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NMSU Fulbright recipient reaches out to West African country

A New Mexico State University College of Education faculty member chosen to participate in the Fulbright program will return to the place he was stationed while serving in the Peace Corps more than 25 years ago.

James O'Donnell, academic department head of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, was chosen as a Fulbright Scholar for his leadership and academic merit. From Sept. 1 through March 1, 2009, he will teach and conduct research in the country of Sierra Leone in West Africa.

To receive the Fulbright Scholar grant, O'Donnell proposed two courses, a literacy course and a curriculum development course. He will be teaching the courses at the University of Sierra Leone, located in the capital city of Freetown.

While there, he also will work with a local school, helping the students with literacy and writing, and helping the school update its curriculum.

"My desire to return to Sierra Leone is based on the continued relationships and communication with friends I have maintained during the past 27 years. From my Peace Corps experience, I have stayed focused on seeking international opportunities to teach and to work," O'Donnell said.

O'Donnell served in the Peace Corps from July 1980 through Oct. 1982 in Kabala, a village 300 miles away from Freetown. Originally assigned to do professional development for primary teachers, he later teamed with Peace Corps volunteers who were constructing a school garden, and together they created an integrated curriculum centered on the garden. The program was still in operation four years after O'Donnell left.

O'Donnell said he joined the Peace Corps to help others through his teaching.

"I had a sense of adventure, and I felt the Peace Corps was an ideal way of serving others. At the time, I had been a teacher for five years and decided to share my talents to try and make a difference," he said.

A civil war erupted in Sierra Leone in 1991 and lasted until 2002, involving the control of the country's diamond mines. The government was eventually stabilized, but many important buildings, such as schools, town halls and hospitals were destroyed in the process.

Because of this devastation in villages across the country, O'Donnell and eight other former Peace Corps volunteers and Sierra Leoneans created a non-profit organization called the Sierra Leone Village Partnership (www.slvp.org).

The partnership helps villages rebuild schools and other needed buildings by providing funding. The villagers conduct the actual construction of the buildings and local materials are used.

The current project is a school and town hall in the village of Mamaka. More than 600 children attend the school.

The Fulbright program was created by the United States government in 1946 to aid international educational exchange. Fulbright grants are given for a variety of educational activities, including advanced research, graduate study and university lecturing.

The main funding for the program is received from the U.S. Congress, while participating governments and host universities contribute indirectly.