Jason Rhoades, PhD '16Environmental Studies
The Wisdom of Community: Lessons from Peace Corps
Note: Jason Rhoades was selected as the 2016 student speaker for Commencement Exercises. Read the profound words he shared with fellow graduates, faculty, and members of the audience about “A Life of Service.”
Trained as a forester, Jason Rhoades found his skills in demand when he was sent as a Peace Corps volunteer to Armenia, a country plagued by deforestation. The experience also taught him much about change.
“These problems are many years in the making and the solutions will be, too,” said Jason, now a PhD student in AUNE’s Environmental Studies (ES) department. “But one thing that’s so great about the Peace Corps is that you’re working to foster a vibrant community at the community level, where it’s more possible to have a meaningful impact.”
A student at Michigan Technological University, Jason joined the Peace Corps as part of its Master’s International program. He became one of the driving forces behind bringing the Master’s International to AUNE, and is now program coordinator.
“After Michigan Tech, I was very aware how the Peace Corps and master’s study can enhance each other. The experience was so meaningful to me in many ways,” he said. “Antioch is the perfect place for a Master’s International because of its ethos and because of the type of student coming here. People looking at AUNE want to make a positive difference in the world.”
Jason grew up in Connecticut and studied theater at New York University. But when he realized the gravity of the environmental problems facing the world, he shifted gears and entered Michigan Tech’s Master’s International program to study forestry.
“I realized that I could have an amazing adventure and try to do something of service at the same time. And participating in a Master’s International program gave me the skills to be a more effective Peace Corps volunteer.”
Because he had picked up some Russian language while attending the Moscow Art Theater, the Peace Corps sent him to Armenia. He worked with village residents in Hrazdan to plant trees, clean up parks, and generate less pollution. He helped a middle school class start a school newspaper. He also did research on the impacts of logging on national forests in Armenia for his Michigan Tech master’s degree.
Back in the United States, Jason worked for Vermont’s Youth Conservation Corps, leading crews in the national forest and state parks and doing community outreach. When his wife, Esther, got a job in Peterborough, New Hampshire, they moved there, and Jason went to work as community outreach coordinator for the Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, based in Athol, Massachusetts. He entered AUNE in 2010, the beneficiary of another AUNE and Peace Corps partnership: the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows program, which offers scholarships to returned Peace Corps volunteers.
AUNE Launches Master’s International
Jason contacted Admissions Director Laura Andrews several times about bringing the Master’s International to AUNE and together they worked to bring the program here.
As coordinator, Jason is developing the program’s training. AUNE’s three Environmental Studies’ concentrations in the Master’s internationalConservation Biology, Environmental Education, and Sustainable Development and Climate Change along with the master’s in Resource Management and Conservation, already offer a curriculum that includes community building, management, and environmentally based skills tailored to the needs of future Peace Corps volunteers. Workshops will also prepare students on such topics as introduction to the Peace Corps experience, cultural diversity, community-based development, and conducting research overseas.
“Doing your master’s research overseas is another one of the amazing things about the program,” Jason said. “You couldn’t find another opportunity like this, that gives you the time to develop your research while getting paid and housed and the luxury of being in the community. And with the backing of the AUNE faculty, you have tools to leverage your research. It’s such a powerful way to bring a lot of resources to a community.”
Jason plans regular gatherings of the regional Peace Corps community, which will include returned volunteers. Feeling part of a community is a big support for Master’s International students, while they’re in the program and after they come back from the Peace Corps.
Bring in the Community
In addition to his work on the Master’s International program, Jason is also working with the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, helping its senior population adapt to climate change, for his dissertation. He has helped Jim Gruber and Michael Simpson, ES faculty, on stormwater infrastructure projects in Sunapee, New Hampshire, and Minnesota.
AUNE opened up other opportunities, as well. Jason has been teaching in the Environmental Studies Department at Colby Sawyer College, in part because of a welcome from two faculty members who are AUNE alums, Laura Alexander, PhD ’08, and Leon-Charl Malan, PhD ’08. He is a research assistant at the Social and Environmental Research Institute (SERI) in Amherst, Massachusetts, alongside former AUNE faculty Tom Webler. And for the service project required by his PhD program and Coverdell Fellowship, he is researching approaches to stormwater management, part of SERI’s collaboration with Beaufort County, South Carolina, as it prepares itself for climate change.
All these projects reinforce what he learned in the Peace Corps. “I have a better understanding that environmental crises are a result of culture- and community-based decisions,” Jason said. “To make headway, technical solutions alone aren’t going to solve the problems! We need to find ways to better integrate communities into the decision-making process. My hope is to continue to find ways to engage communities to make informed and thoughtful choices about how they manage their natural resources. The Master’s International is a great part of that.”