Stefanie Fabrico knew her goal to build a public high school from plastic bottles was a lofty one. But in the span of her two-year service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Todos Santos, Guatemala, Fabrico helped transform her idea into the first public high school in the area.
While the school appears typical from the outside—cement walls, glass windows, metal roof—the walls are insulated with soda bottles stuffed with plastic trash.
Building the school meant navigating the waters of the local and national government, engaging the community, and enlisting the support of nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations—all while working in a foreign language.
"This project was my biggest accomplishment not only in Peace Corps, but life accomplishment so far," Fabrico says.
While guiding the construction project from conception through completion, Fabrico was also earning her master's in public administration.
A member of Peace Corps's Master's International Program, which partners with more than 80 U.S. universities so volunteers can earn academic credit for their service, Fabrico took courses at George Mason University before leaving for her assignment in Guatemala.
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Implementing classroom concepts while working in Guatemala played a major role in organizing the effort to build the school in Todos Santos, Fabrico says.
"It encouraged that critical thinking about the management of cities and states," she says.
The program also helped Fabrico pay for grad school, waiving her tuition for the six credit hours she earned while serving in Guatemala.
"For me, because I was an out-of-state student, that saved me several thousand dollars," says Fabrico.
In addition to tuition waivers for volunteer service, Master's International students receive regular Peace Corps benefits such as a living stipend, student loan deferment, and partial forgiveness of federal Perkins loans for completed service, says Carrie Hessler-Radelet, deputy director of the Peace Corps.
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Even with tuition waivers, prospective Peace Corps volunteers may be better off separating their service from their graduate studies, says Brian Phillips, a Master's International alum who volunteered in Nicaragua and earned his M.B.A. in international economics from California's Monterey Institute of International Studies in 2006.
"My biggest frustration is the financial aspect of it," Phillips says. "I think I could have gotten more money—financial aid—doing graduate school after Peace Corps."
Peace Corps volunteers that go to grad school after completing their service are eligible for the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows program, formerly Fellows U.S.A., which offers reduced tuition, full scholarships, and stipends, depending on the school.
While repayment of federal loans can be deferred during service, volunteers still accrue interest on unsubsidized loans.
Phillips estimates the interest accumulated over more than two years of service, coupled with lost aid opportunities, tacked an additional $10,000 onto his student loan bill.
"That's the downside," he says. "It's a frustrating downside."
But fellows don't necessarily receive more financial advantages than Master's International students, says Hessler-Radelet from the Peace Corps.
"It's hard to tell whether it's more economically beneficial," she says. "Different universities have different packages."
Which graduate school route is best for prospective Peace Corps volunteers depends on the individual and the program, say those interviewed.
"Everyone's experience is different. You don't know what you're about to embark on, really," Fabrico says.
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Both Fabrico and Phillips say they chose the Master's International program because they knew Peace Corps service and graduate school were in their futures, so doing the two in tandem made sense.
While Fabrico attributes some of her success on the ground in Guatemala to her master's courses, Phillips, who taught basic business concepts to high school juniors in Nicaragua, says there was little correlation between the two.