Sitting on an Air France plane July 9, preparing to fly overseas for the first time in her life, Mary Scott yelled over the voices of 47 fellow Peace Corps volunteers traveling to Africa.
"I just graduated from college, and nothing is holding me back," said Scott, a Mahomet-Seymour High School graduate before going to Western Illinois University. "I love the idea of foreign travel, of foreign countries and of foreign languages."
With a bachelor's degree in journalism from Western, a minor in French and a desire to travel the world, Scott, 22, was an ideal candidate for the Peace Corps, said Christine Torres, public affairs specialist for the Peace Corps Chicago Regional Office. Upon graduating from volunteer training in October, Scott will be planning and implementing education programs on nutrition, hygiene and HIV/AIDS in the central African country of Niger.
"The goal is to send skilled men and women overseas to help underdeveloped communities prosper whether it's in education, agriculture or business, whatever that community feels they need to move ahead," Torres said. "About 36 percent of our applicants actually become volunteers."
In the spring of 2007, Scott attended an informational meeting on the Western campus. It was then that she decided to apply for the Peace Corps, an independent agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship.
"We actively recruit at colleges and universities across Illinois ... ," Torres said. "While a majority of Peace Corps volunteers are in their 20s, like Mary Kathleen, nearly 6 percent of our currently serving volunteers are over age 50."
The application process often takes between six and 12 months to complete. At the time that Scott decided to apply, a year seemed like a long way off to her parents, John and Nancy. By February 2008, Scott had been accepted into the Corps as a community health volunteer, and after graduating in May, she began preparing for her departure in early July.
During the first three months of her service, Scott will live with a host family in Niger to become fully immersed in the country's language and culture, Torres said. After acquiring the languages of Hausa and Zarma, as well as the cultural skills necessary to assist her community, Scott will serve for two years in Niger, living in a manner similar to people in her host country.
"It will be hard not seeing her for that long of a period, but I think it will be a great opportunity for her," Nancy said. "We're a little apprehensive, but she's very excited, so we just have to keep saying our prayers."
Scott is joining 367 Illinois residents who are currently serving in the Peace Corps. More than 7,287 Illinois residents have served in the Peace Corps since 1961 when Sen. John F. Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries.
Since 1962, more than 2,918 volunteers have served in Niger. Because 80 percent of the Niger population resides within rural areas, volunteers work on agriculture, the environment, community development, youth education and health projects to help communities attain household food security and to promote sustainable development, Torres said.
Currently, 127 volunteers are serving in Niger, also working to promote HIV/AIDS prevention.
"Mary Kathleen will be serving in a health program, which is one of the largest program needs worldwide," Torres said. "Approximately 21 percent of volunteers serve in some type of health or HIV/AIDS program."
The Peace Corps is celebrating a 47-year legacy of service at home and abroad. Currently, there are 8,000 volunteers abroad, a 37-year high for volunteers in the field. Since 1961, more than 190,000 volunteers have helped promote a better understanding between Americans and the people of the 139 countries where volunteers have served.