Graduate Students Serve, Study through Peace Corps Master’s International Program

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By: Mollie Lastovica

Three graduate students in the Department of Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communications have stepped outside the boundaries of College Station and are working internationally through the Peace Corps Master’s International program.

Holly Van Groll, Kevin Fath and Orry Pratt are not only serving as Peace Corps volunteers, but also, they are gaining valuable research and educational experience while living abroad. The Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences partnered with the Peace Corps International program in 2007 and the university has since been named a Top 25 Peace Corps College and University.

“Professionally, [the program] gives students the opportunity to learn the factors affecting their research topics in a different country and usually under different conditions than they would see here as well as what the approaches to solutions are at their placement site or ‘village,’” said Cathryn Clement, coordinator for international academic programs for the college. “Personally, there is the growth that occurs when you face unknown and unanticipated challenges and learn that you can deal with them.”

Orry Pratt: Paraguay

In Nov., Pratt completed ten weeks of training to initiate his program in Guarambare, Paraguay. There, he was immersed with the language, agricultural practices, security and safety measures and medical resources of the country. Next, program coordinators will place him at a work site within the country where he will be stationed for two years. He is very interested in working to improve soil quality in the country.

“I really would like to work with farmers in adopting green manures, cover crops and nitrogen fixers to improve their soil quality,” Pratt said. “The soil quality in Paraguay is some of the poorest conditions in South America due to slash and bringing forests and big ag monocultures of soy fields in the eastern part of the country near Brasil. I think this is an extremely important topic to work as an agriculture volunteer in Paraguay and I hope that I get the opportunity to do so.”

He has already learned of and adapted to the hardships and norms experienced by Paraguayans.

“Last Sunday [Nov. 10], it got up to 40/42 degrees Celsius and we lost power for the entire afternoon,” Pratt said. “When the electricity goes out, the water does too. So here it is important to save sources of water for when this happens.”

Customs such as clapping repeatedly upon arrival at someone’s house to get their attention and greeting people with “Adios!” when walking by have also been integrated into his lifestyle.

Photo 1 Caption: Demo-plot at Pratt’s school. Peanuts, maize, squash, beans and watermelons have been incorporated into the plot. Photo courtesy of Orry Pratt.

Photo 2 Caption: Half of the ag group working in Paraguay pictured with language teachers. This group lives in a pueblo called Las Piedras. Photo courtesy of Orry Pratt.

Kevin Fath: Jamaica

Stationed in Bluefields, Jamaica, Fath has been assigned to the environment sector of service. He works with Jamaican farmers to integrate sustainable agricultural practices and adaption to climate change. Fath and his wife have been working in Jamaica since his program began in 2012.

“Last November, I helped an organic farming cooperative to receive a $12,000 grant for an alternative livelihoods project through the European Union and United Nations Environment Programme,” Fath said. “With the funding, I worked with farmers to establish a 1-acre demonstration farm with rainwater harvesting and drip irrigation and used the farm to conduct Farmer Field Schools.”

He has also worked to purchase improved equipment and helped develop an aquaponics system to provide fresh vegetables, fish and income to the people of Bluefields.

Fath’s thesis works to determine whether relationships exist between farmer innovativeness and adaptive capacity in the face of changing weather patterns. His service will end in May 2014 and he plans to continue working in international development at that time.

“Some of my favorite things about Jamaica are the warm and friendly farmers I work with, Reggae music and the upbeat culture,” Fath said.

Photo 3 Caption: Fath facilitating farmer field school at demonstration farm in Jamaica. Photo courtesy of Kevin Fath.

Photo 4 Caption: Fath and his Rastafarian supervisor digging out a tilapia tank at the aquaponics site. Photo courtesy of Kevin Fath.

Holly Van Groll: Zambia

Van Groll began working in Zambia, Africa, in Feb. 2013. Her volunteer duties have her working as an extension agent for the Department of Fisheries in her district. She lives and works in a rural farming community in the eastern province of the country.

“I initiate and facilitate on projects ranging from livestock production and HIV/AIDS awareness to fish farming,” Van Groll said. “I have greatly enjoyed my time in Zambia and respect this as one of the greatest adventures of my life.”

She has noted the struggles and joys of living and working in a developing country.

“I have had some of the most fulfilling teaching experiences in this country as well as some of the most frustrating,” Van Groll said. “And sometimes it is not uncommon to experience both of these extremes in the very same day.”

She continues to adapt to the country and looks at her overall experience as a big adventure.

“I have grown accustomed to living without electricity, running water, or a mode of reliable transportation,” Van Groll said. “I have coordinated farmer’s groups, helped dig fish ponds and held informal HIV talks in my front yard. I have also run over a poisonous snake with my bicycle and adopted the most animated dog in Africa. These are experiences that have helped shape the first year of my service into an educational and priceless adventure.”

Van Groll invites all who are interested to follower her blog from abroad.

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