On Nursing: Peace Corps Returnees Use International Experience In Baltimore Mike Field ------------------ Staff Writer March 1 marks the 35th anniversary of the founding of the Peace Corps. A favorite cause of President Kennedy's, the international aid effort came to life during a meeting with young people in the 1960 presidential campaign. Kennedy believed the country could harness the energy and idealism of youth to act as foot soldiers in the international effort to end poverty. He alluded to this in his inaugural address. "To those peoples in the huts and villages of half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves," the new president declared. On March 1, 1961, Kennedy issued the executive order creating the Peace Corps, naming Sargent Shriver as its first director. Three and a half decades later, nearly 150,000 volunteers of all ages have performed Peace Corps duties in more than 100 countries. For the past seven years, Peace Corps volunteers returning to the States have been able to continue their experiences in community health care through an innovative program established in conjunction with the Hopkins School of Nursing. "What we've done is develop a very enriched curriculum in which some of our best faculty work with returning Peace Corps volunteers to provide a truly outstanding education in community nursing," said associate nursing dean Stella Shiber, who serves as director of the Peace Corps Fellows Program. To date, 34 Peace Corps fellows have graduated, and another 24 are currently enrolled in a program that puts the former volunteers on the front lines of urban community health issues through work in clinics scattered throughout Baltimore. Returning Peace Corps volunteers are particularly effective in these situations, said Shiber, because their experiences overseas prepare them to deal with the cultural differences that confront public health professionals working with the urban poor. Nursing Peace Corps fellow Nancy Glass, now a clinical instructor in the School of Nursing, came to Hopkins after working as an HIV/AIDS educator in Zaire. "I grew up in a small town in rural Virginia," she said, "and until I went into the Peace Corps I didn't have a concept of cultural diversity. My experience overseas helped me learn to try to avoid stereotypes and just listen to people, which is tremendously important in nursing." About two dozen Peace Corps fellows programs in education, social work, public health and other disciplines have been established at universities across the nation, but to date, Hopkins has the only program in nursing for former volunteers. "One of the goals of the Peace Corps is to 'bring it back home,' to make use of the experiences learned overseas in a way that will contribute something to this country," Shiber said. "Typically these are people coming back to the States with very high service ideals and we are surrounded by a very needy population, so it's a perfect fit." "There's just a different set of expectations among returning Peace Corps volunteers," said Glass, who worked out of a community hospital in Kinkonzi, a village in the Bas Zaire region of the country. Much of her time was devoted to teaching others how to implement AIDS prevention programs. In her work she spoke French and Kiombi, a central African dialect. "Part of the Peace Corps experience is living on your own and learning to make do," Glass said. "One of the things that happens when you put former volunteers together is they all start recounting their biggest adventure since there are always stories to tell." That sense of adventure works well within the context of the Nursing School's efforts to expand and enhance health services in some of Baltimore's most underserved neighborhoods. "In my experience the returned volunteers have more of a comfort level among less conventional surroundings and in different cultures," Glass said. "For instance, one thing you will see in developing nations is a tendency of patients to look to family members first for treatment. Medicine is expensive and sometimes difficult to obtain, so consequently there's a lot of reliance on home remedies. The same is true here as well, at least among the poor, although it's often very hard for others to understand that." Peace Corps fellows in nursing need a bachelor's degree to enter the program, allowing them to pursue their nursing degrees in either the standard two-year or the accelerated 13-month bachelor of science tracks. In addition to their regular studies, the fellows have weekly meetings with nursing community health faculty and spend considerable time working in the various clinics around town. Admission into the fellowship program includes some financial aid, according to Shiber, as there are grants and scholarships available. "This is a tough and demanding program that really requires our fellows to give their all," Shiber said. "It is only open to those who have successfully completed a tour of duty in the Peace Corps. These are very focused individuals and it shows. We've never had a returned Peace Corps volunteer student drop out of the program since it was established." In clinics and community centers across Baltimore, former Peace Corps volunteers are bringing nursing health care to the people, often in much the same way they did in countries in Asia, Africa, South America and Central Europe. Trained in community health nursing with a special emphasis on the urban poor, they are 'bringing it home' to some of America's neediest citizens. "This program is a great opportunity to get hands-on experience working in the community," Glass said. "The School of Nursing is invested, we're here for the long run. The fellowship program is the perfect vehicle for matching the needs of the urban poor with the unique skills these individuals have gained overseas."
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