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College of Social Work

  • Shelby Guinn and Sydney Arsenault

Serving the World

Apr. 1, 2019
Chris Woodley

On Mar. 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps. The organization gives Americans the opportunity to volunteer abroad and work alongside local leaders to tackle some of the most pressing social issues. Two soon-to-be graduates of the College of Social Work’s Bachelor of Social Work program hope to join the more than 235,000 Americans who have volunteered with the Peace Corps.

BSW students Sydney Arsenault and Shelby Guinn intend will take their studies and experiences from the College of Social Work to serve populations with the greatest needs.

“Joining the Peace Corps has been a goal of mine since childhood,” said Guinn. “I always thought it would be a great way to gain cultural experience, develop personal skills and learn more about yourself and your capabilities.” 

According to the Peace Corps, their organization currently has 7,367 volunteers in 62 countries. Volunteers serve in a variety of sectors, including education, health, youth in development and community economic development.  

Guinn recently began the Peace Corps interview process for her first choice, serving as a youth development specialist in the African country of Morocco. If accepted, she would leave on Sept. 8, and her duties would include providing emotional support groups, camp projects, English classes, and other resources for youth in a rural Moroccan community. 

“I am looking forward to working with children and excited to see what growing up in another culture is like and how it affects them,” said Guinn. “Right now, I am working with children as part of my internship, and I want to understand the differences between children here and those in another country.” 

Arsenault will complete her graduate studies in social work through the College of Social Work's 11-month Advanced Standing program before applying. As an undergrad, she served as a Peace Corps campus ambassador for two years and worked with a regional recruiter for North Carolina and South Carolina. Arsenault attended organization and career fairs and helped organize class talks. She also helped establish the Peace Corps Prep Program at the University of South Carolina, which is now run through the Study Abroad Office. The program helps interested students frame past and current experiences for Peace Corps applications.   

“I heard about the Peace Corps during my freshman year of undergrad and felt it would be a great way to help people,” said Arsenault. “It will be fun to learn from other cultures and people who are experiencing a completely different life than me. The Peace Corps sounded like the best of everything for me.” 

According to the Peace Corps website, 90 percent of volunteers would recommend service. Volunteers must commit to 27 months of service, including three months of training, but there is always the uncertainty and risks of living in a completely different environment for prospective volunteers such as Arsenault and Guinn.

“It’s a little nerve-wracking for me because 27 months is a long time,” said Arsenault. “I’ve researched how volunteers adapted and found that there is a point about halfway through their time when they feel like they need to go home. I’m worried about how that will affect me since my mom and I are very close and communicating with her will be different.”

“I have read stories where people have to walk miles just to get internet access,” said Guinn. That worries me because I am close with my parents, and I’m used to communicating with them anytime. Another worry is the health risk and how I’ll adapt in my new environment. I also read about volunteers whose bodies have trouble adapting to the environment and water, which led to digestive and other health issues. One thing I think about is, ‘What if I get sick?’”

Dr. Jody Olsen, who hold a Master of Social Work degree, is a former Peace Corps volunteer and the current director of the organization. Both Guinn and Arsenault believe their experiences at the College of Social Work will be relevant for the Peace Corps.

“I think the College of Social Work prepares students for an experience like the Peace Corps, specifically in classes on cultural sensitivity and awareness,” said Guinn. “Learning about the empathetic perspective, understanding that all people are different and meeting them where they are will help when I’m overseas. It’s useful skills to have, especially when you are going somewhere unfamiliar where you might not fully understand the culture.”

“I fully agree with meeting people where they are,” said Arsenault. “That is a huge aspect of social work. I think the core values of social work, such as service and social justice embody the Peace Corps mission and values. Client self-determination and equal access to health and education are things I love about social work, and I want to take those with me when I serve.”

While health and safety can be a concern for some volunteers, both students agree that the Peace Corps will be a life-changing experience.

“The unofficial tagline of the Peace Corps is, ‘the toughest job you will ever love,’” said Arsenault. “The hard times will teach me lessons, and I’ll realize how some of the things we worry about are pretty trivial. Upon returning, I expect to gain an inner peace, and to be more resilient and tougher about the things that would initially make me uncomfortable.”

“I hope this experience will make me a braver person and equip me to better handle challenges and solve problems,” said Guinn. “If you’re always comfortable you will never grow. I’m hoping to experience some serious personal development with limited resources and apply those experiences.”

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