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Abby Borst has always been an adventure seeker. With a heart to help others and a desire to make the world a better place, Borst spent two years in Panama as a Peace Corps volunteer before enrolling at UT last fall.

Abby Borst_Abby Borst in Panama
Abby Borst is the first student in UT’s College of Social Work to pursue her graduate degree through the Peace Corps’ national Paul Coverdell Fellowship.

Borst is the first student in the College of Social Work to pursue her graduate degree through the Peace Corps’ national Paul Coverdell Fellowship.

“The fellowship program allows returning volunteers to use the skills they have developed in adapting to new cultures, leading and managing projects, overcoming barriers, and doing a lot with limited resources to make a difference in the lives of people here in the United States,” said Karen Sowers, dean of the college. “We’re honored to have a passionate student like Abby in our program.”

Borst sees her social work education as a way to combine her passion for working with diverse groups of people and her interest in sustainability, policy, and health.

The Paul Coverdell Fellows program is a graduate fellowship program that offers financial assistance to returned Peace Corps volunteers. All fellows complete internships in underserved communities, allowing them to bring home the skills they learned as volunteers.

The Grand Rapids, Michigan, native served with the Peace Corps in Panama from April 2011 to July 2013.

For two years, Borst worked to understand how basic resources, namely water and food, affected the people. The community she worked in was rural, without paved roads, reliable electricity, or Internet service.

“This was a huge change at first but I adapted very quickly,” said Borst. “It forced me to slow down and helped me manage my workaholic personality. I learned how to be in the moment, which I carried home with me.”

After returning home to the States, Borst began to search for a social work program that participated in the Coverdell Fellowship—which led her to UT, where she is pursuing her master’s degree.

The program prepares graduates to work directly with or on behalf of underserved communities through providing direct services, promoting social change and justice, developing programs, and researching best practices.

“UT’s social work program had very similar goals to the Peace Corps—empowering people, capacity building, and sustainable development of communities,” said Borst. “As a social worker and as Peace Corps volunteer, you go in to a community to empower the people to make changes, not force changes upon them.”

Borst, along with another volunteer, also wanted to bring attention to the national park and biodiversity near their small town in Panama.

She became involved in a research project that studied and tracked trends and patterns of the behavior of wild animals, particularly jaguars. As the work progressed, community members began to lead tours related to the research. Over time those tours led to the formation of an effort to develop tourism, which began to provide support for the community.

“Every day was a crazy adventure for me,” said Borst. “The biggest thing that stands out for me, though, is the personal growth and maturity I experienced from the day I arrived to two years later when I left. On my first day there, I could barely speak Spanish and felt very uncomfortable and shy around people, but by the time I left it was like leaving my family all over again. The love and relationships built over that period of time are what makes being a Peace Corps volunteer so cool.”

And it’s the word “volunteer” that made Borst look into UT.

“I’m not going to lie, that was one really cool thing I loved about the possibility of coming here,” said Borst. “Volunteerism has such a special place in my heart. I came for a visit, loved the campus and really enjoyed meeting the professors. I just got a good vibe.”

Borst and her dog, Maeby, that she brought back from Panama with her, are proud to call Knoxville home.

“I’ve found Knoxville to be a lovely place to live and have already made some great connections both personally and professionally,” she said.

Jobwise, Borst isn’t sure what she’ll do after she graduates in spring 2017, but she is interested in environmental justice from the social work perspective. It wasn’t until she came to UT that she realized environmentalism has a place in social work.

For Borst, the type of person who wants to join the Peace Corps is generally a quality person.

“They’re people who are flexible, willing to work hard, fail, and make change,” said Borst. “That’s something that could benefit any university or future employer. The personal benefits of volunteering in Panama and now pursuing my graduate degree at UT are too many to count.”


Tyra Haag (865-974-5460,

Betsy DeGeorge (865-974-8638,