to combine both my master’s and desire to serve in the Peace Corps. It was a win-win situation.”

master's student with
Another part of Brakefield’s Peace Corps assignment was running a drama camp for teens in Romania, an important exercise in creativity for those in the formerly communist country. Above, Brakefield posed with two of her campers.
Photo courtesy of Adrianne Brakefield

Rise in International Interest

Peg Koback, the Department of Public and International Affairs (PIA)’s coordinator for the Master’s International, has been working on the program since Mason launched it three years ago.

“A lot of prospective students hear about our program from the Peace Corps web site,” says Koback. Mason is the only school in the Washington, D.C., area to offer graduate degrees in public administration or political science through the 36-credit Master’s International program.

“I think that’s one reason people come looking for it. We have students from all over the country inquiring about it,” says Koback.

From Eastern Europe to Central America to Africa, Mason students are studying all around the world through the Peace Corps. Of the 12 students involved in the program through PIA, three have returned from their Peace Corps assignments, eight are currently abroad and one student has yet to depart.

The College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) and the College of Health and Human Services (CHHS) also offer degrees through the partnership with the Peace Corps. According to Wendy Payton, assistant provost for academic affairs in the Provost’s Office, five students are currently enrolled in the Master’s International program through CEHD’s master’s of education track and one student is enrolled in the program through CHHS’s master’s of health services management track. None of those students have returned from their Peace Corps assignments yet.

Brakefield found getting the real-world experience was useful in her goals. “I hope to have a career in either humanitarian work or international development, but I also want to live overseas and travel regularly,” she says. “I have the travel bug now that I have been a volunteer.”

Challenging American Ideologies

After students complete at least 18 credits toward their degree, they can then leave for their 27-month Peace Corps commitment. During that time, says Koback, students must “report back on their experiences and reflect on the classes they’ve taken and how that applies, or doesn’t apply, to their experiences.” Most students do this by blogging during the Peace Corps portion of the program.

But while the Peace Corps calls its assignments “the toughest job you’ll ever love,” it’s not all fun and games for students. In fact, Jeremiah Marquis, a graduate student of political science who returned from his Peace Corps assignment in Paraguay in the summer, jokes: “The first question I always get about Peace Corps is ‘What kind of hut did you live in?'”

Both Brakefield and Marquis, who are the first two Mason students currently in the program to return from the Peace Corps, agree that it was differences in culture that often proved to be the biggest challenge. Assigned to a former communist country – Romania was led by communists from 1947 to 1989 – Brakefield was surprised to find the effects of this rule still lingering.

“Romania is fairly developed, so lack of material amenities was not so much a challenge as getting used to the mentality,” says Brakefield. “I don’t think I ever completely overcame that obstacle, I just focused on learning to accept it.”

master's student with children
Jeremiah Marquis (in baseball cap) joined some of the local children in Paraguay after they had completed an art project. Marquis lived in a rural town in Paraguay for 27 months to complete his Peace Corps commitment portion of the Master’s International program.
Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Marquis

Global Life Lessons

Learning to work with the local governments is the only way to create a lasting impact, Brakefield and Marquis say.

For example, Marquis worked with the local government to help get paving rock for the Paraguayan roads, which flooded and became impassable after severe rain. He says he still gets e-mails from Paraguayan citizens asking questions about how to continue his project, so he’s glad he found a sustainable contribution.

And despite the obstacles they sometimes faced, both Brakefield and Marquis have future plans to travel abroad. Marquis would like to spend a year in Asia, and Brakefield might even re-apply for the Peace Corps.

“Peace Corps is not for everyone,” says Brakefield. “The adventure can be challenging, but there are also many rewarding moments.” Marquis adds, “It taught me more about myself in two years than I had learned in the prior 23 years.”

As Koback puts it, “When [Brakefield and Marquis] came back, they had an abundance of patience. They had obviously matured quite a bit. And they learned things that are relevant to the program, so it’s a good mix.”

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