The Peace Corps Awaits

By Sarah Vehrs

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Many students nearing the end of their college careers can see the light at the end of the tunnel. However, there is something lurking in the shadows that we try our best to avoid or dodge at all costs, and that is the dreaded question, “What are your plans after graduation?”

Post-graduate plans don’t have to be evaded or postponed. For the first time, many of us have the freedom to choose any direction we want to take. Whether that be traveling, continuing our education or applying for a “real” job, soon we will all take a big step toward officially “adulting.”

The hardest part is daring to let yourself dream, but investing in yourself is the most important step you can ever take. One student who figured that out early is senior President’s Scholar Hannah Tsutsui.

“I want to be able to help people, and the only organization that really seemed like it would bring fulfillment to me was the Peace Corps,” she said.

Tsutsui explained that there are essentially two kinds of organizations: benefactors and intermediaries. Benefactors are groups that give aid in times of need, but they don’t change anything long term. However, intermediaries, like the Peace Corps, create lasting, sustainable change. They don’t just give food and leave, but they help people help themselves.

When Tsutsui got accepted to Long Beach State four years ago, she started working on making her dream of serving in the Peace Corps a reality. She got connected with Jessica Wilson, the university’s very own Peace Corps recruiter. Wilson’s job is to spread awareness about the unique opportunity students have to use their degrees and volunteer abroad for 27 months.

This organization offers students an opportunity to travel while doing meaningful work, learn a new language and grow their professional skill sets, Wilson said. She got to experience this firsthand when she volunteered to teach in China for two years.

“I saw every day in my classes how eager my students were to learn about American life and culture, and I, in turn, was required to step outside my comfort zone and challenge my own beliefs and perspectives,” Wilson said in an email. “Despite economic, political, and other differences, I made lifelong friendships and I now have a ‘family’ on the other side of the world, as well as a new and profound understanding of the language, history, culture and people that offered me a second home.”

Tsutsui learned that getting accepted is a highly competitive process with a rigorous application and interview. She excelled in her anthropology classes, a major she chose because of her passion for studying other cultures. She also minored in Spanish so she could be a versatile candidate and hopefully be sent to her region of choice: South America.

Then, one morning, after waiting months for a response, Tsutsui checked her email and saw the long-awaited letter that would define the course of her future. “Congratulations…” it began.

“I had a huge gasp as I read the email, and my sister sat straight up and was like, ‘What? Are you okay?’ She thought something bad had happened,” Tsutsui said. “I was like ‘Oh my gosh! I got in!’ I started crying, and she hugged me, and it was one of the best moments of my life. I’ve never wanted anything so bad.”

She will leave for Colombia in September and have the opportunity to co-teach English with a Colombian teacher. Tsutsui explained that the internet is 60 percent English, and if you don’t speak English, you’re locked out of 60 percent of the world’s knowledge.

“I think there is this ‘we need to save people’ ideology out there, and that’s not what the Peace Corps is about,” Tsutsui said. “It’s about respecting other cultures and understanding ‘you have a way of life and that is awesome and I respect that,’ however...I want to be able to give them skills that they can keep for the rest of their lives that will help improve their lives in any way they might need.”

Besides teaching people, Tsutsui looks forward to improving her Spanish and be truly bilingual. During her two-year service period, she will get all weekends off and earn 48 vacation days, which can be used to travel in South America or visit home.

“South America isn’t that far away,” Tsutsui said. “I have a big family and I know I’ll miss them, so I like the idea of not being super far away from home. I told my mom ‘Colombia is the top of South America, so it’s like I’m down the street.’”

When Tsutsui returns home, she will receive an $8,000 stipend so she can find work and housing. If she applies for a government job within the first year back, she will have priority over all other candidates. For students interested in continuing their education, the Peace Corps also has partnerships with several universities and some offer funding to help pay tuition.

Another perk for students thinking about serving in the Peace Corps after graduation is that they offer loan deferment. Students who just finished their Bachelor’s don’t have to pay back loans until after they are done serving for two years.

“[Tsutsui] is bright, well-rounded and an effective leader with a passion for service,” Wilson said. “I believe all these attributes will make her a remarkable Peace Corps volunteer and teacher in Colombia.”

Tsutsui encourages anyone who is interested or have thought about it to take that leap of faith.

“They say that the Peace Corps is the hardest job you’ll ever love,” she said. “When else are you going to have a chance to just go somewhere? Your parents, your siblings, your friends are all going to be there in two years. This is the time to do it.”