Meet Peace Corps Volunteer Cullen O’Donnell ’16

May 8, 2017

by Samantha Surrency '18
Copywriter
Edited for content and length

Though Cullen O’Donnell ’16 recently graduated from FSC, he’s already making a change in the world. During his time here, he was a triple major in sociology, psychology, and Spanish, along with being a member of our Honors program. Following his passion for helping people and teaching, he is now working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador teaching English and building community programs. He is also keeping a blog about his teaching experiences.

Where are you from?

Mentor, Ohio

Why did you choose to attend FSC?

At first, I decided to go to FSC because I wanted to live somewhere where I could go to the beach in December or go kayaking in February. While I was lucky enough to do those things during my time at Florida Southern, I am most grateful that I chose to attend a school where all of my peers, professors, and faculty supported me tremendously in all of my endeavors. I would not have been as successful as I am without the confidence that everyone at FSC placed in me.

What was your experience as a triple major at FSC?

The professors in all three of my departments were amazing and helped to make it all possible. I am especially grateful to the psychology department for working so closely with me to make sure that I got the required classes I needed to graduate early.

What professors did you have the best experience with?

I have been blessed to have some of the best mentors in the world in all of my departments. As the last sociology major, I was lucky to work very closely with Dr. Blankenship. I took the majority of my sociology courses with her, including independent studies and my Honors Thesis. It was a great privilege and honor to have Dr. Blankenship as my mentor for the past few years. I am also very grateful for the professors I have worked closely with in the psychology and criminology departments: Dr. Goodmon, Dr. Smith, Professor Agelidis, Dr. Quinlivan, and Dr. Carter. I also feel that I am better prepared for my career because of my experiences with Dr. Garcia and Dr. Garr (who helped me to set up my internships in Spain) and Dr. Crowe (who taught me to step out of my comfort zone and become a better student/person).

Cullen outside of basílica del voto nacional in Ecuador.

Did you receive any awards during college?

Yes, I was awarded as the Most Outstanding Sociology Student for two years in a row, and I was selected as the recipient of the nationwide Pi Kappa Phi International Scholar Award for my teaching internship in Spain. Finally, I was on the President’s Scholar List or the Dean’s List for every semester that I was at Florida Southern.

Were you involved with Greek life?

Yes, I was a Founding Father of the Beta Beta chapter of Pi Kappa Phi fraternity at Florida Southern. I served as both the historian and social chairman for two years and I served as the Social Media Chairman for another year.

What inspired your career path?

When I started volunteering with Big Brothers Big Sisters in high school, I started to realize that not everyone was as lucky as I was to have such a supportive environment to grow up in. I decided that I wanted to do everything I could to support at-risk youth through a career in social work.

What’s something surprising about you?

I have an award named after me that is given out every year by my high school cross country team called the “Cullen O’Donnell ‘Never Give Up’ Award.” I love to run and to travel!

During 2016, my senior year at FSC, I traveled to 12 different states and 13 different countries! Most of this traveling was for academic conferences or during the three months that I was living and working in Spain.

Did you do any research during college?

Yes, I did a great deal of research during my time at Florida Southern. I presented projects at the Southwestern Social Science Association conference in Las Vegas, the Southeastern Psychological Association conference in New Orleans, and the Southern Criminal Justice Association conference in Savannah. I published research in two peer-reviewed journals: Deviant Behavior and the University of North Georgia’s Papers and Publications Journal. I also have a third publication currently going through the publication process.

How do you believe FSC contributed to your success?

I think that I would not have been as successful as a Peace Corps Volunteer if I had not had so many great experiences through Florida Southern. My teaching internships in Spain significantly helped me to prepare to teach English as a foreign language. I have also enjoyed my academic research and am excited to continue using the skills I have learned in my future graduate studies.

What activities on campus were you involved in?

In addition to my fraternity, I was involved in several honorary societies, including Omicron Delta Kappa, Phi Kappa Phi, Psi Chi, and Sigma Tau Delta. I was also a member of the Psychology Club and the Association of Campus Entertainment. However, the majority of my time was spent working. I was very lucky to have worked at several great organizations while I was in college.

I had a total of six different jobs in Lakeland during my time at Florida Southern. Most importantly, I was a Youth Development Professional at the Boys & Girls Club of Lakeland & Mulberry for three years, a counselor at Neighborhood Ministries for two years, and a substitute teacher for Polk County Schools for one year. The relationships I made with my students over the years and the positive impacts I was able to have on their lives were my favorite memories of my college experience at Florida Southern.

What do you do as a Peace Corps worker in Ecuador?

I am currently serving as a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Peace Corps Volunteer in Ecuador. I am teaching English to high school students, and also working with teachers to improve their English skills and better develop curricula.

What are your students like?

The students here in Ecuador are amazing. They remind me a lot of my students in the United States (who I miss a lot). Aside from speaking Spanish as the primary language and having less money and possessions, Ecuadorian students are just like American students. They love to have fun and they have the basic desire to learn.

How are you acclimating to life in Ecuador?

Overall, I have had a very smooth transition to the life here in Ecuador. The culture is very different, but the Peace Corps staff members have worked with us to teach us acclimation strategies. The host family that I am living with is also very helpful; they are always there for me to ask questions about the language or the culture.

My time living in Spain and traveling abroad also helped to prepare me for this adventure. However, the best way to get accustomed to a new culture is just to keep an open mind. For example, I have gotten used to eating popcorn with my soup and not being able to walk around the house without shoes on. Life is a lot simpler here; I live in a very small one-bathroom house that I share with three siblings and my host mom. We have no Internet, no mirrors, and only one small table and TV.

What do you like most about your job now?

I love being able to teach students who appreciate learning about American culture and the English language. I also am glad that I know I will be making a positive impact because Ecuadorians have many more opportunities in life if they know how to speak English.

Cullen and friends after a hike.

What do you do during the day?

I was accustomed to working with kids from 7 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. every day in the United States, so it is interesting to see how much free time I have here. I will be working with teachers and teaching the morning shift at a local high school. Since we can only travel by bus or walking, the commute usually takes almost an hour every day. In the afternoons, I will be working with local non-profit organizations or starting after-school activities like English clubs. During my free time, I like to run around the city, hang out in the park, hike the local volcanoes, and hang out with my host family.

What are your plans going forward?

I will be serving here in Ecuador until April of 2019. After that, I can choose to extend my service for another year (depending on how much I like living here and how my projects are going). Once I am done serving with Peace Corps here in Ecuador, I will have a certification in Teaching English as a Foreign Language. I may pursue some other teaching positions in other foreign countries before graduate school, or I may return to the U.S. right away to start a graduate program. I definitely want to pursue a Master’s in Social Work, and I am also interested in possibly pursuing a doctorate degree.

What have you learned in the field that’s different from what you learned while studying?

Throughout my teaching experiences in the U.S., Spain, and Ecuador, I have learned to always expect the unexpected. Especially as a Peace Corps Volunteer, we have to be ready to teach with little to no resources available. I think that I have always been very resilient and flexible, but I have developed these traits even more here in Ecuador. Being immersed in another culture has also made me aware of how privileged I was to grow up as a white, straight, Christian male in the United States of America. Finally, I have learned that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. I have to remind myself every day that this is real life and I am not just dreaming. I hope that I can challenge stereotypes here and help Ecuadorians to achieve their goals, by setting a prime example of someone who is currently pursuing his own dreams.

Have you done any volunteer work?

In addition to my primary project as a Secondary Education English Teacher, I also plan to get involved with local non-profit organizations in the afternoon working with at-risk children (similar to my jobs in the U.S.). I will also be running some week-long camps to empower girls and challenge boys to change stereotypes here during the summer months.

What advice would you give current students or young alumni?

Definitely enjoy all of the time you have in college, especially at such a great school like FSC! It goes by very fast and you will wish you could go back and do it all again. Also, keep your head up. Even when classes get tough, it is all worth it in the end. Never stop chasing your dreams! Anything is possible if you are confident in your abilities and you are passionate enough.

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