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March 1, 2019

Peace Corps material: Alumni in service abroad

Written By: Sam Million-Weaver

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University of Wisconsin-Madison materials science and engineering students often seek out interesting places to work after they graduate. Some go further afield than most, however: They sign up for stints in the Peace Corps after they receive their diplomas.

In recent years, several MS&E alumni have taken their talents overseas. It’s a natural fit, really, as a UW-Madison engineering education provides the necessary problem-solving and leadership skills for grads to excel.

“Engineering students, in many ways, have some of the most important skillsets to take with them into the Peace Corps,” says Kate Schachter, the UW-Madison Campus Peace Corps Recruiter.

And it’s a win-win situation, because Peace Corps service can become a springboard to pursue their passions.

That was the case for Adam Brewer (MSMS&E ‘12), who spent three years in Ghana teaching math and physics to high schoolers.

Back home now, Brewer is currently completing coursework for his high school teaching certification while working at Madison-based healthcare software company Epic Systems.

“I knew that the Peace Corps was one way I could share my love of science and math and working with kids, without a specific background in education,” says Brewer.

Teaching is a common assignment for engineers in the Peace Corps. Scott “Scooter” Groux (BSMS&E ‘18) took his classroom savvy to rural Namibia shortly after graduation. There he’s been teaching computer skills and math.

Engineers also frequently put their skills to use outside of the classroom. Peace Corps volunteers are trained and encouraged to engage with communities to initiate service projects to address local needs.

“There are a lot of opportunities,” says Schachter. “Whether volunteers are installing solar arrays or water systems, setting up processes is what engineering students are great at.”

Engineering students also excel at making the best of challenging situations, as Todd King (PhDMS&E ’96) found out during his service in rural Nepal.

The paved streets of Madison were a far cry from the remote village of Sablaku in the foothills of the Himalayas in Nepal’s Taplajung district, where it was an eight-hour hike to the nearest road, but King’s time on campus prepared him well.

“The rigors of going through grad school in an engineering program were a good crucible for toughening me up for future challenges,” says King. “UW-Madison helped me learn to take advantage of a growth situation.”

King now works at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

At NASA—where the stakes are literally sky-high—King’s experience in the Peace Corps helps him stay grounded.

“The pace of life in Nepal is much slower, which helped me learn how to appreciate quiet time,” says King. “I try to use that lesson and consciously carve out space to reflect when things are chaotic so I can return to my work refreshed and more effective.”