Bringing a World of Experience Into the Classroom: The Peace Corps Fellows

| December 5, 2011

Teachers College offers a unique opportunity for Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) who are committed to teaching in New York City’s public schools. The Peace Corps Fellows Program at TC provides a number of benefits, including a sizable scholarship, to RPCVs who work toward their degree while teaching full time, which is no small task.

Peace Corps Fellow Josef Donnelly's big catch on Chuuk, Micronesia

Josef Donnelly, a Peace Corps Fellow in the Social Studies program, can attest to the challenge of being a first year teacher and attending grad school at the same time. Having volunteered from 2006-2009 on the tiny island of Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia in the South Pacific, Donnelly is now teaching Global History I at International Community High School in the South Bronx. A school for English Language Learners, Donnelly can put his experience teaching English in Micronesia into practice in his new job.

But there are some major differences. While the Micronesian island on which he spent three years of his life could fit inside the Jackie Kennedy Reservoir in Central Park, he is now a resident of big, bustling New York City. With a population of just 200 on that small, coral atoll, which has no electricity or running water, stepping into an international high school in the South Bronx is truly a world away.

Of his experience in Micronesia, Donnelly explains, “It was really awesome but it definitely takes a person who adapts easily to challenging situations. As the only American on the island, it was like a fishbowl. There was nowhere to go. No one spoke English, but that was great for learning the language.” Donnelly, whose wife is from Chuuk, now speaks Chuukese at home. But what he gained from his time in the Peace Corps doesn’t stop there.

“There are a lot of skills that I gained in Micronesia that are applicable in my teaching. The population I’m working with now and that I worked with there both have very limited English speaking, reading, and writing skills, so being in the Peace Corps taught me a great deal of patience working with students. It also helped me sharpen my senses at being attune to cultural differences and being able to pick up on certain norms. I also find that learning one language has helped me learn Spanish, which I’m learning more of every day.”

The program’s mission, to recruit and train exceptional Returned Peace Corps Volunteers to address educational equity through making long-term, professional commitments to teach in New York City’s public schools, attracts focused and dedicated individuals like Elaine Law, another Fellow in TC’s Social Studies program. Law spent her time in the Peace Corps in Mongolia, also teaching English. Now in her first year as a full time US History teacher at Global Tech Prep Middle School in East Harlem, she is also able to draw on the education the Peace Corps gave her in her new role. “Peace Corps has given me the tools, skills, patience and perspectives to meet the challenges that I’m experiencing today in East Harlem.  I couldn’t imagine not following this path, and I’m so fortunate to be part of this program and at such a great school to teach at.”

No matter how overwhelming the first year of teaching can be, the Peace Corps Fellows have a wealth of strength and experience to draw on to get them through. As Josef Donnelly puts it, “I know that if I could live on that island for three years and do that, then I’m pretty confident that I can do just about anything.”