Peace Corps Prep Program expands into global health

As she applies to serve with the Peace Corps in Peru, Lily Merritt, who finishes her degree program this month, is the first student to complete the requirements of a new track focused on global health in Elon University’s Peace Corps Prep Program.

An Elon senior with a career interest in public health is now applying to the Peace Corps after successfully completing a new track in the university’s Peace Corps Prep Program.

Lily Merritt, a public health studies major from Towson, Maryland, is the first student to finish a global health track introduced this fall to the prep program.

Since the program’s creation in 2013, students could only take part in environmental and agricultural tracks. When professors realized last year that courses already offered by Elon also could fulfill the requirements for a global health pathway, they formalized the track by working with Peace Corps administrators in Washington, D.C.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel. We’re just helping to make sure it’s packaged right,” said Steve Moore, a faculty member in the Department of Environmental Studies and director of Elon’s Peace Corps Prep Program. “The ethos of Elon is similar to that of the Peace Corps. It’s a natural fit.”

The federal government’s Peace Corps currently employees about 6,900 volunteers and trainees in 63 countries around the globe. Twenty-four percent of volunteers work in health, 10 percent in environment and 6 percent in agriculture.

Students taking part in the program’s global health track are required to complete a public health studies course in combination with any of several possible electives that include epidemiology, health communications, exercise physiology and more. As with the agriculture and environmental science tracks, students also must take or be placed into upper-level world language courses and complete 100 hours of volunteer service.

The global health track was a joint effort by Moore, Professor Cynthia Fair and Associate Professor Caroline Ketcham, with strong support from Gabie Smith, dean of Elon College, the College of Arts and Sciences.

“The Global Health Track provides students with a broad understanding of factors that influence human health across the globe,” said Fair, Merritt’s academic advisor in the public health studies program. “Coursework includes a focus on the cultural meaning of health and illness as well as drawing attention to the role that poverty and inequity plays in health disparities across contexts.

“The track will be especially relevant to those students who wish to work in low-resource communities addressing health-related issues.”

Although participation in Peace Corps Prep doesn’t guarantee that applicants will be accepted as volunteers, the specialized curriculum and experience should make them strong candidates for service, Moore said. To date, every Elon student who has completed the prep program and applied to the Peace Corps has been offered a position.

Elon’s prep program now offers three of the six Peace Corps service areas and are fully engaged in adding several more in the years ahead, Moore said. The additions will allow expanded opportunities for students to engage in lifelong “global citizenship” ideals fostered by their Elon education.

The Peace Corps is the favored entry to a public health career for Merritt, who serves as a Global Ambassador in the Isabella Cannon Global Education Center and is a member of the Delta Delta Delta sorority. Possibly helping with dietary concerns and deficiencies, disease intervention, and maternal and infant health, among other public health efforts, does more than heal the body.

“In our society, where things seem great? It’s not like that for many people elsewhere,” she said. “Health is just so important. It impacts other areas of life, from education to economics. And in the Peace Corps, you can really see your impact and immerse yourself in a culture.”