by Alexandra DeMarco
The Center for Global Engagement is proud to welcome a new member to the Peace Corps Prep Program team, Maddie Casey. Starting this semester, Casey, a first-year graduate student in the College of Social Work, will be working as the University of Tennessee’s Peace Corps Recruiter to connect interested students with the Peace Corps.
Established in 1961, the Peace Corps is a two-year long international volunteer program for American citizens, typically focused on socioeconomic development assistance, which has placed volunteers in more than 140 countries. UT has partnered with the Peace Corps to offer students a certificate from the Peace Corps Prep Program, which helps students prepare for international development fieldwork and potential Peace Corps service.
Three months after graduating from college, Casey herself left to join the Peace Corps in Zambia, with the goal of combining her dual interests of social work and international work.
“(Social work) is a career where you focus on helping people, and I was really interested in international work, hence why I was studying Spanish, and I really wanted to combine the two, and Peace Corps was the best way for me to do that,” Casey said.
A lifelong Mississippian, Casey grew up in Pass Christian — population under 7,000 — and moved to Starkville for college, where she double-majored in social work and Spanish at Mississippi State University.
In March 2019, Casey began her journey with the Peace Corps as a Linking Income, Food, and Environment, or LIFE, volunteer in Mansa, Zambia. She spent three months in training — learning about the Bemba language, Zambian culture and her program — before quickly integrating into the village where she was scheduled to spend the next two years.
As a LIFE volunteer, Casey had the flexibility of choosing which resources she brought to the village based on the needs of the people living there, which meant learning to understand the power structures of the community and getting to know those around her.
For the second requirement, some of the youngest community members played an integral role, Casey said.
“I had kids at my house from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed,” Casey said. “They were just always there, so they kind of showed me around and introduced me to people, which was really convenient.”
As the months rolled on, Casey was settling into a routine in her new home, with bountiful plans for the future: lessons about keeping goats and chickens, sustainable gardening and even sewing were in the works when, one year after arriving in Zambia, Casey was among the several Peace Corps volunteers evacuated from the country at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was hectic and chaotic, and we were all waiting after we evacuated and looking at news updates, and it was like, ‘Oh this country’s closed their borders, this country’s closed their borders,’ and like, all airlines are shutting down, and we were like, ‘How are we even going to get home?’” Casey said.
However, volunteering with the Peace Corps wasn’t Casey’s first time working in an international capacity, and her evacuation would not mark the end: while at MSU, she interned at the Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance in Jackson. A legal intern, Casey worked closely with the local immigrant community during voter registration and participation campaigns.
After returning to Mississippi in March 2020, she resumed work with MIRA, this time as a community organizer in Biloxi.
“That was really cool, especially because I’m a native Mississippian, and it was interesting that I lived in Mississippi my whole life but had never seen that Mississippi before, if that makes sense,” Casey said. “Like, upper class white woman — my social circles growing up, I didn’t realize how limited they were, so it really opened my eyes to what is capable if you have people behind you.”
Now, here in Tennessee, graduate student Casey will soon return to the Peace Corps as a recruiter, a position she was inspired to apply for by the good that the Peace Corps can accomplish.
“I would say there are some things that may need to be tweaked about Peace Corps, but ultimately, it’s a good organization that is beneficial to a lot of people, like volunteers get a lot out of it and then communities, they’ll benefit in some way, if not just culture share or programs that are sustainable or just different ideas,” Casey said.
Professor Adam Willcox, UT’s Peace Corps Prep Coordinator, is looking forward to what Casey will accomplish in her new role at UT.
“I am very excited to bring Maddie Casey into the strong partnerships UT has built with the US Peace Corps,” Willcox said. “She will help UT bring our Volunteer Spirit to the world as we increase our impact globally by providing well-qualified students to serve as US Peace Corps Volunteers.”
After graduation, Casey hopes to work in policy or a political arena of some sort — but she’s open to surprises that the future may have in store.
“My whole life motto up to this point is just be open to possibilities, and when they come, just follow it and see where it goes,” Casey said.
Read more about the Peace Corps Prep Program at UT here: https://cge.utk.edu/peace-corps-prep/
Jason Moody (865-974-2168, firstname.lastname@example.org)