Peace be with UND

New Peace Corps Prep Certificate program gears students toward global-minded service

UND is now one of less than 100 universities nationwide that offers the Peace Corps Prep Certificate. Its aim, in partnership with the global volunteer agency, is to prepare students for global service. This includes foreign language proficiency, intercultural competency and active volunteerism. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

UND is now one of the few universities nationwide offering the Peace Corps Prep Certificate. Its aim, in partnership with the volunteer agency, is to prepare students for global service. This includes foreign language proficiency, intercultural competency and active volunteerism. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

If there is a singular aspiration today’s youths share, it might very well be to improve the world.

Poll after poll reveal that millennials and Generation X – as dissimilar as they may first appear – genuinely seek to enhance their communities, their classrooms, their offices, and, yes, the globe.

This is a sentiment Thyra Knapp often hears from her students.

“[M]ake the world a better place is what we keep hearing from students, especially the last couple of cohorts that have come through,” said Knapp, who is an associate professor in German Studies, chair of the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, and director of International Studies at the University of North Dakota.

She seized that desire and channeled it toward the establishment of a Peace Corps Prep Certificate program at UND.

A rigorous exploration in diversity, volunteerism and leadership, the program fosters cultural awareness and adaptability that could translate into a two-year opportunity abroad with the Peace Corps.

Fewer than 100 colleges and universities around the country offer the certificate.

UND is among select institutions in the Midwest that have teamed up with the volunteer agency. To the east, the closest Peace Corps partner is St. Catherine University in St. Paul. To the west, it is the University of Montana, nearly 1,000 miles away. Half that distance, but to the south, is Iowa State University.

“Having Peace Corps Prep at the University of North Dakota filled a void for such a program within the upper Great Plains and Eastern Rocky Mountain states,” said Brian Todd, Peace Corps program specialist. “UND students are taught to be leaders who positively impact the world on not only a local, but a national scale.”

Work pays off

Obtaining Peace Corps’ approval for the program was no small task. The first time Knapp sought it, a rejection came. She doubled down and was determined to see it through at UND, as the Peace Corps Prep Certificate aligns well with the purpose of International Studies.

After months of networking with colleges and clubs on campus, culminating with a renewed 26-page application, Knapp received good news.

“The process of putting together the detailed application was essential because it helped me to get to know the people across campus who would be there to support the program once we got it,” she said.

One of the early supporters is Amy Whitney, director of UND Center for Innovation. She envisions an alliance between the program and her center, which tends to place students in challenging environs similar to the demands of the Peace Corps.

“Our goal is to collaborate and design experiential learning opportunities for the Peace Corps certificate students to practice and use creative problem-solving and entrepreneurial skills in partnership with local organizations,” said Whitney.

Director of International Studies Thyra Knapp, left, says the certificate provides a holistic educational experience, applicable to a variety of jobs and pursuits. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

Director of International Studies Thyra Knapp, left, says the certificate provides a holistic educational experience, applicable to a variety of jobs and pursuits. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

Rigorous but rewarding

The program will help students from various disciplines grow their leadership acumen – a crucial facet of the certificate’s requirements. The rest of it entails foreign language proficiency, intercultural competence and at least 50 hours of hands-on experience in one of six fields: education, health, environment, agriculture, youth development, and community economic development.

Because of the sweeping curriculum, Knapp would like to couple the certificate with a minor in peace studies, which UND used to offer. It could take several semesters, however, before the reinstatement of the minor.

In the meantime, Knapp hopes the program will attract up to 30 enrollees a year.

“[The prep certificate] gives students a holistic kind of practical educational experience so when they come out, they will be prepared to really do anything, to go into any job, any sector even if they do not decide to go in the Peace Corps,” said Knapp.

Opportunities ahead

Also, if students do enroll in the Peace Corps, a new fellowship at UND promises financial assistance when they return to the U.S. and pursue a master’s degree.

The Paul D. Coverdell Fellowship links past Peace Corps volunteers with higher-education institutions, where, alongside their studies, they must complete a six-month community project, drawing on the skills they acquired abroad.

The fellowship is available to those interested in UND’s online graduate degrees in public administration and business administration. Its announcement coincided with the arrival of the undergraduate prep certificate.

Brian Urlacher, associate professor in international relations, spearheaded UND’s effort to secure the Coverdell Fellowship.

“The fact that we were able to lock in the Peace Corps Prep certificate and the Coverdell Fellowship really means that we are the institution they work with primarily when they are doing university collaborations,” in the state, said Urlacher.

The Peace Corps programs have also lured the accolades of North Dakota officials. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., recorded a congratulatory video for the Sept. 11 launch of the prep certificate.

“We are bound to enrich UND students further preparing them to be citizens of tomorrow and global citizens,” she said. “This is really quite an opportunity for UND and North Dakota,” which has nourished nearly 600 Peace Corps volunteers since the inception of the organization in 1961.

And for UND, the association with the Peace Corps underscores the pursuit of novel academic horizons in and outside the classroom.

“I think that it puts us on the map for international engagement,” said Knapp. “It shows that UND is looking outward and not just looking inward.”