Diana Dombrowski: UF and the Peace Corps


Published: Sunday, February 10, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, February 8, 2013 at 8:40 p.m.

The Peace Corps' announcement last week that the University of Florida leads the nation in alumni recruits is a testament to UF's longstanding connection with one of America's most respected volunteer service organizations.

UF recruited 107 undergrad and 26 grad alumni volunteers in 2012 and tied with the University of Washington for the No. 1 spot. UF's future connection to Peace Corps remains uncertain, however, and for once it isn't UF's fault.

The Peace Corps is dedicated to placing volunteers in jobs abroad to live in foreign nations as trained workers and goodwill ambassadors. From its founding in 1961, the Peace Corps has had a history of success, and UF grads consistently show themselves to be enthusiastic to make the goals of service a reality year after year And yet, current students find themselves on campus this year without a recruiter to turn to.

This is in stark contrast to years past, when students turned to Amy Panikowski, who worked on campus for seven years as the Peace Corps' recruiter and sent hundreds of UF alumni abroad.

Peace Corps volunteers sign two years of their life away to a cause that they believe is bigger than themselves, and Panikowski consistently brought that to fruition with her support. You couldn't find someone who loved the Peace Corps more than Amy, and it showed in everything she did. She visited classrooms, hosted presentations, organized a dedicated group of interns, always kept an upbeat attitude and was constantly available by email, phone or office hours.

To see both Panikowski and her beloved UF community treated in this way by an organization whose popularity and staying power is based on the willing enthusiasm of its volunteers is confounding. Rarely would a program ranked so high see its recruiting staff cut without any plans for growth or replacement. Amy lost her job as a result of red tape and infighting, and the Peace Corps never accepted a replacement, meaning they also lost their most valuable link to UF.

Leaving UF in the dark this year is a glaring error by the Peace Corps' bureaucracy that got lost in the shuffle somewhere at headquarters, but will have a very clear impact with supporters in Gainesville. UF has always been proud of its alumni serving abroad, and Gainesville is continually enriched by the presence of returned Peace Corps volunteers.

But the lack of direct access on campus will inevitably mean a shrinking presence of the Gator Nation in the Peace Corps. There is no way that a recruiter available mostly by phone and email, with several scheduled visits a semester, can accomplish what Panikowski did as a campus recruiter every day she came to work.

UF has ranked in the upper tiers of the Peace Corps' top recruiting schools for years.

As a land grant, sea grant, and space grant university with more than 100 undergraduate majors in 16 colleges, supported by over 200 research, service and education centers, it is no surprise why.

Last year, Peace Corps director Aaron Williams even visited UF's campus to announce the beginning of a master's international program here and congratulate the Gainesville community on its impressive service record.

The character of UF and our alums will remain the same; Gators are well-educated, altruistic, and ready to serve, but it is up to the Peace Corps to make the connection between a potentially fantastic volunteer and the opportunity for them to do good work. That comes from a recruiter with a friendly smile, an open door and facts in her hand. Our university deserves that kind of concrete support, rather than a glancing recognition, from the organization our alumni continue to serve with such distinction.

Diana Dombrowski lives in Gainesville.

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