When Samantha Russell graduated from Western Washington University two years ago, she took her background in marine biology to Fiji, where she has planted mangroves on the shoreline, helped farm sea cucumbers and moved pigpens away from the ocean to prevent polluting runoff.

Russell and more than 200 graduates like her are the reason why WWU, the University of Washington and Gonzaga University topped the list of American colleges that produced the most Peace Corps volunteers last year.

It’s the first time since the program began ranking schools that all three categories were led by schools in a single state.

“It says to me that Washington is a very special place,” said Carrie Hessler-Radelet, acting director of the Peace Corps. “It is a very globally-minded state, it has very progressive leadership … it clearly leads the country in terms of its commitment to the environment.”

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The University of Washington was tops among large schools — sharing the honor with the University of Florida by sending 107 graduates apiece to work overseas. Western Washington University sent 73 students, making it the leader among medium-sized schools, and Gonzaga led the nation among small schools, with 24 graduates serving.

Another Washington school, Seattle University, came in fifth among small schools, with 19 volunteers.

“The state of Washington won the sweepstakes here,” said WWU President Bruce Shepard, who said WWU teaches students that “it’s not truly higher education unless it’s put to higher purposes.”

Hessler-Radelet, who flew out from Washington, D.C., to personally honor the three schools at a news conference Tuesday at the UW, said the recognition also reflects Washington’s focus on innovation and commitment to helping the poor.

“I think that translated into an environment that’s very much aligned with the core values of the Peace Corps,” she said.

The corps has been ranking schools for 10 years as a way to recognize those institutions that do the most to advance the mission of promoting world peace and friendship.

The UW is a repeat winner — it also topped the large-schools list between 2007 and 2010.

But this doesn’t mean that getting into the Peace Corps is easy.

About 12,000 apply every year, and about 4,000 are accepted, Hessler-Radelet said. Started by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, the Corps wants people with college degrees and a record of volunteerism, along with specific skills and some foreign-language experience.

And it finds them here.

Russell, who is 24, lives on the island of Ovalau in Fiji, where she is working to prevent overfishing and environmental damage to the South Pacific coral reefs.

She has helped convert pig waste into usable fertilizer for organic farms, planted coral in the ocean, done beach cleanup and waste management, and helped set up fish-farming pens.

Overfishing and environmental damage, some of which is caused by global warming, have degraded the reef, making it harder for families to gather enough food and sometimes causing disease outbreaks.

“Years ago, one hour of fishing could have provided food for multiple families,” she wrote via email. “Now we go out for entire nights to provide the same amount of fish.”

Hessler-Radelet said volunteers come back with a wide range of marketable skills — in addition to working with a diverse group of people, they often learn another language, gain technical skills, and become more creative and innovative.

“The Peace Corps is a great way to launch a career,” she said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219 or klong@seattletimes.com.