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How Peace Corps Coverdell Fellows helped define my career

ISU Fellows Feature

It has been almost six years since I decided to join the Peace Corps. I was attracted to the idea of exploring the world and integrating into a new culture and a different way of life. 

While living in Ethiopia, the Peace Corps enabled me to gain field experience with my public health degree and learn how to promote health in international settings.

I served as a Community Health Volunteer in Ethiopia from 2012-14. During my service, I worked with local counterparts to educate and design community health projects around HIV/AIDS, sanitation and malaria. As I further integrated into the community, we collaborated on other projects like training community members on starting and managing their own local businesses. We facilitated youth camps that taught life skills and promoted healthy lifestyle behaviors to middle school girls. These camps gave youth the opportunity to learn and practice skills not often emphasized in their communities, and they opened my eyes to the power of sports in changing lives. Some of my most memorable moments were facilitating Grassroot Soccer, a program focused on HIV/AIDS prevention through soccer drills, at camp Girls Leading Our World (GLOW). 

ISU Feature
Lauren working with her community in Ethiopia.

After completing my Peace Corps service in 2014, I began searching for Peace Corps Coverdell Fellows Programs. The Illinois State University Stevenson Center had the perfect graduate school program for me – Applied Community and Economic Development through Kinesiology and Recreation. This program allowed me to understand the role that health and recreation play in a community setting and how it can affect social and economic growth.

My fellowship assignment was with the Housing Authority of the City of Milwaukee (HACM), a large community development organization that has helped over 10,000 families and individuals gain access to low-income housing throughout the Milwaukee area. My main responsibility was to assess the available health resources for a particular section of the local housing community. I connected people in the surrounding areas to local health resources, identified major barriers to accessing these resources, and worked with the community and stakeholders to eliminate the gaps in coverage. 

One large program that I worked on was integrating a new housing and urban development smoke-free policy into our public housing units. I conducted extensive research on the policy to inform the HACM on best practices, and I developed the initial drafts of the policy as it related to our agency. At the end of my fellowship, I worked with a team of community partners to host a health and resource fair where we connected over 80 community members and vendors to health resources, including some resources for the smoke free policy changes.

ISU Feature
Lauren's community in Ethiopia

After graduating from the Fellows Program in August 2017, I started my career as a Nutrition Program Consultant with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The department is the liaison between USDA and all Wisconsin schools that participate in the USDA National School Lunch Program. Traveling throughout the state, I audit the participating schools’ lunch programs to ensure compliance with USDA regulations and policies. I am lucky to be a part of a team that believes in the importance of child nutrition and education, so we do our best to work with schools to provide healthy meals to youth throughout the state of Wisconsin.

The Peace Corps provided me with the international experience to start my journey. The Coverdell Fellows Program provided me with the understanding of how local and national policies affect community development efforts by governmental and nonprofit organizations. I am grateful for both of these programs that have helped to get to where I am today, and now, I am using the junction of the skills these programs offered me to bridge national policy and make it applicable to schools throughout the state.