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Avila, Smith are first Peace Corps Prep Program grads

Barry McNamara
Yulissa Avila (left) and Elizabeth Smith
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – Monmouth College study-abroad trips changed the direction of May graduates Yulissa Avila ’19 and Elizabeth Smith ’19.

It also helped the pair make history as they were the first two Monmouth students to complete the College’s Peace Corps Prep Program, a new partnership between the College and the Peace Corps.

The program prepares students for positions of leadership, service and citizenship in a global context. Open to students from all years and all majors, participants earn a certificate from the Peace Corps and develop relevant skills for Peace Corps service and/or careers in international service and community development.

Participants are not required to apply to the Peace Corps, but it does distinguish them for the process, as well as for applications to other opportunities in service, employment or graduate studies.

Avila will take the knowledge and experiences she’s gained from the program into a one-year position as a student mentor with City Year in Chicago. Smith plans to continue her studies.

“Coming in freshman year, I never thought I’d go to another country,” said Avila, who is from Bolingbrook, Ill., and majored in sociology and anthropology. “It’s been a privilege and a blessing to have that, and I’m so grateful to Monmouth College. It’s crazy to think you come to college thinking you’re going to do something, and you come out doing something else. It’s interesting where life takes you.”

Smith’s horizons were broadened when she visited Senegal as part of a study-abroad experience.

“I never thought I’d be traveling to Africa in my entire life,” said Smith.

Now that she has, she doesn’t want to stop trotting the globe.

“When I traveled to Senegal in 2016, I really developed an intense travel bug,” said Smith, who is from Oswego, Ill. “I’ve tried to explore a new country every single year, whether it was traveling on my own or traveling with the school. This trip really influenced me to better understand developing countries and better understand how they function politically, economically.”

Avila said that time she spent with a class in Ecuador, as well as what she learned through the Peace Corps program, gave her a better understanding of how to serve.

“Often, as Americans, we think that we can just go into another country and say, ‘Oh, look, I’m going to build a house for you,’ but in reality you have to talk to that community,” she said. “You have to have these cultural competencies to understand another culture to be able to really help them.”

In Ecuador, Avila was part of a Monmouth group that worked with children who typically spend all day with their parents in the marketplace instead of school.

“That was a great experience to go there firsthand and see it for myself,” she said.

In addition to her international studies major, Smith minored in three subjects, including the College’s Global Food Security program. She said her diverse array of classes gave her “a global and cross-cultural background.”

“In Senegal, I did a lot of different interviews with co-ops, I stayed with a host family and I interacted a lot with everyday people,” she said. “After that trip, I always thought about doing the Peace Corps. Ever since then, I was hooked on volunteering and learning about different cultures, learning about different ways of communication, such as learning a foreign language. The Senegal trip was definitely a life-changing experience for me.”

Smith plans to focus on food security as she advances in her studies, with an eye on an eventual career in “quality assurance, sustainable agriculture or education.”