Peace Corps & Denison go hand-in-hand

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A child loads an oxcart with sugarcane in Paraguay, where Homestead Coordinator Thomas Henshaw worked with an agricultural extension office while serving in the Peace Corps. (Photo: Peace Corps Digital Library)

Phil Waite spends a lot of time with lab supplies. As the Chemistry Department’s stockroom supervisor, it’s his job. But 36 years ago, he was working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Liberia, and he didn’t have enough supplies, or even textbooks, for his over-crowded classroom of students.

“About half of the students had (American) biology textbooks, so giving assignments from the text was nearly impossible,” he writes about his experience there. “I would fill the chalkboard with notes almost every lesson.”

Phil Waite taught Liberian students as a Peace Corps volunteer 36 years ago.

At the time, he was just out of college and felt compelled to put a dent in the world’s hardships. And he did. Despite adverse conditions, he taught one of the largest graduating classes at Bassa High School in Buchanan, Liberia, and his students earned some impressive National Exam Scores, to boot. Waite also married a Liberian woman named Regina who ended up joining him at Denison as a building services assistant.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that Waite, a Licking County native, eventually found his way to “The Hill.” But maybe it’s more than geography—Denison and “Peace Corps people” seem to go hand-in-hand.

Once again this year, Denison is ranked as a top producer of Peace Corps volunteers, landing 23rd among hundreds of small-sized colleges and universities. With 16 alumni currently serving abroad, Denison has had a total of 243 of its former students participate in the Corps since its formation 40 years ago. The college also attracts former Corps volunteers to its own employee ranks, which clearly helps in cultivating new service-oriented citizens for the next generation.

It’s this blend of past, present and future service that allows students to “see how issues are related, globally and domestically,” notes Associate Provost Toni King.

Besides Waite, the circle of former Peace Corps participants at Denison includes alumnus Jeremy King ’97, currently the college’s sustainability coordinator, who served in Ecuador from 2007 to 2009.

Lauren Sabo ’11 has been chosen to work in the Teach for America program following graduation, but she’s already served communities in Haiti and South Africa, and hopes to join the Peace Corps one day.

Thomas Henshaw, the coordinator of Denison’s Homestead, says working with the agricultural extension service in Paraguay while with the Peace Corps reinforced in him “a desire to serve in community development, wherever that community might be.”

Thomas Shultz ’11, hopes to join the ranks of Peace Corps volunteers after graduation this spring. Shultz, an environmental studies and East Asian studies double major from Cincinnati, feels that the flexibility and adaptability skills he learned at Denison will help him transcend cultural boundaries.

According to Ryan Brechbill, interim director of Career Services, “our community is ripe with opportunities for students to engage in discussion and activity, inside and outside of the classroom, around issues of social justice, human rights and education.”

Lauren Sabo ’11, a sociology/anthropology major from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, has made a commitment to work for the Teach for America program for two years after her graduation in May, but she eventually would like to serve with the Corps. “I truly believe in the work Denison is doing,” she says, “to create thoughtful and provocative thinkers and discerning moral agents.”

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