They hail from four different states. Their college and life experiences are diverse. However, one common thread runs among them: they are all charter members of the West Virginia University Peace Corps Masters International program who want to help make the world a better place.
As the Peace Corps celebrates its 50th anniversary, Allison Broski, Shannon Behmke, Jennie Franks and Catherine Hansen are settling into their first semester of the program and life in Morgantown.
Established by the Peace Corps in 1987, the program allows graduate students to combine the pursuit of a master’s degree with a full tour of service with the organization. In partnership with the Peace Corps, WVU launched the PCMI program in sustainable forestry and natural resource management in the fall of 2010.
Housed within the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, the program allows students to pursue degrees in the areas of forest resources management ; plant and soil sciences ; recreation, parks and tourism resources ; and wildlife and fisheries resources. There are also a variety of funding options available including full tuition waivers, graduate assistantships and student work opportunities. Likewise, program participants have a higher rate of placement into Peace Corps service.
The only West Virginia native currently enrolled in the program, Allison Broski of Triadelphia, was introduced to the Peace Corps at a very young age.
“It was suggested as a route if you like to help people,” she said. “As I grew older, I always kept it in mind as a way to assist those who are not as privileged as we are as persons from the United States, which already provides an unequalled opportunity to learn from experiencing different cultures and lifestyles.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from WVU this summer, Broski began the Peace Corps’ extensive application process. It was then that her recruiter told her about the PCMI program, and she began to consider applying to the new WVU graduate program.
“After I finished the medical evaluation, I was awaiting a response for the next steps from the Peace Corps, and decided that I wanted to make myself a more capable applicant in the process,” she explained. “Through the study of agriculture, I hope to be more qualified and capable of fulfilling my service as best as possible.”
Broski is getting the perfect introduction to agriculture through an independent study with Jim Kotcon, associate professor of plant pathology, on the WVU Organic Farm. Her research focuses on the brown marmorated stink bug and its effect on tomatoes.
Combining knowledge of agriculture and resource management with practical land-use skills is not something she feels applies exclusively to her future Peace Corps assignment.
“Ultimately, I feel that these skills will be useful throughout a lifetime, whether in the Peace Corps or working abroad, or growing food for a small community in West Virginia,” Broski said.
While looking into college options as a senior in high school, Shannon Behmke of Bethlehem, Pa. had one thing on her mind – exploration outside of Pennsylvania.
She followed a path to Florida State University – as far east and south as was comfortable with her family – where she earned a degree in biological sciences.
Behmke didn’t confine herself to the Sunshine State, however.
While at FSU, she spent a year studying abroad in Panama. She believes the experience helped prepare her for her Peace Corps adventure.
“I can’t say for sure yet, but I feel my year in Panama has given me insight on how to immerse myself into a completely different culture,” she said. “You try everything that’s put on your plate from the different foods, the dancing and communicating using a new language. Even though your ability to speak the language is far from flawless and your dancing skills aren’t up to speed, the fact that you’re trying means the world.”
From a young age, Behmke can remember her mom saying she could see her on a Greenpeace boat. Although unsure of what she wanted to do after graduation, some combination of research and service seemed to be in her future.
The WVU PCMI program gives her the opportunity to do both.
She’s currently conducting field research with Todd Katzner, research assistant professor of wildlife and fisheries resources in the Division of Forestry and Natural Resources, on vultures to monitor levels of environmental contaminants with a special focus on lead.
Behmke is also coming into the program with eyes wide open.
“The best way is to go in without expectations,” she said. “That way you can’t be disappointed, only excited.”
Jennie Franks of Geneseo, Ill., always knew she wanted to participate in a non-traditional master’s program.
After earning a biology degree with an ecology emphasis from University of Wisconsin-Platteville, she began exploring graduate programs that would allow her to apply what she learned in school.
Through her research she came in contact with Todd Petty, associate professor of wildlife and fisheries resources, who is also overseeing the PCMI program at the University.
“Graduate school has always been a priority for me, but the service is a bonus,” she said. “When I compared what I was looking for to the Peace Corps, I found our goals aligned very well.”
Franks is working with Petty to establish user group surveys for West Virginia watersheds that have been affected historic and present day mining for organizations to use as additional management tools in assessment of outreach efforts. The short-term goal of the project is to determine people’s perceptions of the bodies of water near to where they live. However, in the long term she hopes her research will contribute to the expansion and development of human dimensions in watershed management within Appalachia.
As someone who had little background in socioeconomic research, Franks is looking forward to her time at WVU and to how the experience will prepare her for her time abroad.
“I really want to broaden myself,” she said. “You learn so much about yourself when put in uncomfortable situations.”
Although she realizes the portrait of her life is made up of many small pictures, Catherine Hansen of Stafford Springs, Conn., hopes the final image will show someone who has known the length and width of her life.
That is what ultimately led her to the PCMI program.
“I woke up one day and realized my life just wasn’t going to become something spectacular on its own. I knew I needed to go out there and grab life by the reins,” Hansen said. “I wrote a list of things I wanted out of life. Among those things were to be happy, cultured, more educated, articulate, and generous. As I looked for outlets to accomplish those goals, I found the Peace Corps and the PCMI program. This is the best option for me as I am able to accomplish my goals in addition to giving back. It’s a win-win situation.”
With an interest in sustainable design, she has found a home at WVU in the Division of Design and Merchandising. Her graduate research focuses on eliminating negative environmental impact through design.
Hansen and Franks are also members of EnvironMentors, a national environment-based mentoring program that provides high school students the opportunity to work with researchers and professionals to develop scientifically rigorous research projects.
A graduate of Eastern Connecticut State University with a degree in business administration, Hansen was comfortable in her professional career, but she ultimately wanted more.
“Before I left Connecticut I was close to my family, making good money, stable in my career, and had a pretty nice car; however something was still missing,” she said. “Just prior to joining the program, I was even offered a higher paying job as a financial recruiter that was right up my alley.”
But Hansen knows the business world will always be there.
“Now is the perfect time for me to go experience what life has to offer. I don’t have a house, kids, or really anything but my own fear holding me back and I refuse to let fear stop me,” she said. “I know this will be a life-changing adventure for me, and I am excited. Now I can faithfully say I am on the road to finding my happiness.”
The cohort will be formally introduced to WVU researchers at the International Research Symposium scheduled for 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Fri., Oct. 21, in room 101 of the National Research Center for Coal and Energy.
CONTACT: Lindsay Willey, Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design
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