When Andrew Larsen ’15 was studying abroad in the former Yugoslavia, he met peace workers who believed wholeheartedly that the world could be a better place if people simply got to know their neighbors – both locally and on a global scale.
His primary responsibility on this particular voyage was to teach English to middle-school students, the time when most kids there begin their first introduction to “English iu Comoros.” He also worked with their “Comoros Explores Club” where students from seven towns come together to explore and learn about the history and culture in their own backyards.
“The club fostered a spirit of appreciation and excitement for their communities while also developing friendships across the island and practicing English,” Larsen said. “I also organized an island-wide English competition, introduced a digital solar-powered library system, and worked in rural areas to increase adult literacy.”
He also realized, firsthand, that he agreed with those peace workers — and he was hooked — on making the world a better place, one journey at a time.
Larsen studied both religion and anthropology at PLU, noting that both disciplines examine what is important to people and their cultures. “They also focus on what lens does an individual view their world. This may be through their faith and understanding of religion, the cultural constructs that shape their everyday experience, or the languages they speak and the various people they interact with. All of these are important to understand when looking at our beautiful, diverse, and vibrant world.”
The study-away opportunities that PLU provided while Larsen was a student were invaluable. He also went to Norway in 2014 as a Peace Scholar and studied at the International Summer School. “(It) was an amazing time to meet and engage with students from around the world. All of us with a passion in understanding how we can make this fragmented world into a more whole and peaceful existence. Each time I studied away I was able to learn and grow from developing relationships with the people who live there.” He studied away in the Balkans, Italy, too.
After graduation, he joined the Peace Corps and went to Comoros on East Africa’s coast. The country has three islands and about half the population lives below the poverty line. Poor healthcare, education and a rising population are major contributing factors.
“I loved my Peace Corps experience in Comoros. My host family was amazing, and I made great connections. That does not mean every day was this grand adventure and that it is a constant high,” Larsen said. “If you want to do the Peace Corps be invested into the work, be ready to have ups and downs, and have the grit to get through the moments of missing home or wanting peanut butter. Because it is worth it.”
Assistant professor of Anthropology, Katherine Wiley, is the Peace Corp Prep Program Coordinator at PLU. The program began in spring 2017 and she advocated for it because she too served time with Peace Corps teaching high school English in the Islamic Republic of Mauritania from 2001-2003. “That experience changed my trajectory and gave me a global perspective that has been invaluable to my life and career,” Wiley said.
Sixty-six students were enrolled in Prep at the end of last year. The certificate program prepares them for postgraduate service in Peace Corps and similar programs like Lutheran Volunteer Corps, Americorps, and more.
“It’s like a minor and it combines coursework with hands-on experiences,” Wiley said. Students pick a track, like education or community development, and take courses to prepare them for work in that area. They do 50 hours of volunteering or interning and take classes to prepare them to live and work with diverse populations. They work on skills to increase their chances of being part of programs like Peace Corps and being successful at it.
Last year, PLU was the fifth-highest volunteer-producing school for Peace Corps — with 14 Lute alumni serving others around the world, Wiley said. “I find this really exciting because it demonstrates how as an institution, students don’t just say that they are interested in service, but they act on it.”
Larsen attended PLU before the prep program existed, but his study-away experiences proved to be a great asset to becoming a Peace Corps volunteer. He recently returned to Washington for a couple months before he moves to southern Africa to assist in disaster relief work in Mozambique.
“Mozambique and the region experienced two massive hurricanes this past spring and I will be working with a local NGO in partnership with the Disciples of Christ Global Ministries to aid in logistics and capacity building for the cyclone efforts,” he said.