Conn College has strong reputation of producing Peace Corps volunteers

A screen grab of where Connecticut College alumni are serving for the Peace Corps. (Courtesy of the Peace Corps)

Although nearly five years and 6,000 miles separate the Peace Corps experiences of Connecticut College graduates Tes Cohen and Molly Conlin, their stories are remarkably similar.

Both decided to apply to the program after community service sparked their passions and trips abroad changed their worldviews.

Both spent their time with the corps learning what their assigned towns needed and ensuring town leaders would be able to lobby for those needs long after the volunteers were gone.

And both believe the 27 months they spent in Costa Rica and Togo, respectively, will impact them for years to come.

Cohen and Conlin are just two of 234 college alumni who have traveled abroad to serve as volunteers since the Peace Corps’ founding in 1961. And they’re just two of dozens who helped Connecticut College land among the Peace Corps’ top 15 volunteer-producing small colleges in 2010, 2011 and this year.

As of 2017, the college has 10 alumni serving on five continents.

Cohen, a 31-year-old Avon native who graduated from Conn College in 2007, called her more than two years in La Palma, Costa Rica, a “transformative” experience that set her up for the success she now enjoys.

Cohen, who double-majored in Hispanic studies and psychology, landed in the 300-person, rural town with a directive to understand from residents what the community needed and to work with them to meet those needs.

A woman who hadn’t experienced much rural life prior to the trip, Cohen woke up at the crack of dawn and, after enjoying coffee and homemade tortillas, sometimes helped her host family milk its cows.

With a teacher in the town, she facilitated a series of workshops called “powerful girls.” She taught English classes and sometimes yoga. She worked with town leaders to apply for a grant to add drainage ditches in a town where steep, winding dirt roads became nearly unnavigable during the rainy season.

Recently, Cohen said, one of the town councilors she worked with then told her the town again received a grant — this time to pave the roads.

“When I was there, paving was pipe dream,” she said. “We never thought that would happen. It was such a proud moment for me to learn that, years later, they knew the process and they did it. That encapsulates what sustainable community development is about.”

Conlin, who still has six months left of her time in Koni, Togo, said she, too, has focused on sustainability in the rural West African village that has no electricity and no running water.

A 2013 graduate of Conn College who majored in environmental science, Conlin at first tried to teach men in the village, who asked for her help, about methods to create compost, natural insecticides and other things that could help them garden for more than half the year.

But when the men, perhaps reluctant to learn from a woman in a culture where sexism prevails, didn’t show up to her trainings, Conlin shifted her focus to improving girls’ education and empowering women to gain political power.

Now, when Conlin isn’t building a permaculture garden or surveying the tree nurseries of her reforestation team, she’s meeting with the women's cooperative she helped create or running her girls’ club at the local middle school.

The people of Koni, she said in an email, have told her they're "proud and touched" by her presence in their village.

After Togo, the 26-year-old Chester Springs, Pa., native plans to go to graduate school and focus her studies around food security and gender equality. No matter where she lands, she knows her time in Togo will resonate.

“It is easy when working on a large-scale project with an organization to make assumptions about what people need and forget that they are in fact real people living day-to-day,” Conlin wrote. “Time, understanding and collaboration are essential to ensuring the sustainability of a project and I will never forget this.”

Cohen today spends her time working as the manager of Community Partnerships for Gap Foundation’s northeast region.

The foundation, which is the philanthropic arm of retailer Gap Inc., runs a paid in-store internship program that provides job readiness training to teens and young adults from low-income communities and gives them the chance to put those skills to practice in Gap’s stores.

Like she did in Costa Rica, Cohen still asks questions rather than assuming she knows the answers. She does her best to see things from a different perspective.

And she remembers the advice that folks in Costa Rica gave her when she wanted things to move more quickly.

“They’re like, ‘Tes, don’t worry about it, tranquila, chill out,'” Cohen said, explaining that she had to meet community members where they were.

“I never made this connection before,” she continued, “but I’ve been involved in lots of youth development. The best advice someone told me in relation to youth is you need to meet them where they are.”

l.boyle@theday.com

Tes Cohen. (Courtesy of Tes Cohen)
Tes Cohen. (Courtesy of Tes Cohen)
Tes Cohen pictured with students from La Palma, Costa Rica, in an undated photo. (Courtesy of Tes Cohen)
Tes Cohen pictured with students from La Palma, Costa Rica, in an undated photo. (Courtesy of Tes Cohen)

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