There are many decisions students must make after graduating from the University of South Dakota. While the most common stepping stone upon graduation is finding a job and moving to a new city, some graduates, like recent graduate Dennis Smith, choose the road less traveled.
The 24-year-old political science and English major left for Tanzania Feb. 8 as a volunteer for the Peace Corps. Although Smith assumed, because of his degrees, he would be involved in education, he was assigned to be a community health volunteer.
“I thought I’d be something with education, so when I found out I was in health, it took me back,” Smith said.
While in Tanzania, Smith will be able to have that education connection. He found out he will be speaking to schools, community groups and health service providers to promote health in small communities. In addition, he will help raise awareness about primary health care and other related health issues, particularly HIV/AIDS.
Smith’s application was one of more than 17,000 submitted to Peace Corps last year, a record high number.
He’s also not the only USD alum traveling to promote peace.
For Anna Lena Wonnenberg, another USD graduate volunteering in the Peace Corps, teaching is her primary mission. She is an English instructor at a primary school in Junik, Kosovo.
Being in Kosovo isn’t always easy, Wonnenberg said.
“There are countless times when I’ve wanted to give up, but I reach out to someone, or I journal, or go for a walk, or cry — whatever I need to do,” Wonnenberg said in an email. “I get through it, and each and every time it passes, and I’m glad I didn’t cave in.”
Wonnenberg has grown to appreciate the rewards of the Peace Corps.
“It’s tough, but you learn so much about yourself,” she said. “I can’t imagine a life now without Peace Corps. I truly think I’m becoming a better person here.”
Smith also expects some unknown challenges in Tanzania. He is eager to help people and wants to make his living while improving the world.
“This is something I want to be doing for the rest of my life,” Smith said. “Not necessarily Peace Corps, but making the world a better place.”
Smith has a history of helping people. Smith and USD graduate Erik Muckey co-founded Lost & Found, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping prevent depression and suicide among young adults.
Smith said many people influenced his decision to join the Peace Corps, including Kim Grieve, USD dean of students and vice president of Student Services.
Smith is also thankful for his fellow members of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity.
Meanwhile, Wonnenberg said she joined the Peace Corps for multiple reasons, with one stemming from the globe trotting she did as a child.
“I actually grew up in many places and even lived in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, in southern Africa, when I was 11 to 15. My parents were missionaries there and helped local churches and communities,” Wonnenberg said. “It was an amazing experience and no doubt influenced me to pursue a life of travel and service.”
Wonnenberg even had a brief experience with the Peace Corps before she joined.
“My oldest brother Micah and I visited a friend in the Peace Corps in Ukraine,” she said. “We stayed in a small village with Ryan’s host family, went to school with him where he taught English and enjoyed hikes in the countryside.”
Smith said his decision to join the Peace Corps was influenced by recruiters like Heather Mangan, a South Dakota State University graduate who works out of the Peace Corps office in Chicago, recruiting volunteers across the Midwest.
Mangan has been overseas with the Peace Corps and served as an education volunteer in Lesotho.
She said people find out about the Peace Corps in many different ways, such as info sessions, Internet and by word-of-mouth.
Another way of spreading information about the Peace Corps is recruiting visits.
“We hold recruitment events throughout the region, including USD,” Mangan said.
The usual process begins with an online application, which has been shortened significantly in the past two years. The new application takes an hour to fill out, compared to eight hours for the old application, Mangan said. A shortened application helped produce the record number of submissions last year.
After applicants finish the online forms, they choose what country and job they want, Mangan said.
If you pass through that process, an interview comes next, Mangan said. After the interview, officials make sure applicants meet medical and legal requirements. Formal invitations follow.
Although members of the Peace Corps are called volunteers, they do receive many benefits, such as free transportation and medical care. They also receive a living stipend while overseas, which equals a local’s salary.
Once they return to the United States, the volunteers receive a living allowance, which Mangan used to simply get her life back in the country started.
“I used that money to move and get new clothes and just get settled,” Mangan said.
(Photo: As part of her goals of cultural exchange, Anna Wonnenberg and Kosovar children take a picture with both the Kosovar and American flag. Submitted photo / The Volante)