In December 2001, Katharine Ruiz graduated from UGA with a bachelor’s degree in horticulture. In July 2002, she left for a rural village in Olancho, Honduras, to volunteer with the Peace Corps, helping women grow food, children learn about organic gardening, and men rebuild a road washed out by a hurricane.
Today, Ruiz is back in Athens, married to a man she met in the village and pursuing a master’s degree in social work—all because of the Peace Corps.
“It was literally a life-changing experience,” she said. “I think that phrase gets thrown around a lot, but in this case it’s quite accurate. There were some concrete changes—I married a guy from El Carbonal; I switched from wanting a career in agriculture to social work, but mainly I’m not the same person I was before I left.”
Ruiz is one of 381 UGA alumni who have volunteered for the Peace Corps. This year, UGA has entered the Peace Corps’ rankings for large schools, coming in at number 19 on the list. Currently, there are 54 UGA alumni volunteers serving with the Peace Corps.
This is only the fourth year that UGA has had a Peace Corps recruitment office on campus.
“We can only go up from here,” said Georgia McPeak, campus representative for the Peace Corps. She served in Mali, West Africa from 1987 to 1990, volunteering in forestry work.
“Everything I have done since I finished my Peace Corps service has been a result of having been a Peace Corps volunteer,” she said. “I’m profoundly grateful for the experience.”
That sentiment is shared by other returned volunteers.
“The Peace Corps affected my life back home in so many ways,” said Gina Peek, who holds a master’s degree in historic preservation from UGA. She volunteered in Mali, working in health education, from 1996 to 1998.
“Even after all of this time, I look to the lessons that I learned as a volunteer to improve my life and the lives of others,” she said. “The Peace Corps taught me to walk with grace at every step. Outreach will always be an integral part of my professional and private life.”
On a recent afternoon, McPeak was busy preparing a future alumnus to travel to southern Africa in June. Helen McGuirk, a senior studying microbiology, has to undergo medical exams and graduate before she leaves, but she already has the enthusiasm held by return volunteers.
“I’m really excited, I’m so excited,” she said. “I’m really happy I’ve made this decision. It’s already made a huge difference in my life, I can tell.”