Coverdell Fellowship Brings Former Peace Corps Volunteers to NYU Silver

Anita Virmani (left) and Emily Hehmeyer (right)
Anita Virmani (left) and Emily Hehmeyer (right)

In September 2016, NYU enrolled its first cohort in the NYU Peace Corps Coverdell Fellowship Program, which offers a select group of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers leadership development programming and financial support while pursuing a master's degree. NYU Silver is one of seven NYU graduate schools participating in the fellowship and was pleased to welcome Coverdell Fellows Anita Virmani and Emily Hehmeyer to its MSW program.

Anita Virmani did her service in the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Paraguay. Over the course of her 26-month tenure, she taught computer skills to elementary school students, sexual education to high school students, and English and teaching skills to adults, who would then become English teachers themselves. “It was probably the most trying two years of my life,” she said, “but I grew a lot personally and emotionally as a result.”

Virmani said that the process of looking into graduate school as her Peace Corps service was winding down was daunting. “I was in Paraguay, I couldn’t visit anywhere, I couldn’t go to Admitted Students day, I couldn’t even use a smartphone. I picked NYU because it has an excellent reputation, and once I got the Coverdell it was pretty much decided. It was nice that someone recognized how meaningful my Peace Corps experience has been and how it enhances my academic ability.”

When asked about what drew her to social work, Virmani said, “When I was in Peace Corps, I was in a really difficult place in my life and I wasn’t offered the services or support I needed. Beyond that, there were many people I came across in Paraguay that had their own trauma and their own stories, and I didn’t know how to offer them help. I felt inadequate. All I could do was listen.” She is now enrolled in NYU Silver’s dual degree program in social work and public health, after which she will be particularly well-equipped for a career helping others. She said, “I hope to work on a global level with volunteers or people committing themselves to service abroad.”

Emily Hehmeyer’s Peace Corps service took her to the Republic of Vanuatu, an island chain near Fiji in the South Pacific, where she spent more than two years as a community health volunteer. Although the Peace Corps has been stationing volunteers across Vanuatu since 1989, Hehmeyer recounted that on the tropical island where she was placed, she was the only volunteer for miles. “Coming to a place like New York City where you can’t go a few feet without running into anyone makes for an interesting adjustment,” she said.

Notwithstanding the challenges of transitioning back to life in the US, Hehmeyer believes that volunteering with the Peace Corps gave her the skills necessary to become a valuable member of the social work field. “Being in the Peace Corps really helps you learn how to be flexible and outgoing,” she said. “It also helps you learn how to deal with people from all different personalities and age groups. You learn how to develop relationships with people that you might not always feel like you connect to.”

Hehmeyer noted that she is currently doing her social work field learning at a middle school in the East Village, which also fulfills the Coverdell Fellowship’s requirement of participating in service hours at an organization that serves an underserved community in the greater New York City area. She said, “Whether you’re a fellow or not, the Silver School requires an internship in the first year. They don’t waste any time in making sure that you start learning.”

Hehmeyer praised the sense of “family” she feels at the Silver School. “I definitely feel supported by my peers and by my professors,” she said. She added that her brief time at the School so far has expanded her perspective on potential career opportunities. “My experiences in the Peace Corps helped solidify in my head that I wanted to help link vulnerable communities with resources that they might need or want, and I have always wanted to work with kids. However, now that I am in New York City, I have found that there are a lot of other populations that I would want to work with.”