In 1999, Julie Tritz traveled to Morocco to help women and young girls learn to read and write.
In 1989, Steve DiFazio went to Guatemala to teach farmers the soil conservation skills they needed to support their economy. At the same time, his now wife, Catherine Whitworth was teaching students in rural communities how to better manage their resources.
All of these West Virginia University faculty and staff members were part of the Peace Corps; an experience they say was nothing short of “life changing.”
As the Peace Corps celebrates its 50th anniversary, WVU is encouraging its students to jump on the valuable education experience the organization offers.
That is why the University partnered with the Peace Corps to offer the Peace Corps Master’s International, a professional science master’s degree in sustainable forestry and natural resource management.
The University is currently recruiting for the program, which will begin during the fall 2011 semester.
“We are extremely excited and proud to be able to offer this opportunity to WVU students,” said Todd Petty, coordinator for the program and associate professor of wildlife and fisheries. “Students will be able to apply the things they’ve learned at WVU while serving overseas and see the benefits as they help develop sustainable, community-based strategies.”
WVU is holding a Peace Corps Information Session at the Career Services Center in the Mountainlair on Friday (March 4) from noon to 1 p.m. Anyone interested in learning more about the program and the organization is encouraged to stop by.
In honor of the Peace Corps 50th anniversary, Morgantown Mayor and former Peace Corps volunteer Bill Byrne declared March 2011 Peace Corps Month. He will speak at Friday’s information session.
Another public awareness forum will be held in Charleston at the Civic Center from 1-3 p.m. on March 12.
As someone who participated in a Peace Corps master’s program when she was a student at Rutgers University, Whitworth understands the value of such a degree.
“Resource conservation is a global issue and our economy is a global one,” said Whitworth, program manager for WVU’s Translational Tobacco Reduction Research Program. “International experience will help future leaders become better decision makers and better world collaborators.”
While abroad Whitworth helped to teach environmental conservation in public schools and rural communities. She and DiFazio collaborated to establish school forestry nurseries, build compost heaps and work with school teachers to incorporate resource conservation topics into existing curricula.
“It was great experience for my professional tool box,” she said. “It changed my world view.”
Being part of the master’s program also helped to encourage Whitworth to stay abroad when times were tough.
“Sometimes service can be really challenging and having that tangible reason to stay can be really helpful,” she said.
DiFazio, associate professor of biology at WVU, and Whitworth met while completing their service in Guatemala.
Growing up in the city of Boston and having never successfully planted anything in his life, the Peace Corps was a “tremendous learning experience” for DiFazio.
“In three months I learned how to speak Spanish, plant trees and crops, and then was dropped off at the site to work,” he said. “It was a sink or swim situation, and I guess I swam.”
DiFazio can’t gauge the impact the experience had on his life – it was too powerful.
“It taught me to be self-reliant and creative. I had to learn a lot of people skills very quickly,” he said. “At the end I can’t pin point a lot of concrete accomplishments but I met a lot of people, and I think I impacted a lot of lives and they definitely impacted my life.”
Perhaps the most valuable thing DiFazio gained from his experience – other than meeting his wife – was a new perspective on life outside of the United States. A perspective that taught him the importance of the work he does as a biology professor, and taught him to be thankful.
“I learned to value things that are not necessarily material, because the vast majority of the people I met were happy and they were happy with a lot less than what your average American has at their disposal,” he said.
Although Tritz, a 4-H extension agent in Wayne County, was not doing the same work as DiFazio or Whitworth, what she gained was much the same.
“The experience was invaluable,” she said. “It made me appreciate different cultures, and the basic amenities that we as Americans tend to take for granted – like water, electricity and having enough food on the table each day.”
In Morocco, she worked in a small village teaching women and young girls to read and write. A skill, she said, 99.9 percent of women in the village did not have.
At the end of her experience, her team had constructed a women’s center – a place for them to call their own.
Now working for WVU Extension, Tritz said the job fits well with the work she was doing abroad.
“I work in a local setting, with local people and work with them to help meet their needs,” she said, adding that she may not have decided to do this work if it had not been for the Peace Corps.
By Colleen DeHart
WVU University Relations/News
CONTACT: University Relations/News
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