COVID-19 puts hold on Peace Corps, Fulbright plans for graduating seniors

COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in the plans of graduating seniors preparing to embark on international volunteer work or study abroad opportunities, with international programs including the Peace Corps and the Fulbright U.S. Student Program postponing upcoming travel due to the ongoing global impacts of COVID-19.

Director of Career Development Donna Esposito estimates these changes have forced roughly 20 graduating Tufts seniors to hold off on their previously scheduled volunteer work and studies until at least the fall.

Tufts was named a “top producer” of Fulbright recipients for the sixth consecutive year in 2019, and 12 students have already received Fulbright scholarships this year, according to Anne Moore, program specialist in the Office of Scholar Development.

At least a couple more students are now delayed in starting international volunteer work through the Peace Corps, according to graduating senior Elisa Sturkie, who recently accepted an offer to teach English as a second language in Costa Rica. She would have started in July.

Fulbright is encouraging all current students to return to the U.S., and it sent students back from China and other similarly affected countries as early as January, according to Moore.

The Peace Corps website reports that as of March 15, all current volunteers are being evacuated and their service suspended.

The application processes for these and other programs ran according to schedule through the spring, but Fulbright announced at the end of April that upcoming programs would be delayed until at least this upcoming January. Many graduating Fulbright seniors were originally scheduled to start their studies in the fall, according to Moore, who oversees the awarding of all Fulbright scholarships at Tufts.

Sturkie said her volunteer work with the Peace Corps has been suspended along with all other Peace Corps work until after Sept. 30, and that no official departure date has been set. 

“Everybody’s sort of in the same boat, is like the one upside, I guess,” Moore said. “I worry about what will happen if it winds up getting moved past January, but … if Fulbright doesn’t start up in January that’s going to be the least of our worries. At some point the world has to begin again.”

Sturkie echoed Moore’s feeling of unease. 

“It’s out of everyone’s hands,” Sturkie wrote in an email to the Daily. 

For Sturkie, these recent changes have dashed plans that date back to her high school years, when she first grew interested in the possibility of living and working abroad. Once at Tufts, she chose her three majors — English, Spanish and peace and justice studies — with the intent of applying them to future volunteer experiences overseas.

“I have always wanted to live abroad and use my Spanish, and this seemed like a great opportunity to do so while also working towards social justice,” she said. 

Sturkie explained her process with the Peace Corps and her decision to accept its offer.

“They interviewed me in early February for over an hour … and then offered the position three days later. You’re only given three days to decide, but for me it was pretty easy,” Sturkie said. “Peace Corps was what I wanted to do more than anything, and I had received a posting I was really interested in and felt prepared for.”

After Tufts announced on March 10 its move to online instruction for the remainder of the semester, Sturkie’s Peace Corps plans changed rapidly. The Peace Corps first moved all medical clearance dates to the end of May and then, roughly one week later, announced that all current volunteers would be evacuated from their posts, according to Sturkie.

“That’s pretty much when I knew that my departure date was going to change,” she said. “They emailed just a few weeks ago to confirm this … I have no idea when my actual departure date will be — just that it will be some time after September. I really hope to still be able to serve, but it’s going to depend on when they allow us to return to service.”

On campus, Esposito explained that the Career Center is working to help all graduating seniors with tips shared through weekly eNews messages, online appointments, Zoom events and new platforms like Interstride, which is designed to help international students search for jobs. 

The Career Center has also reached out to Moore to connect with impacted Fulbright recipients, but does not have access to the names of students joining the Peace Corps due to a federal law that prevents such sharing of volunteers’ identities, according to Esposito. 

“We are encouraging students to stay the course, to conduct research into industries that are hiring, and to pivot if need be,” Esposito wrote in an email to the Daily. “Individuals should think about what Plan B could look like, whether it’s exploring a different industry, considering a year of service, or tapping into another set of personal competencies to refocus on a new role.”

Sturkie has a temporary job near campus lined up for the summer months, but anticipates that planning beyond that point will become increasingly difficult.

“I can’t exactly wait a year without a steady source of income,” she said. “And employers don’t want to hear that I might pick up and leave when the Peace Corps decides to reopen, either. It’s a bit of a tough spot.”

Sturkie will begin considering other options in a few months but is uncertain about whether she should wait for the international opportunity with the Peace Corps to reopen.

“At the end of August I think I will have to reevaluate and make a decision either to apply to full-time jobs, grad school, or hold out hope that I still might be able to serve in the near future,” she said. “We’re all unsure of how long we should wait for these opportunities, or if we should start looking more seriously into contingency plans.”

Looking ahead, Moore anticipates that the Fulbright application process will restart as normal during the 2020-21 academic year and that universities will adopt a combination of in-person and online approaches to learning. 

She believes that students awarded Fulbright scholarships — as well as those embarking on other international pursuits — share a sense of optimism that bodes well for the future beyond the current pandemic.

“We want international connection and communication and mutual aid through shared intellectual inquiry, that is the core value of the Fulbright,” Moore said. “The means by which that happens may shift … to take the time to talk with students about these opportunities helps us envision a future … it helps us have faith that our values will continue.”


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