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UW Graduate Student Serves Overseas Communities Without Leaving US

May 13, 2022
woman working outdoors
Emily Donaldson, a UW graduate student from Ashland, Wis., participated in the first-ever Peace Corps Virtual Service Pilot (VSP) program. VSP is an opportunity for former Peace Corps volunteers to donate their services through virtual engagements with community-based partners overseas. Donaldson is shown here working in a tree nursery as a Peace Corps environmental conservation volunteer in AsunciĆ³n, Paraguay, in 2020. (Carlos Gomez Photo)

Emily Donaldson, a University of Wyoming master’s degree student, participated in the first-ever Peace Corps Virtual Service Pilot (VSP) program that connects volunteers with communities abroad.

Launched in October 2020, VSP is an opportunity for former Peace Corps volunteers to donate their services through virtual engagements with community-based partners overseas. Returned volunteers from all decades since the 1960s, including those evacuated in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, can participate in the VSP program. Participants are matched with host communities according to their skills and the needs of the community.

Donaldson, from Ashland, Wis., completed two virtual engagements -- one from October to December 2020 and one from February to April 2021. She averaged about 10 hours of work per week.

Donaldson’s virtual service consisted of collaborating with Para la Tierra, an environmental nongovernmental organization in Paraguay. She worked with another VSP participant and staff members from the Peace Corps’ environmental sector and the organization to further develop Para la Tierra’s environmental education program and curriculum. Together, they produced a monitoring and evaluation protocol to help educators track student progress and curriculum effectiveness.

“By continuing curriculum and programmatic development with Para la Tierra’s Voces de la Naturaleza eco-club program, we were able to enhance the organization and effectiveness of the programming for all relevant stakeholders,” Donaldson says. “We prepared recommendations and tools for when the eco-clubs would begin again.”

Donaldson connected with her Paraguayan counterparts via email and WhatsApp, a free messaging and video calling app. She and her colleagues also met over Zoom at least once a month.

Before participating in VSP, Donaldson served as a Peace Corps environmental conservation volunteer in Paraguay from 2017-2020. She began her service after earning her bachelor’s degree in sustainable community development from Northland College in 2017.

At her site in Paraguay, Donaldson worked with teachers at public schools and at the health post to improve understanding and behaviors surrounding trash management, ecology and natural resource conservation. She also worked with Para la Tierra during her two-year service. She then extended her service to work with A Todo Pulmón, another environmental organization.

“I was unable to complete my extension because of the global COVID-19 pandemic evacuation in March 2020,” Donaldson says. “I was thrilled that VSP offered me an opportunity to collaborate with Para la Tierra. Interacting and working with so many familiar and inspiring people provided a sense of closure and fulfillment that I sought during my original third-year extension of Peace Corps service.”

Donaldson plans to graduate in December with a master’s degree in rangeland ecology and watershed management. She hopes to find a job in natural resources -- either working for a federal agency, such as the U.S. Forest Service, or for a land trust, ideally in Alaska.

She says she gained valuable experience and insights from her Peace Corps service.

“Working with an international nongovernmental organization in my professional field is fantastic experience for continuing in the collaborative natural resources field, no matter where I choose to go,” Donaldson says. “I believe I came back from both in-person and virtual service more open-minded and empathetic to places and people who do not possess the privileges and resource accessibility we have in the United States. My service also opened my eyes to the ample improvements we need to accomplish in the U.S. -- from improving environmental and social equity to preserving new and existing natural spaces.”

About the Peace Corps

The Peace Corps is an international service network of volunteers, community members, host country partners and staff who are driven by the agency’s mission of world peace and friendship. Peace Corps volunteers work alongside community members on locally prioritized projects in the areas of education, health, environment, agriculture, community economic development and youth development.

For more information about the Peace Corps, visit

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