Peace Corps to Princeton: Grassroots Experience and the Graduate Student - Aja Kennedy
John F. Kennedy founded the Peace Corps in 1961 with the goal of sending volunteers on two-year missions to aid developing nations while simultaneously helping Americans understand foreign cultures. Since then, more than 220,000 Americans have traveled to 140 countries to assist with projects ranging from education to agriculture to technology. The Peace Corps provides volunteers with housing and a stipend to cover food and incidentals, allowing them to live with the people in their community.
Because much of the work done through the Peace Corps focuses on social and economic development, volunteers often leave with a drive to continue helping their host country from a policy level as a way to enact large-scale change. Over the years, many of these volunteers have enrolled at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affair after their tour with the Peace Corps where they have learned how to apply their grassroots knowledge to the policy spheres necessary for global development.
Aja Kennedy MPA ’17 didn’t consider the Peace Corps until she attended a career fair at her college. Immediately interested, she took as much information as she could find and set her sights on this alternative post-graduate plan. By the time she graduated, Kennedy was ready to get out of the classroom and into the real world.
“I had been in classrooms talking about the world’s problems a lot, but I wasn’t doing anything about it,” Kennedy said. “I wanted to get my hands dirty and so that’s why I joined the Peace Corps.”
In February 2013, Kennedy traveled to Panama to work as an education volunteer for a K–12 School. In addition to her time as a teacher, Kennedy also worked on projects surrounding youth and women’s development, women’s health and HIV awareness.
As an undergraduate, Kennedy took an interest in global poverty and studied development. However, what she learned in the classroom would soon pale next to the lessons learned in the Peace Corps.
“I do appreciate those classes but I think I learned a lot by seeing those ideas in a real-world context when I went to the Peace Corps,” Kennedy said. “I saw the challenges of working in grassroots development as well as the bureaucracy and red tape that you face when trying to get projects off the ground.”
While in the Peace Corps, Kennedy met diplomats who held public policy degrees, which piqued her interest in graduate school. She wanted to learn about the effects American policies might have overseas and for that, the Wilson School seemed like a natural fit.
“After I had been in the field, I realized that if I wanted to make a sustainable contribution, I would need to do it on the policy level,” Kennedy said. “As an American citizen coming into a developing country, you need to have skills on a policy level to analyze programs and diagnose issues and recommend effective intervention. That requires some level of policy analysis. After I found out what a public policy degree was, I thought ‘this is perfect, it’ll teach me exactly what I need to know.’”
After finishing her volunteer work, Kennedy spent the summer before coming to Princeton interning on Capitol Hill with Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.). This experience prepared her for the transition from field work to graduate work, while teaching her how the Senate works.
Now, Kennedy plans to work as a foreign service officer for the State Department, as part of the Charles B. Rangel International Affairs Program, a collaborative effort between Howard University and the U.S. State Department that prepares young people for careers as diplomats in the foreign service.
Being a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer has not only given Kennedy a different background than many of her classmates, it has also given her a passion for humanitarian work.
“The Peace Corps gives you a different perspective to be able to bring into a place like Princeton,” Kennedy said. “I have a more well-rounded perspective of how I might go about saving the world and solving the world’s problems.”