Michigan Tech Peace Corps Master's International Volunteers Make a Difference—One Step at a time

By Jennifer Donovan | Published

Callie Bertsch with school children in a Muslim village in Bulgaria.
Callie Bertsch with school children in a Muslim village in Bulgaria.

When graduate students Kristina Denison, Callie Bertsch and Michelle Cisz left the wooded hills of the Michigan Technological University campus to serve as Peace Corps volunteers, they headed to countries that couldn’t be more diverse: Zambia, Bulgaria and Paraguay.  But the lessons they learned in Michigan Tech’s Peace Corps Master’s International (PCMI) program were remarkably similar.

“I was going to Africa to change the world,” says Denison, who spent three years in Zambia, a landlocked little country in southern Africa, between Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  “I learned that you have to count the small steps, to be satisfied with planting a seed.”

Bertsch expected to bring “some great innovation” to the village of Gurmen in Bulgaria.  But she soon realized she was having her greatest impact in a more subjective arena: people's attitudes.  “We’re so glad you came to live with us because you’re not at all like we thought Americans were,” the Bulgarian villagers kept telling her.

Halfway around the world, in the small South American country of Paraguay, Cisz was busy readjusting her expectations too.  “I had big goals, but I had to take small steps,” she says.  “It was a very humbling experience.”

All three women are working toward their Master of Science in Forest Ecology and Management in Tech’s School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science.  They wanted to travel, to serve and to learn by doing—the Michigan Tech way—so they joined program that lets graduate students combine course work with volunteer service overseas in the Peace Corps.  With eight PCMI programs in four different colleges and schools, Michigan Tech has more active Peace Corps volunteers than any other university in the nation. 

Any Place But Africa

When Denison told her mother in Edina, Minn., that she was joining the Peace Corps, her mother said, “OK, as long as they don’t send you to Africa.”   So of course that’s exactly where her assignment took her.

“Like so many people here, she had only heard about the negatives—HIV, uprisings, starvation,” says Denison. The story has a happy ending, though.  Denison’s mother wound up traveling to Zambia to visit her daughter, and when she saw that the African village had virtually adopted the young American woman, Mom relented. Despite the fact that her daughter was living in a mud hut with a grass roof, “my mother loved it there,” Denison says, “because she saw that my village took such good care of me.”

While Denison was serving in Zambia, she did a lot of HIV/AIDS education and trainings. “All Zambia volunteers do HIV/AIDS work; there is a big need for it,” she explains.   She was encouraged when, of 86 villagers who participated in a mobile VCT (voluntary counseling and testing), only four tested positive for HIV.   “How many people did I teach how to prevent HIV/AIDS?” she says. “How many actually listened?  But if just two people took it to heart, it was worth the effort.”

Part of Denison’s job was helping the community with projects to improve their livelihoods. “I tried to get the farmers interested in agro-forestry, I really did, but naturally, everybody wanted to do beekeeping, the one thing I didn't want to do at the beginning” she says.  

They started with hives fashioned from bark, with grass doors, and got so good at it that they ended up fundraising to buy wooden top bar hives. “I could see results; that was really nice,” Denison remarks.

She also introduced the village farmers to concepts like crop rotation, green manure and other easy, inexpensive ways to farm more sustainably.   “It’s a matter of opening people’s minds,” she says. “Only two farmers tried it, but I’m hoping they will start a ripple effect.

Denison came home appreciating how little a person really needs to be happy. “All the things I think I need are really just things I want,” she says. “Americans have so many things, but they don’t seem to be happy. In Zambia, the people have so little, but they cherish their families and they’re truly happy.”

Bulgaria Beckons Wisconsinite

Bertsch, who hails from Antigo, Wis., initially was assigned to do environmental education in Bulgaria, but she ended up working with a small municipality in the Office of European Integration, helping with cross-border projects in nearby Greece and Macedonia and tourist development. She also taught English at a community center and kindergarten.

Within her own village, the Bulgarian Muslims, Orthodox Christians and the Roma populations were divided along ethnic and religious lines, and Bertsch was able to help complete a project with children to promote cross-cultural understanding.

She had an unanticipated opportunity to help her local counterpart widen her horizons too.  The local partner assigned to her was 35, Muslim, single, and convinced that only a husband or a lot of money would make her happy.  “I told her that happiness had to come from inside,” Bertsch recalls.  “You have your family, your friends. You have fun. That’s what makes you happy.”

Her sisterly pep talk got results. “I actually convinced her to go work out with me,” Bertsch says with a grin.

While she served in Bulgaria, she helped the community stage a folk dance competition and organized after-school games. She also worked at an environmental education camp.

Bertsch knew no Bulgarian when she was assigned to the eastern European country, but she took to both the language and the lifestyle. “Everyone has goats and chickens.  And big gardens,” she says. “We ate fresh produce all summer. I loved that.” 

She also enjoyed the contrasts of traditional and modern life, like “the little old lady with her head covered, riding in a donkey cart and talking on a cell phone.”

A Remote River Town in Paraguay

Cisz, who calls Burton, Ohio, home, spent her first year in a rural farming community, working with farmers to help them incorporate trees into their fields to reduce erosion and improve soil quality. She also helped a women’s group apply for funding to start their own bakery.

“In every case, I learned more than I taught,” she says.

The Peace Corps made a judgment call to move many volunteers from that first region, so Cisz’s second year was spent in an isolated river town community on the border of Brazil.  It took five days by bus and boat to get from her town of Bahía Negra to the closest city of any size.

“It was a quiet paradise,” says Cisz, and home to a number of ethnic groups, including Paraguayans, Brazilians and the Chamacoco Indians, an indigenous tribe that spoke its own language. 

There she worked with another Peace Corps volunteer doing “capacity-building,” which meant helping various social groups learn how to identify their own needs and work together on a common project.  The town had chosen a beautification project with two goals: to encourage tourism and to become more environmentally conscious of how they handled trash. 

“I worked on a trash campaign with the schools, local teens and small children,” says Cisz. “We hosted segments on a local radio station and raised funds in the community to collect batteries off the streets. “

She also taught environmental education, disguised as an English class.

Because she was a graduate student as well as a Peace Corps volunteer, Cisz found herself “six hours away from civilization,” collecting field measurements for her master’s degree research project, when a member of her team was thrown from his horse. “Ironically, the horse threw him into the very palm that we were studying,” she recalls.  A local man lashed together a palm raft, and the crew headed back toward their research headquarters, dragging the injured man on the makeshift gurney.  

On the way, the gurney got tangled in a thicket of brush and flipped.  In extreme pain and knowing that the journey would take three more days on the makeshift palm raft, “he mounted back up in the saddle with a broken femur and rode another six hours to the research station,” Cisz says.

The biggest lesson she brought home from Paraguay is “that poverty is a state of mind,” says Cizs. “Life is not easy or comfortable for the people there. They have to work 10 times harder than people here for everything they get. But they don’t see themselves as poor, just isolated, and they are so giving.  No matter how much I gave, they gave me so much more.”

Michigan Tech has received recognition from national Peace Corps leaders for its commitment to the program. Blair Orr, professor of forest resources and environmental science who heads Tech's PCMI program, credits the program's success to the strong support PCMI has received from the University administration and to the dedication of the students themselves.

"Most universities don't provide equivalent support," he said. "The impact of the support is evident in both the number of students and the high quality of students who are attracted to the program. It enables faculty to work closely with students on campus and overseas, and this prepares students to function much more effectively than the average volunteer. The students bring a strong technical background to their field assignment, along with an awareness of how technology must be adapted to the local culture."

Michigan Tech’s variety of PCMI programs in forestry; civil, environmental and mechanical engineering; natural resource economics; natural hazards mitigation; technical communication; and science education also makes it possible for students to switch gears as they move from undergraduate to graduate study.  

“Prospective students often think they must have an undergraduate degree in the same academic discipline as their Master’s International program,” says Orr. “While this is true in some programs, other accept students from any undergraduate background, so we can provide them with another skill set that will make them more valuable, and they can get a graduate degree while serving in the Peace Corps.” 

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.