A United Church of Christ seminary has reached out to proven leaders who were ready to answer a new call, and as a result Andover Newton Theological School has three seminarians who are former Peace Corps volunteers.
Andover Newton was the first seminary in the country to acknowledge the valuable life experience of those former volunteers, partnering with the Peace Corps to offer them Paul D. Coverdell Fellowships for graduate study.
The Rev. John Woodward joined the Peace Corps in 1975 after graduating from college, then went to Andover Newton to start a second career after practicing law. He earned his M.Div. in 1999 and was ordained in the UCC. Woodward was the first applicant accepted into the Coverdell Fellowship.
"If you have a mind for volunteering for the Peace Corps, then you probably have a mind for ministry," said Woodward, who is now pursuing his D.Min. at Andover Newton.
"We've discovered an exciting resource in the graduates of the Peace Corps program who, through their service, have uncovered their calling to ministry," said the Rev. Nick Carter, president of Andover Newton. "There is no better place for former Peace Corps volunteers to pursue that calling than through the in-depth preparation that seminary can provide – especially Andover Newton."
The Coverdell Fellows program offers returned Peace Corps volunteers an opportunity to earn a master's of divinity, one of three masters of arts degrees, a doctor of ministry, or one of five short certificates from Andover Newton.
Two other incentives of the program make it attractive to Peace Corps returning volunteers. The first is a financial break and the second offers community service or work experience in their field of study. Andover Newton waives application fees and provides admitted fellows with a 30 percent tuition discount – totaling almost $15,000 over three years. Fellows also gain experience in ministry through field-based internships in churches and community organizations in underserved communities.
"It's helped to make coming back here possible. It wasn't cheap, and I didn't make a lot pastoring a small, rural church in Maine," Woodward said.
His time with the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Nicaragua was formative and spiritual. Woodward said he felt God's presence when he helped a local man take his infant to the nearest hospital 15 kilometers away. The man, who thought his baby was dying from a case of diarrhea, never thought to get medical help. Woodward finds himself recalling that story often as he studies the ways people experience God.
Alison McCarty, director of recruiting and admission for Andover Newton, feels the partnership with the Peace Corps was a clear fit. "Anyone willing to give two years of their life in service to others, that's a strong foundation for ministry," she said. "We think the Peace Corps does a good job recruiting strong people. We have three strong students and we think it's the tip of the iceberg."
Andover Newton founded its Coverdell Fellowship program in 2012. The agreement is renewable every five years.
McCarty said that Andover Newton "was thrilled to be asked to submit a proposal" to be part of the Coverdell Fellows Program. "It happened to be that the only seminary now participating in the fellowship program is a UCC seminary," she added.
Katrina Deutsch, a Peace Corps recruiter from the Massachusetts area, has seen how Andover Newton is doing its part to attract prospects. "Andover Newtown has been willing to hold recruiting events on their campus where they can talk about their program and I can talk about the Peace Corps," she said.
"We are certainly hopeful we are in this for the long haul. One student is great, and three is wonderful," McCarty said. "With 300 total students, we will probably never be a huge program for the Peace Corps, but we think it's wonderful for us to be engaged in this larger community and provide recognition of service."
Alicia Barrera, a former Peace Corps volunteer, said, "The Coverdale Fellowship guides [returning Peace Corps volunteers] into whatever they want to study. The types of partners for graduate study range across all types of disciplines, from dance, engineering, Ph.D. programs, and business, and we have added law. It helps those returning volunteers further their professional development through education."
The Coverdell Fellows program, established in 1985, partners with graduate schools throughout the United States. The Peace Corps has partnered with 86 universities with more than 700 returning volunteers enrolled in the program for the current academic year.