MU reintroduces scholarship for Peace Corps fellows

Coverdell Fellowship Coordinator Soren Larsen: “They brought so much to our program … when they come here, they have an energy and a passion to make changes here.”

Lebo Moore’s passion for food is what led her to MU. As an on-campus recruiter for MU’s Peace Corps until 2015, Moore’s experiences abroad guided her in achieving the Peace Corps’ third goal: helping Americans better understand the consequences our actions have on other countries.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bolivia and Peru, she worked in tight-knit communities, teaching the importance of nutrition and healthy living to locals there.

“I think that spending time with primarily women in South America, I gained a reverence for food,” Moore said. “I learned how much work it takes to produce food on the farm scale and also how to prepare it in the home . . . I came away with an increased respect for the ability to have access to food and be able to eat what I wanted and share it with my friends and family. That led me to study geography within the context of food access and sustainable agriculture.”

After her two years in South America finished in 2014, Moore spent seven months in Zambia working as a manager of a farm that grew vegetables to supplement the diets of patients at a nonprofit pediatric HIV/AIDS clinic.

While she was there, she began to look at graduate degree programs in the U.S. and came across the MU geography department’s Paul D. Coverdell Fellowship.

The Coverdell Fellowship grants returning Peace Corps fellows anywhere from $10,000 to a full tuition waiver to help them complete their graduate education. It was reintroduced to MU this year after having been changed from a campus-wide competition to a program-specific one.

The geography department is the first campus department to be reapproved by the Peace Corps to continue the fellowship. The fellowship requires all fellows to intern in “underserved American communities while they complete their studies, allowing them to bring home and expand upon the skills they learned as volunteers,” according to a Peace Corps news release.

Soren Larsen, associate professor of geography and coordinator for Coverdell fellows in the geography department, said MU Peace Corps candidates usually approach the geography department with a strong background in volunteering and service.

“This tends to set them up for success in geography because they have spent a tremendous amount of time in developing countries, working closely with the people and places there and managing projects and developing that sensitivity for human-environment interactions,” Larsen said. “So, when they apply to us [under the Coverdell Fellowship] they tend to have exactly what we are looking for for a graduate study in geography.”

During her time in Bolivia, Moore acquired the appreciation for her environment that Larsen attributes to many Peace Corps returnees.

“Everything is interrelated and connected,” Moore said. “Bolivians operate with the mindset that the ‘pachamama,’ which is Mother Earth, is in everything. Everything that they do, they think about how it impacts their environment and how it affects other people. That’s really powerful, and it’s a view that we don’t have in the United States.”

The experience that Moore and other fellows bring back with them is what Larsen believes has made MU’s program thrive.

“They brought so much to our program . . . when they come here, they have an energy and a passion to make changes here, which is part of the ‘third goal’ of the Peace Corps,” Larsen said.

Moore’s individual interpretation of Peace Corps’ third goal led her to continue her work with food when she returned to the U.S.

“So many of the institutions and policies put up here [in the U.S.] affect the type of food that people grow and have access to around the world,” Moore said. “I think it’s so interrelated to some of the larger issues we are grappling with — climate change, political unrest, racial justice, food justice. All of these things can be so well introduced just by talking about the food that we eat. I see it as a platform for engaging in all sorts of social justice work.”

Daniel Zozaya Brown has been MU’s on-campus recruiter since 2015. After volunteering with the Peace Corps in Ecuador as a secondary education English teacher, he lived in Mexico for a year. Then, like Moore, he discovered the Coverdell Fellowship at MU. Now, he works to get others involved in the Peace Corps, calling it a “unique, very valuable experience.”

“It is different from studying abroad because studying abroad normally takes place during a short period of time and does not allow the type of cultural immersion that Peace Corps accomplishes,” Zozaya Brown said. “Peace Corps is also different in the sense that you are working for a government agency, which means that you are a part of a well-structured program that offers student loan deferment, future opportunities, and the chance to make a difference while working abroad.”

Larsen describes the partnership between the Peace Corps and the graduate geography program as having a “natural synergy.” So, when MU as a whole decided to phase out the Coverdell Fellowship, Larsen and the geography department took the initiative to keep the program alive within their department.

For Larsen, applying as an individual department to work with the Peace Corps was a “no-brainer.”

“Our whole department just thrived,” he said.

Edited by Kyra Haas |

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