Peace Corps participation jumps by 45 percent

Peace Corps Togo

Returning Peace Corps Volunteer Sebastian Rivera is photographed during his 28 months of service in Togo.

The Peace Corps recently recognized FIU for having the biggest increase in Peace Corps volunteers among Florida’s large universities.

The number of FIU alumni serving overseas in 2015 shot up to 16, which represents a 45 percent jump in the university’s participation.

“I think people who choose FIU are looking for a global perspective,” said alumna Caryn Lavernia, ’01, Master of Public Administration ’13. “An experience like this really opens your eyes. It was probably one of the most rewarding things I’ve been able to do.”

Lavernia, 35, who served in the Peace Corps from 2005 to 2008, used the skills she learned in earning her undergraduate degree in hospitality management to help the village of Tasiriki in Vanuatu develop an eco-tourism enterprise.

“I felt like I really contributed something special for the local people running a bungalow and restaurant,” she added. “I taught them some phrases in English so they could communicate with tourists from Australia and helped them create a platform to share their customs and culture.”

Peace Corps Vanuatu

Caryn Lavernia also helped villagers in Vanuatu learn to make roofing tiles. Here she is pictured with construction experts who participated in the project.

FIU is planning for more students to follow in Lavernia’s footsteps. In the Fall of 2014, the university partnered with the Peace Corps to launch its Peace Corps Prep Program, which has seen 190 students enroll to help improve the skills they need to become successful overseas volunteers.

Participants of the Peace Corps Prep Program take four Global Learning courses, participate in four semesters of foreign language study, complete a globally focused community engagement project, and produce a written self-reflection.

Sophomore Tiphaine Olivier, 20, already is getting a jump-start on her community engagement project – a series of information sessions in the native language of recent U.S. arrivals that provide a snapshot of the educational opportunities available to their children.

Getting this project off the ground, Olivier said, will be a good way to prepare for the types of service projects she will undertake with the Peace Corps upon graduation.

“Being able to discover new cultures will be a big eye-opener,” said Olivier, an international relations major. “Volunteers also build long-lasting relationships with the families overseas building connections that produce peace through understanding – that’s what’s really appealing.”

Sebastian Rivera, who serves as a mentor to students in the FIU Peace Corps Prep Program and served 28 months in the small West African village of Gbadhahe in Togo from 2012 to 2014, saw that first-hand.

Peace Corps Vanuatu Family

Caryn Lavernia took this snapshot with her host family in Vanuatu. They still keep in touch through snail mail and by phone.

He helped with the births of 15 babies and led a program to educate villagers on animal husbandry.

“It was the most rewarding experience of my life, but it was also the most challenging,” said Rivera, who plans to join FIU’s master of social work program in the fall. “It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love. You’ll be hot, you’ll be sick, and out of nowhere you’ll have a special case or a special relationship that will make it all worth it.”

Ultimately, Lavernia agreed, the relationships are what count most.

“I have a family on the other side of the world,” she said of the family that hosted her in Vanuatu. “We exchange letters and when we can, we talk over the phone. The family that I gained in this experience is the most important thing to me.”

Overall, the number of FIU students currently serving in the Peace Corps ranks it fourth in Florida behind, the University of Florida, Florida State, and the University of South Florida.

Students interested in learning more about the FIU Peace Corps Prep Program can visit goglobal.fiu.eduor email

To read the Peace Corps announcement, click here.

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