2017 News Stories
College of Education graduate to make global impact as Peace Corps volunteer
by Abby Rinaldi
Tampa, FL (May 3, 2017) — By the time Heather Palmer was 12 years old, she had traveled to Ecuador, Guatemala, Costa Rica, France and Japan.
Because her dad was a commercial airline pilot and her sister was studying abroad, she was able to travel to numerous countries across the world. In high school, she continued to stamp her passport with trips to England, Spain, and Morocco. Now, as a USF senior who is about to graduate with a degree in elementary education, her journey to different parts of the world continues with an appointment to South Africa in the Peace Corps program.
In South Africa, Palmer will teach students at a primary school for 27 months, starting in July. Her official position within the Peace Corps will be as a primary English teacher specialist, but the responsibilities included will add a lot of diversity to the role.
"I'll be teaching whatever the school asks me to, English, reading, mathematics, life skills, science, history — anything that they need," Palmer said. "In my second year, I will also have the opportunity to collaborate with staff members of the school, co-teach with them, put together workshops for professional development (and) just work with the staff of the school as well as students."
Palmer's plan wasn't always to be an elementary education major. She was originally at USF pursuing a degree in nursing, but after a semester in the program, she decided it wasn't for her.
"I was home over winter break my freshman year and I was freaking out a little bit because I knew that wasn't what I wanted to do, but I didn't know what I wanted to do," Palmer said. "I was working at my job back home at a preschool, and I just loved going to work. I thought I would be able to have an impact on children's lives every day and be able to go to work, and teach and influence children and really change the trajectory of their lives."
Following that winter break, Palmer changed her major and enrolled in pre-education courses. She joined SCATTER, the USF College of Education honors society.
And she joined the Urban Teacher Residency Partnership Program, a program in the College of Education that provides opportunities for education majors to work at local high-need schools. Through this program, she has served as a teacher at Mort Elementary School — a high-needs school located minutes away from the USF campus. Palmer said she feels the program has made all the difference for her in getting field experience.
"It's a really close-knit, supportive community so you never feel like you're alone because you're never left to falter," Palmer said. "Someone always has your back."
The education and involvement gained at USF, Palmer said, has helped her prepare for a career in teaching. With more than 2,000 hours of field experience under her belt through the Urban Teacher Residency Program, as well as her participation in professional development workshops and conferences through SCATTER and the accumulation of mentors, Palmer says she has learned how to deal with hiccups in the field.
What reaffirmed her decision to teach and her passion for teaching abroad was a study abroad trip through the Cambridge Schools Experience, Palmer says, where she spent four weeks in the U.K. teaching at Cottenham Primary School. While at Cottenham, Palmer learned a valuable lesson — that while students may seem similar on the surface, every individual's environment and situation uniquely shape the approach needed to effectively teach them.
"Even though all of the kids looking at me looked more similar than my classroom here in Tampa ... working with all them made me realize that I still did want to work and teach abroad and that I could adjust to different curriculums and different approaches to education as well since the way schools are taught in Britain is very different than the way that schools are taught here in America," she said.
The schools in South Africa are also different, Palmer said. For example, the class sizes are much larger, with upward of 40 to 60 children in one classroom. Given the difference in the schools and structure, Palmer said that she thinks her more than two years in South Africa will change her as a teacher and a person, but she isn't sure how just yet.
"I'm trying to go in with as open a mind as possible and just know that they have so much to offer me," she said. "I don't know what resources will be available to me in South Africa, but I want to make every lesson and every experience for the kids is engaging and purposeful and something that the students are really invested in. So, to do that, I will certainly have to expand upon my knowledge and understanding of how content can be delivered."
Wilnie Merilien, Peace Corps recruiter at USF, said the Peace Corps' biggest programs are health and education. In education, a lot of the need is for English teachers. Education volunteers go into the classrooms to teach or they might train teachers on new methods and approaches.
Currently, USF has 40 undergraduate alumni serving as volunteers in the Peace Corps, and is ranked No. 18 among large schools on the agency's 2017 Top Volunteer-Producing Colleges and Universities list. The university also has plans to develop a Peace Corps Prep Program for undergraduate students to prepare for service in the Peace Corps after graduation.
"Serving in the Peace Corps is a unique opportunity to learn about other people, develop language and career skills, and to help improve the quality of life for people in developing countries," said College of Education Interim Dean Roger Brindley, who also serves as Vice President of USF World. "It is important that our college produces students who are prepared to serve as educators at a global level, and we are proud to see our students using their education from USF to make a difference internationally."
To prepare for her trip, Palmer says she is researching the culture and history of South Africa and speaking with current Peace Corps volunteers in the area to get a feel for what life will be like.
"It took a long time to find this Peace Corps program and the exact country that I was hoping for that kind of meshed with everything that I had set out when I was looking for those jobs," she said. "I feel like I found the perfect fit for me right now."
Peace Corps volunteers are provided with host families, host organizations and allowances that are enough to live at the level of those in the community, as well as health insurance and other resources while in South Africa and upon their return to the U.S. During Palmer's stay in South Africa, she will be staying in a rural area with a host family. In this area, there is no running water and there likely won't be electricity either, but that isn't stopping Palmer from striving to get the most out of the experience.
"I get to learn a new language and I get to learn how to communicate with people and just really work to understand them and their culture, and their history," she said. "I'm looking forward to working with the students, living with the host family, meeting community members. I think that will be the most valuable part of my service."
About the USF College of Education:
The USF College of Education is accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (formerly NCATE), and is fully approved by the Florida Department of Education. The USF College of Education is ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the top 100 programs in the nation, as well as in the top 30 for online graduate education programs. The USF College of Education has more than 51,000 alumni who are making a difference in the lives of children each day.