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Peace Corps rates U.Va. No. 1

Grads’ commitment to service a boon to Peace Corps

By Jane Ford and Lee Graves

Matthew Hural has known since high school that he wanted to serve in the Peace Corps. In June, within weeks of graduating from U.Va., he begins a two-year stint in Mongolia, teaching English.

In this country nestled between Russia and China, Hural will lead a life that is about as different as it could be from his years here in the United States, said Hural, an Architecture School graduate.

Mongolia is a country most Westerners know as the home of the 13th-century conqueror Genghis Khan. Today, the primary occupations are still nomadic herding and agriculture.

Hural is lured by the challenge.

He doesn’t know a lot about the area and doesn’t speak the language — in fact, he doesn’t speak any foreign language.

“I took four years of Latin in high school and never had to speak it,” he said. “Mongol is not like any language I’ve heard before. It is a cross between Russian and Chinese.”


Since 1961, more than 168,000 volunteers have served in the Peace Corps.

They work in areas such as education, health, HIV/AIDS awareness and education, information technology, agriculture, business development and the environment.

Volunteers must be U.S. citizens and at least 18 years old.

The majority of volunteers over the past 42 years have been college graduates — 86 percent with undergraduate degrees, 12 percent with graduate degrees or having studied on the graduate level.

Service is a two-year commitment.
Details about the organization are at


Hural is among a growing number of students joining the Peace Corps, and U.Va. is at the forefront of this trend. The University has provided the Peace Corps the most volunteers of any mid-size college or university in the country. Over the years, about 730 U.Va. grads have gone into the Peace Corps. More than 60 are currently serving, and another nine are headed into service this summer.

Colleges and universities provide most of the volunteers for the Peace Corps, and that does not go unappreciated.

“The Peace Corps is proud of the recruitment support it continues to receive from some of the finest institutions in the country,” said Peace Corps director Gaddi H. Vasquez in announcing the ranking of U.Va. and other top schools.

Sara Johnston, a Peace Corps spokeswoman in Washington, said the numbers are increasing for a variety of reasons. “President Bush wanted to double the size of the Peace Corps, and we’re definitely seeing an increase over last year. There are a lot of people wanting to make a difference.”

Altruism is not always the inspiration. “The economy probably plays a factor, although we can only speculate on these things,” Johnston said.

The Peace Corps changed its ranking process this year. In the past, it lumped all colleges and universities together, so that behemoths such as the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which sent 123 graduates into the Peace Corps, were in the same pool with the likes of Tufts University, which sent 31.

Now, there are three categories. Wisconsin, with about 41,500 students leads among large universities. Tufts, with about 8,500 students, leads among small universities. U.Va. is tops among mid-size schools.

“It really wasn’t fair for U.Va. and others to be competing with schools with 60,000 students,” Johnston said.

While the ranking is a feather in the cap for U.Va., it’s not the major motivation for students. The challenge, the travel and the chance to serve are more important.
Andrea Barbery, a chemical engineering graduate, is headed to Burkina Faso to teach science to high school students.

On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued an Executive Order creating the Peace Corps. Three days later, Sargent Shriver was appointed its first director.

Photo courtesy of the Peace Corps

A South African nation about the size of Colorado, Burkina Faso is one of the poorest countries in the world. About 90 percent of the 12.6 million people survive through subsistence farming. About half are under the age of 14, slightly more than a third are literate and only 1 percent are able to attend college.

The impact of AIDS on the country is devastating and life expectancy is about 46 years. “It will be a big challenge,” said Barbery.

She is headed to Ouagadougou, the capital, with other volunteers assigned to work in Burkina Faso. The group will begin their trip from Philadelphia on June 9.

Hural’s first stop will be in San Francisco for training and to meet with other volunteers before embarking for Mongolia. He’s eager to see the annual summer Naadam festival, a competition that dates back to the 15th century, featuring traditional dress. Armies of nomads compete in events such as horse racing and ancient archery and wrestling contests.

While upbeat, Hural and Barbery know there will be difficulties. One will be isolation. Phone calls are extremely expensive, and Barbery said airmail letters from her region of the world will take one to two months to arrive at their destinations.

Still, she’s determined not to focus on the negatives.

“It’s awesome. I’m excited,” she said. “This is a good opportunity to take advantage of this great program and a great time in my life to give back.”



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