Cornell University
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Cornell University

Amanda Freund (center) with her sisters, who visited during her service in Zambia. Image provided.

Service, connections, leadership: 60 years of Cornellians in the Peace Corps

This week marks 60 years since President John F. Kennedy launched the Peace Corps with a vision to foster cooperation and connections across cultures worldwide. Cornellians have played a major role in the organization’s success — from early work by founding staff member Richard Ottinger ’50 to the hundreds of Cornell alumni who’ve volunteered since its birth in 1961.

Amanda Freund ’06 and Janet Smith, M.S. ’19, took different paths to the Peace Corps, but can claim common ground in their experiences.

In 2010, Freund volunteered for a two-year position in Zambia, where she focused on food and agriculture — familiar terrain following her studies in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and her work on her family’s dairy farm in Connecticut. She discovered, however, that she still had a great deal to learn from the resource-strapped communities where she worked. By her second year, her focus had shifted from not only improving conditions but to spending more time understanding Zambian practices and approaches.

Amanda Freund works with a community member during her Peace Corps service in Zambia. Image provided.

“I started my service thinking about how I was going to make improvements to what they do, and I left that service absorbing those changes and realizing that I’m the one who really got to be improved from the experience,” Freund says.

Most rewarding, she says, was a nutrition intervention program to support mothers with young children, helping them to boost regular meals with high-protein supplements derived from ground caterpillar, peanut flour and soy. All the children, except for one who had contracted malaria, gained weight on the fortified diet.

“Being committed to seeing that project through and them feeling so positive about what they gained, I feel like my level of recognition in the community — that was what put me over the edge,” Freund says. “Part of what made it so satisfying to me was that it took so long to get there.”

Similarly, Smith, who served twice in the Peace Corps, says that in both cases partnering with locals, observing their techniques and listening to their perspectives taught her valuable lessons in international development.

Smith first worked as a health volunteer in Senegal from 2012–14, before traveling to Mali in 2014 as part of a team of experienced volunteers to help with water and sanitation projects. While in Mali, the Ebola outbreak raged in nearby West Africa nations, and Smith worked with a small nonprofit to build and maintain latrines and protect community health through improved sanitation. Smith learned to oversee a project from start to finish; just as valuable, she says, were innovative ideas and practices she witnessed firsthand in Mali.

“I think that’s a strength of doing Peace Corps … you just see the value and intelligence of the community and a local culture that’s so different from your own,” says Smith, who was accepted into a Cornell graduate program in development sociology while volunteering. “I love listening and learning from people, so that perfectly fit my personality.”

Janet Smith (left) connected with the communities in Senegal and Mali during her two volunteer services. Image provided.

Throughout her studies at Cornell, Smith applied lessons and experiences from her Peace Corps service, allowing her to take a critical look at the field of international development and find ways to make it more impactful for those most in need. “When I was doing theoretical readings and academic work, I was able to think back on my Peace Corps experience and apply academic viewpoints to what I had seen in the field,” she says.

This week, Smith begins a new position at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability, where she will combine her firsthand knowledge from the Peace Corps with the research approach drawn from her Cornell degree.

Smith and Freund are part of a rich Cornell tradition. Prior to serving multiple terms in Congress, Richard Ottinger ’50 helped establish the Peace Corps and served as director of programs for the west coast of South America in the early 1960s. More than 1,700 Cornell alumni have followed his lead, serving in 118 countries. Approximately 40 Cornell alumni volunteer with the Peace Corps annually, according to Joshua Voda, Peace Corps public affairs specialist, and the university consistently ranks among the best at producing such graduates.

“Public service is part of Cornell’s mission and vision,” says Mia Ferraina, public service careers coach in Cornell Career Services, who advises students interested in the Peace Corps and related opportunities. “There are all these pockets of people who care about serving the community and doing it in an ethical way. The structure of the Peace Corps really echoes the community partnership model that a lot of the offices and programs have.”

“I started my service thinking about how I was going to make improvements to what they do, and I left that service absorbing those changes and realizing that I’m the one who really got to be improved from the experience,” Freund says.

As for Freund, she’s since returned to helping with her family dairy farm, while also growing a sustainable farming enterprise known as CowPots. She carries many reminders of her time in Zambia with her — including a garden hoe, which represents the resilience of the farmers she assisted, who used it for everything from spreading compost to fending off rodents.

With Peace Corps operations on hold in many areas due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Freund is hopeful that volunteers — including the many Cornellians involved — can soon return to their service opportunities.

“I think it’s such an asset to this country, for the Americans that participate in it, and to bring those experiences back to their communities,” Freund says. “In the midst of this pandemic, and so many places hurting in different ways, I just am so hopeful that the relationship Cornell has with the Peace Corps will continue to be a strong and verdant one.”

Learn more about the Peace Corps’ history on the Peace Corps website.

Written by Jamie Crow
Strategic Communications at Cornell University

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