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Continuing Their Missions

Coverdell program brings returned Peace Corps volunteers to NMSU

Mariela Estrada ’19 knew she wanted to help others and experience a culture far from home after graduating from NMSU. Months later, the Las Cruces native found herself in a remote Central African village in Cameroon, working as a Peace Corps volunteer. 

But Estrada’s service abruptly ended in 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic gripped the world. Still, her time abroad, however brief, left a lasting impression. She found a new calling.

“It changed my whole career path and what I wanted to do with my life,” she says. “I understood I wanted to serve communities and help people wherever I could.”

Now pursuing a master’s degree in horticulture at NMSU, Estrada aspires to work as an Extension agent among communities where farmers and agriculture are integral to everyday life. She is part of NMSU’s Paul D. Coverdell Fellows program, which supports returned Peace Corps volunteers pursuing graduate degrees in underserved American communities.

NMSU is one of more than 120 universities in the United States that have partnered with the program to provide financial assistance and other benefits to fellows. The College of Health, Education and Social Transformation joined the program in 2003, followed by the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences in 2009.

“The Coverdell Fellows program was a factor in my decision to continue my education at NMSU,” Estrada says. “This program is helping me fund my education as I pursue my dream of working alongside agricultural communities and promoting sustainable farming practices.” 

Besides scholarships and graduate assistantships, fellows in the program also receive a professional experience, such as an internship where they can apply their skills outside the classroom, and an opportunity to further the Peace Corps mission, says Kevin Lombard ’07, an adviser for Coverdell fellows in the College of ACES. 

All individuals who complete their Peace Corps assignments in good standing are eligible for the program, regardless of when their service ended.

“It could be that you finished your service this year, and you’re applying for graduate school,” he says, “or you could have completed your service 20 years and decided to return to school.”

Lombard, who also serves as the research director of NMSU’s Agricultural Science Center at Farmington, is no stranger to Peace Corps. He first served in Tanzania between 1991 and 1994, growing trees for communities to use as firewood to smoke fish for preservation. He then completed a four-month assignment with Peace Corps Response in Namibia in 2007, where he worked on school garden projects with youth impacted by HIV.

“Peace Corps certainly prepared me for working in underserved communities in New Mexico,” he says, “and the gardening projects in Peace Corps Response were transferable to my current research with gardening and health on the Navajo Nation.”

Ariel Kent, another Coverdell fellow at NMSU, also worked with community gardens as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal. Like Estrada, Kent’s service ended early because of the pandemic. 

Upon returning to the U.S., Kent decided to pursue a master’s degree in agricultural education. She discovered NMSU was the only university in the Coverdell network that offered a program in agricultural education and extension.

Once at NMSU, Kent focused her studies on international education. She has since traveled to Costa Rica to interview families that have hosted foreign students as part of her thesis work.

“The reason I chose to pursue this line of research within my thesis is that I had a phenomenal experience with my host family,” she says, “but I know others have had awful experiences that affected their mental health. So, I wanted to explore that more.”

In October 2023, Kent started working as the Peace Corps recruiter for New Mexico, two months ahead of her graduation. She says individuals interested in serving with Peace Corps should set realistic expectations.

“You’re an ambassador, you’re there to learn, and you’re there to help,” she says. “You may not change lives immediately, but you’ll make things a little easier.”

For more information about the Coverdell program, visit 


Mariela Estrada, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in horticulture, served in Cameroon as a Peace Corps volunteer. 



Ariel Kent, a graduate student pursuing a master’s degree in agricultural education and extension, served in Senegal as a Peace Corps volunteer. 



Kevin Lombard, research director of NMSU’s Agricultural Science Center at Farmington, serves as an adviser for Coverdell fellows in the College of ACES. Lombard has twice served with Peace Corps.