Changing lives through Peace

Current Peace Corps field-based recruiter Ryan Cairns ’08 (left) is pictured with Peace Corps volunteer Jon Schmidt of Ocean City, Md., while they served in southern Bulgaria. The two volunteers were helping to till a property as the resident prepared to plant a potato crop.

Ryan Cairns ’08 has followed a path of taking risks, pursuing adventure and seeking out experiences that are physically and mentally challenging. As Cairns relates, “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” and the 34-year-old has more than a head start after pursuing his dreams in the Iowa Army National Guard (IANG), at UIU and in the Peace Corps.

During a six-year stint in the IANG, Cairns served one tour of duty in Kandahar, Afghanistan, as a member of Charlie Company, First Battalion, 168th Infantry Regiment. It was while he was a member of the National Guard that his squad leader informed him how much UIU works with veterans to help them achieve their degrees and goals. With the University’s external degree program allowing him the flexibility to work and travel, Cairns graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public administration.

“I am definitely proud to be a Peacock. Attending UIU gave me faith in our higher education system and how it can work with veterans so that each of them properly receive their GI Bill benefits. Also, I had never previously done extraordinarily well in the realm of academia. Graduating from Upper Iowa provided me the confidence to pursue other potential educational opportunities,” said Cairns, who later earned a master’s in economics and business administration at the University of Oulu in Oulu, Finland.

After achieving his UIU degree and working for a San Francisco-based internet start-up company in the Philippines, Cairns submitted an application with the Peace Corps. He was accepted and served as a business development volunteer at the Association of Danube River Municipalities NGO in Bulgaria, where his duties included focusing on cross-border cooperation projects between the governments of Bulgaria and Romania. He also worked at the Belene Municipal Office assisting with the application and implementation phases of European Union funded projects. As a “warden” for 18 months in the Pleven region, he continued training and kept up-to-date on the Peace Corps Emergency Action Plan (EAP) to lead volunteers in a time of crisis.

Cairns also wrote more than 15 grant proposals and successfully secured over $6,000 worth of funding and other items from the Walt Disney Company, Bulgarian American Society, International Book Project Inc., and the National Football League’s Seattle Seahawks corporate office. The latter project included writing a letter to each of the 32 NFL football teams to see if they would donate flag-football equipment to the kids in his former Bulgarian community, so he could engage the youth by teaching them about American football. Months later, a giant box arrived from the Seattle Seahawks corporate office with brand-new equipment: flags, jerseys, footballs, etc. Needless to say, Cairns and many of the children quickly became fans of the former Super Bowl champions.

“During my Peace Corps service there I also met an amazing, beautiful, intelligent Bulgarian woman named Багряна (Bagryana) and eventually I was able to convince her to go on a date with me. Three and one-half years later after that first date, we got married,” added Cairns, who currently serves as a Peace Corps field-based recruiter in Des Moines.

In April 2016 the UIU alumnus was greatly appreciative of the opportunity to return to his alma mater to present “Peace Corps: Make the World Your Classroom.” His message to students and others in attendance was, “Whatever you want to do in life, talk to someone that is doing it or has done it…and go from there.”  It was a message that could be used as the first step in not only changing their own lives, but of those around them, their community and throughout the world.

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