Sometimes, in order to see the status quo, it takes a little distance. When MU’s Peace Corps Fellows return to the United States, they bring their global perspectives to the University of Missouri campus in order to open the minds of students, staff, and community members. Nathan Jensen, Jennifer Keller, Amy Bowes, and Andy Craver are among this year’s fellows. Their work in distant countries has changed them, helping them grow. Now they’re sharing their experience and newfound attitudes with MU.
The Peace Corps Fellowship Program at MU obviously benefits the returned Peace Corps volunteers with its financial support and tuition waiver, but there are also deep rewards to the campus community. That is, just having these remarkable fellows around the departments, classrooms, and hallways of MU helps to fulfill the university’s goal of globalizing the campus. The program, which has existed at MU since the fall of 2007, is currently sponsored by six graduate programs: Geography, Truman School of Public Affairs, School of Social Work, Agricultural Economics, Rural Sociology, and Political Science. For this special feature of SyndicateMizzou, we interviewed each of the first MU Peace Corps Fellows—Julie Feeney, Kate Fjell, Craig Hutton, Matt Rysavy, and Nick Spina
It is a curious thing to consider theirs reasons for joining the Peace Corps. While none of the MU Peace Corps fellows reported having a long-term desire to do such intensive volunteer work right after college, one way or another they found their way to the agency. In several cases, the Peace Corps provided something to do while career goals were narrowed. In others, this kind of international volunteer work was already compatible with their career ambitions. Regardless of the reason for joining, all of these returned volunteers found that the decision had changed them and that they got more out of their experience than they felt they had given themselves.
The Peace Corps experience changed all of these fellows. Each of them plans on continuing to partner with people in other countries, although their specific aspirations are quite different. Jensen wants to work in the area of international development, hoping his experience will help him to deploy funding wisely, while Keller plans to earn a degree in policy and get involved with with non-profit organizations. Bowes hopes to gain a position in a foreign embassy, and Craver aims to pursue a PhD in anthropology and conduct field research abroad.
As part of their fellowship at MU, the volunteers need to come up with a project that benefits the local community. Toward that end they have developed a class to help globalize students, and are working on organizing a service-learning trip. “The idea is to connect what we are doing in class with the volunteer work they are doing in order to see the reasons people volunteer and how a community looks at a problem and pools their resources to solve it,” Craver says.
The Peace Corps experience helped each of the fellows see America differently. Jensen describes his newfound skepticism when he looks at international development agencies. Keller knows that the Peace Corps has influenced her to understand the world from a West African perspective. Craver felt a degree of closeness to his host family that is rare in the U.S. Bowes has noticed the overwhelming choices in U.S. grocery stores. “You’d go into shops in Africa and there would be ten or twelve things on a shelf, and maybe one of each, too,” she recalls. “Here, we never run out of anything.”
Some of the most powerful things the fellows brought back to the U.S. are their memories. Jensen loved attending ceremonies in his community, Bowes was touched during an inter-school debate, and Craver’s favorite memories center around the concept of family. Keller remembers her mentor and the moment when a maternity clinic she helped to create finally opened. “People from all over came. Everyone was dressed up, and all of the local hunter associations came and performed dances wearing their traditional mud-cloth outfits,” she says. “I gave a speech in Bambara, and I thought, ‘Who am I to be giving a speech in Bambara over a microphone?’”
This year’s group of Peace Corps fellows spent time in West Africa, southern Africa, and Kyrgystan. Their experiences were as unique as the countries in which they were located. Nathan Jensen and Jennifer Keller worked as agricultural volunteers in Mali; Amy Bowes taught English in Lesotho; and Andy Craver taught English in Issyk-Kul. Craver’s comment that she “learned a lot more from them then they did from me” echoes the attitudes of all the volunteers.
The Peace Corps fellows are enrolled in one of six programs: Geography, Truman School of Public Affairs, School of Social Work, Agricultural Economics, Rural Sociology, and Political Science. The Peace Corps Fellowship Program benefits the returned volunteers with financial support, but there are also deep benefits to the MU community. Just having these remarkable fellows around the departments, classrooms, and hallways of MU helps to fulfill Chancellor Deaton’s goal of globalizing the campus.
The Peace Corps is active at MU on several levels, explains Donald Spiers, Coordinator for the Peace Corps Fellows Program, which was adopted by MU in the summer of 2007. “Going through the Peace Corps experience, immersing yourself in the culture, speaking the local language: that all opens different cultural doors and different ways of looking at the world,” Craig Hutton observes. “I think that is part of what we bring to MU’s campus and hopefully to the larger community as well.”
Kate Fjell offers similar sentiments: “Having been a Peace Corps volunteer, my entire perspective is so different. I think globally, or at least I try to. It is really hard for me just to think about what something means just for Missouri or for my town or my family. I’m always thinking about other people out there in the world.”
Because few Americans know much about Malawi, Ecuador, Paraguay, Niger, the Caucasus, and Armenia, having someone at MU talking and writing about these places helps to educate others about these faraway locations. Nick Spina, for instance, sees how his unique Peace Corps experience benefits the field in which he is currently studying: “Political scientists do a lot of work in international relations, and I bring a unique perspective to that. I was in a developing country for two years doing hands-on development work, so I know more than just what you would read in a book.”
“There are a lot of students who don’t have international experience,” Matt Rysavy notes, “so just being able to be in class and add a different idea or a different way of looking at or structuring problems… I think is very useful for other people. The American value system is so much different from a West African value system, so just incorporating that into different discussions, group projects, and papers [is helpful]. There have been a lot of times after class when people have said, ‘I never really thought of approaching a problem that way.’”
Offering another example from the classroom, Julie Feeney explains: “A lot of people say, ‘You went to a developing country? You must have seen so much poverty.’ I can say, ‘Well, there is poverty here in the United States, which I have seen and is equally as horrifying.’” “I think class discussion is always enriched by having as many different view points [as possible],” concludes Fjell. “They all enrich the conversation…. I’m just another of those people who can help provide a different perspective.”
It is a curious thing to consider their reasons for joining the Peace Corps. While none of the MU Peace Corps fellows reported having a long-term desire to do such intensive volunteer work right after college, one way or another they found their way to the agency. In several cases, the Peace Corps provided something to do while they tried to determine their career goals. In others, it was already compatible with their ambitions. Regardless, all of these returned volunteers found that the decision had irreversibly changed them and that they got more out of their experience than they felt they had given.
â€¢ Julie Feeney, originally from Boston, Massachusetts, joined Peace Corps right after college to help her narrow her career goals. “I knew that I wanted to work in the non-profit sector helping people…but I didn’t feel ready to jump into the work world. I met someone who was doing Peace Corps, and it just seemed like a perfect fit—a way to travel and a way to get work experience in a safe setting, so I decided to apply.”
â€¢ Matt Rysavy, originally from Austin, Minnesota, also thought about joining the Peace Corps after college, during a time when his job search “was floundering.” Having majored in sociology, he wanted to experience another culture. “It’s a nice system because the agency pays for everything while you’re there,” says Rysavy, “and it’s world-renowned as being a good development agency.”
â€¢ Nick Spina, from Michigan, also joined Peace Corps because its connection to his area of study. “I was an economics and political science major, and did a lot of international studies…. I found out about the Peace Corps during my sophomore year, and it really seemed to fit into what I was studying. I’d also done a good amount of volunteering…so it seemed like a good combination of several things that I enjoyed doing.” Moreover, joining the Peace Corps provided a solid way to learn a language. “That’s very difficult to do in a classroom,” Spina adds. “When you live in a country, you have a much better opportunity to learn the language fluently.”
â€¢ Craig Hutton, having grown up outside of Macomb, New York, explains that he is “one of those people who absolutely has to see what (and who) is on the other side of the next hill.” He switched colleges, in fact, to find an internationally focused academic program and campus, and he even studied abroad twice. “When I arrived at my senior year, I hit that familiar “what next?” point. I knew that graduate school was in my future, but I didn’t know where, and I certainly had no idea in what.” At a career fair, Hutton found himself standing in front of the blue-clothed Peace Corps table. “The more I read about the Peace Corps volunteer experience," he remembers, "the more I realized this was the right opportunity at the right time. Looking back on it now, I see my Peace Corps service as the place where it all came together.”
â€¢ Kate Fjell, hailing from Seattle, Washington, already had a significant history of volunteerism, beginning in the third grade, and had previously studied abroad. “I had heard about the Peace Corps, and it was just one of those nuggets that plants itself in your brain. And it just dawned on me one day—that’s what I should do. I should just go into the Peace Corps. I want to travel, I want to see the world, I want to go some place amazing and off the beaten track, but I want to be able to immerse myself in the culture. I don’t just want to be on a tour bus or in the big cities or just passing by to check it off my list. I want to say that I have lived there and have a feeling about what living in this place is like.” And, Fjell adds, “I wanted to feel like I left something good behind, instead of just money. So I applied and, as they say, the rest is history.”
When they think about the Peace Corps prior to going, many volunteer trainees have basic questions and fears about such things as bathrooms and living conditions, and many expectations get shattered. “I had a really idealized vision of what the country would look like and the language that people would speak,” Julie Feeney recalls. “All these preconceived notions that you come with, I think they are your biggest obstacles.” For example, ahe chuckles when remembering how she had expected it to be “like a fairy tale, where everything is green and beautiful,” only to discover that Paraguay’s industrialized cities do not fit that image. Likewise, Nick Spina had imaged that he “would be living in a hut in the middle of nowhere.” Instead, he was assigned to an Armenian city of 60,000 people.
Many Peace Corps volunteers discover that they have underestimated the language barrier or the technical assignment. For instance, Feeney expected that she would use Spanish principally, but soon discovered that people in the countryside in Paraguay speak Guarny instead. “It was a struggle,” she says. “I hadn’t expected to feel that kind of dependency on others for communication…. I didn’t expect to be a child again. So there were many different things that I had to reevaluate.”
Having already volunteered, worked with non-profit groups, and traveled abroad, Kate Fjell felt prepared for certain aspects of her assignment in Malawi. Yet, she remembers; “it totally blew me away. It was nothing like my expectations. It was so much harder, so much more rewarding, so much more challenging. It was just more. Everything was ramped up by a power of ten, I’d say, or maybe even a power of 100!”
Moreover, Fjell adds, she hadn’t expected to feel so socially isolated and awkward: “Peace Corps volunteers will always talk about it being like living in a fish bowl. I was the only white person for forty miles, so I definitely stood out…and that was really hard. People were so fascinated. People would follow me to the bathroom, you know, because they wanted to know if I went to the bathroom the same way…. I wasn’t used to being watched all the time, and it took me a long time to get used to it.”
Because of these kinds of experiences, Spina reached an interesting conclusion: “I think the most successful Peace Corps volunteers are those who don’t set high expectations. You have to be flexible. Those who go in, saying ‘I want to do this, I want to do it there, and I only want to do that’, end up having a really hard time. The fun of it, the adventure of it, is in the randomness, the unknown, the difficult stuff that you face.” Beyond flexibility, one of the most important bits of advice for anybody considering the Peace Corps, according to these Peace Corps, is re-evaluating the meaning of success. “It’s not always tangible,” Feeney cautions, “it’s not always quick, it’s not always something that you can expect, so we learn to appreciate little victories.” Agreeing, Matt Rysavy adds: “You really think that you can go and make these humongous changes. In reality, they are just small dents,… but it’s still positive change. That’s what you have to remind yourself of when it’s all said and done.”
Donald Spiers, Associate Professor of Animal Science, serves as Program Coordinator to the Peace Corps Fellows Program at MU. As a former volunteer himself (Venezuela 1973-1975), Spiers offers a summary of the history and context of the Peace Corps—its origin, its mission, and the Peace Corps Fellows Program. <br/ > <br/ >
The Peace Corps was founded in the early 1960s by John F. Kennedy. While on the campaign trail at the University of Michigan—where he delivered those now famous lines, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”—Kennedy proposed a service whereby young people would go overseas, “taking the message of the United States to these countries, helping them out, and exchanging information and cultures with them…. And so one of the first things he did when he became president was to form the Peace Corps.” Since then the program has been going strong, with roughly 7,000 volunteers around the world at any given time.
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The first two goals of the Peace Corps, Spiers explains, are “to help people in countries that are in need ask for the help of the Peace Corps” and “for other countries to learn about us, to find out who Americans really are. This is something that may, on the surface, sound a little ridiculous or simple because there are all these movies about us, and that sort of thing, in other countries,” Lastly, the Peace Corps functions to help Americans understand other cultures. “For the most part,” Spiers reminds us, “we find that they are very much like us. They’re not very different from us. One of the things, in fact, that we hear from most of the returned Peace Corps volunteers is that they always got more from their experience [than they gave], that the people in these other countries gave them so much more.”
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The Peace Corps Fellows Program began at Columbia University Teacher’s College in 1985. Today, there are about forty institutions in the U.S. that house the program. Things got underway at MU in the fall of 2007: “When we found out that the current chancellor of the university, Brady Deaton, was in the Peace Corps [Thailand 1962-1964], and he had a strong interest in helping students understand international cultures, and that Provost Foster has a very strong interest in internationalizing the campus, we began pursuing the possibility of getting a Peace Corps fellowship on this campus.”
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There are currently six departments involved with the Peace Corps Fellows Program at MU: Political Science, the Truman School of Public Affairs, Rural Sociology, Agriculture, Economics, Geography, and Social Work. “It’s a nice mixture that we have representing these different departments,” Spiers remarks. “The Peace Corps’ primary interest in having a Peace Corps Fellows Program is for the fellows to go out [to different places within the United States] and work in the community to help underprivileged groups improve their education, their food sources, and their health—pretty much the same goals they had when they were in the Peace Corps.” The idea of returned volunteers bringing their skills back home to communities throughout this country, Spiers explains, “is a major push of the Peace Corps, especially today.” The MU Fellows are now working together on a project with the Columbia community to assess matters related to food security here.
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Asked what makes an effective participant, Spiers has several thoughts: “A good Peace Corps volunteer, in my opinion, is not someone who has the idea that they are going to save the world or help out ‘these poor people.’ I found when I was in the Peace Corps in Venezuela that the local people had a much greater knowledge of things than I could ever hope to have. They had a much better understanding of humans, of human behavior than we do when we go over to these countries.” Hence, other than an attitude of respect and humility toward their host culture, Spiers suggests, “what makes for a great Peace Corps volunteer is one who is extremely flexible, one who is willing to roll with the punches, one who is versatile who is not just stuck in one way of looking at things, who can go with the flow as needed in that particular country.”
After two years of volunteering in a foreign community, the returned Peace Corps Fellows now turn their attention to a service project in the local community. Convening to discuss their vision and mission, the group gathered ideas about possible community service projects. “And one of the things we agreed upon was that we were interested in food—not a surprise for Peace Corps folks,” Craig Hutton said.
After many months of meeting with key organizations in Columbia, the Peace Corps Fellows identified food security as the issue to be addressed. Partnering with Sustainable Farms and Communities (SFC), a local nongovernmental organization, they plan to implement a research project in order to assess food security in Columbia. The group has been working with key community leaders –from non-governmental organizations and churches to businesses and city government—to design a survey to assess food security. When the survey is finished, it will be used by SFC to apply for a grant to build a pavilion on the site of the Columbia Farmer’s Market, which will function as a community center hosting health, cooking, and nutrition classes.
Peace Corps volunteers are trained for about three months before being set loose in their assigned countries. The first step involves staging, which offers a general orientation and a place to meet the other volunteers in their group. “You get your first round of shots and this really quick and dirty cultural training,” Kate Fjell explains. Then they go to the assigned country, where they train intensively for three months. “You learn a lot about the culture, how to fit in, basically, and important cultural clues you should know about,” Julie Feeney laughs, “so you don’t end up getting married by accident!”
This phase is sometimes referred to as “the honeymoon stage,” says Nick Spina. “Everything’s new, everything’s exciting, every experience is the first time. You laugh a lot. You joke a lot because you don’t know how to communicate, so you use a lot of sign language, and you just try whatever you can to get across to people,” Spina recalls. “It’s challenging too, because they dump you with a host family immediately, and you are automatically in a situation where you are completely out of your element for the first time.”
For most of the volunteers, the language training is intense, covering every conceivable topic—“from how to buy things from the market to how to greet people, how to tell people you don’t feel good, and then how to have a conversation about AIDS.” Of course, language learning doesn’t end there. Once the volunteers arrive at their assigned site, the training continues. For instance, Spina had a language tutor, with whom he met once a week: “I would continue memorizing vocabulary and practicing my speaking skills with her, and I steadily improved. Some people work harder at the language than others, and some people learn it better than others. By the end of my service I could communicate whatever I needed to. I could have meaningful conversations. In hindsight, I’m proud of how much I accomplished, but it was a struggle. I mean, Armenian is not a language they teach you in schools, so learning it from scratch was a hard thing to do.”
Beyond language training, which is crucial to the survival of the volunteers, the technical training is also indispensable. “While you’re there, there may be ongoing training that happens throughout the service, depending on your project,” Craig Hutton says.
“We would go on fieldtrips and learn about the soil and different trees,” Matt Rysavy recounts. “We’d talk to different professionals in the government to get their feedback and see how systems worked, to make sure we were on a good starting page, so when we got to the village we knew we had a good background of their local customs, their local culture, and how we were going fit into the bigger national scene.”
“The technical portion was really good, especially for me,” recounts Fjell, “because I had an archeology degree coming out of college. I had done some work in the HIV/AIDS field, and knew the basics, but I didn’t feel very confident teaching about AIDS. The technical training really helped. “
Regardless of the reason for joining the Peace Corps, all of these returned volunteers found the decision had changed them, and that they took more from their experience than they felt they had actually given. <br/ > <br/ >
Nick Spina is originally from Michigan. “I joined the PC immediately after graduating from Michigan State. I graduated in May and left the country in June.” As an economics and political science major, Spina had already engaged heavily in international studies: “I found out about the Peace Corps during my sophomore year, and it really seemed to fit into what I was studying.” Spina had also done a good deal of volunteering, “so it seemed like a good combination of several things that I enjoyed doing.” Moreover, Spina wanted to be able to speak another language. “That’s very difficult to do in a classroom,” he observed. “When you live in a country, you have a much better opportunity to learn the language fluently. I don’t think I ever got to that point, but I got pretty close.”
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From 2004 to 2006, he worked in Armenia. “When I was told I was going to Armenia, I didn’t know where it was, so I had to get a map and look,” admits Spina, who was assigned to be a community development volunteer with a local non-governmental organization on human rights issues. Spina worked on a range of different projects. “We tried to educate the community members on everything from human trafficking, and how to write a business plan, to English.” <br/ > <br/ >
“A community development volunteer spends a lot of his/her time planning different projects based on what the community needs,” Spina explains. “So we do a lot talking, have a lot of meetings to figure out what the community needs and how to go about addressing those needs.” <br/ > <br/ >
While Spina worked on a number of different projects, he feels especially good about one, which involved organizing and implementing a summer camp for 10- to 15-year-old Armenian boys. As he explains, “we had a plan to teach them about things they weren’t being taught in schools, such as health, hygiene, nutrition—things they are not going to get from a traditional Armenian education, but that are absolutely crucial to quality of life issues. We talked about HIV/AIDS, sexual health, things that they need to hear early on…[but are] taboo topics in Armenia, so we were having very frank conversations about how to live a healthy lifestyle. And I was pretty proud of that because I know those boys have an advantage over their peers because they received information that is very useful and important,” he says.<br/ > <br/ >
Those young boys were, however, not the only ones who benefited from the summer camp. “My language got a lot better over that period of time because in order to communicate with teenage boys, you talk a lot and you learn to have a sense of humor with them,” he notes. “That always stands out in my mind as a really good experience for everybody involved.” While the teachers were Americans, they were paired with an Armenian teacher, “so the boys were not just getting a one-sided view from an American.” That was important, explains Spina, because “the whole point of Peace Corps, of course, is to learn from each other. Americans learn from Armenians, and Armenians learn from Americans. This was a great opportunity to fulfill those goals.”
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Spina employed a particular strategy to help him become integrated into the community, a city of 60,000 people. “I wanted to meet people my age. And the best way I could figure out how to do that was to join the local youth basketball team,” he explains. “We practiced every day, and we had games all around the city and other cities. It was a really unique experience to be the foreigner on a sports team.”
For Matt Rysavy, originally from Austin, Minnesota, joining the Peace Corps was a solution when his job search floundered after college. Rysavy majored in sociology and wanted to experience another culture. From 2004-2006, he worked in Niger as a natural resource management volunteer in a village named Kobe, a Zarma word that means “in the shade of the baobab tree.” Saddened upon his arrival to learn that all the baobab trees had died in this region, Rysavy determined to help repopulate the area with these once majestic trees. “I thought it was wrong that the name of the village didn’t actually stand for what it was,” he explains.
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Zarma was a very challenging language to learn, he comments, partially because the initial training program offered inconsistent phonetic spellings. “Looking at two different manuals, you’d get two different pronunciations of the same word, which is very frustrating,” Rysavy notes. He relished those moments that marked some degree of success, as when the person with whom he was bargaining would stop and say, “I swear to God, you know the language,” or when he spoke up at a village meeting: “Having the majority of people understand you…getting your point across to a hundred people is very satisfying.”
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Beyond language training, he took fieldtrips to learn about the soil and trees. “You go into the village being a jack of all trades,” he explains, emphasizing the importance of being open to what the community desired. “Every village is so unique and has its own needs,” he says. “If a village isn’t behind a project, it’s not going to work.” Projects were initiated by the villagers themselves, he goes on. <br/ > <br/ >
One of the most remarkable moments during Rysavy’s tenure was when a natural disaster derailed his plans: “I was there when locusts came and, in 45 minutes, destroyed all the crops within a couple hundred miles radius. It was straight out of the Bible. All of my village’s fields were absolutely gone. They had no food for the next year.” In response to this catastrophe, most of the village’s young men left the next day for work elsewhere. Rysavy was struck by the strong sense of community: “Everyone was very generous and wanted to help. If you were ever hungry or thirsty or needed to talk, there was always someone there.” A big social faux pas, in fact, was being alone. “Other than when you’re sleeping,” he explains, “you should always have someone around and always be connected to the greater village.
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Whether thinking of the projects, the people he met, or the amazing events that took place while he was there, Rysavy finds that there are certain moments he will always remember. He thinks, for example, about “jockeying for a little bit more butt space” in the back of a bush taxi that was barely road-worthy. Many of these experiences are of the character-building kind, he has decided, experiences “that make you slow down and rethink what you’re doing and if you really need to get there on time.” “If there’s nothing you can do about it,” he concludes, “just sit and relax and try to enjoy the ride.”
Craig Hutton’s background on a dairy farm in upstate New York came in handy while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador from 1999-2001. He had studied French and Spanish for years, and had even participated in a study-abroad program in Ecuador, so Hutton wasn’t worried about language or cultural issues. “What I was nervous about was the actual technical assignment,” he recalls. “I’d grown up on a dairy farm, but I didn’t know anything about cattle or fish in Ecuador at all.” While Hutton’s major projects involved animal production and animal health, like most Peace Corps volunteers he ended up “doing a little bit of everything.”
Hutton analyzed the farming techniques of the community of 85 people and also introduced a greenhouse to the local school. Parents enlisted him to teach English as he gardened with the students, he explains: “We ended up using the food that was grown for the elementary school lunches. It was really good.” Taking advantage of the cloud forest environment in this region of Ecuador, situated between the mountains and the Amazon, Hutton also helped spearhead a fish-farming cooperative: “It was something the community wanted to do, and they talked to me about it. We went on a couple of fieldtrips to learn more about it, and then started a small cooperative of our own.” The environment was ideal for this venture, says Hutton; "not many people live there, and the water was really cold and clean, which is something we needed for the fish.” There were a few other communities in the same zone that had tried that before and had had success,” he reports, in terms of both economics as well as learning different business skills.
When asked to recount some of his most memorable moments in Ecuador, Hutton mentions a particularly embarrassing moment at a wedding, when he was served blood soup, a local specialty: “I remember just sitting there thinking, ‘Everyone is watching, and I don’t want to eat this. What am I going to do?’ So I just swallowed as quickly as I could without tasting it.”
When Hutton finished his volunteer service in 2001, he worked five years for the Peace Corps agency at its headquarters in Washington, D.C. His Peace Corps experience also made him start thinking about graduate school, and Hutton is currently enrolled in MU’s Geography Department. “I’m studying human geography, how humans and the environment interact,” he explains. When he graduates, Hutton hopes to continue working in the area of international development.
Kate Fjell graduated from the College of Wooster, in Ohio, with a degree in archeology. The Seattle native watched her friends pursue different graduate degrees, but didn’t know what she wanted to do after graduation. “I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school at some point, but I was also aware of how much grad school cost, so I didn’t want to go unless I knew it was something I was really passionate about and interested in,” she says.
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Fjell already had a significant history of volunteerism, beginning in the third grade and continuing through high school. She went abroad in high school and studied abroad in college. The Peace Corps, therefore, seemed to make sense: “I had heard about the Peace Corps, and it was just one of those nuggets that plants itself in your brain. And it just dawned on me one day—that’s what I should do. I should just go into the Peace Corps. I want to travel, I want to see the world, I want to go some place amazing and off the beaten track, but I want to be able to immerse myself in the culture. I don’t just want to be on a tour bus.” Moreover, Fjell adds that she wanted to leave something good behind; “so I applied and, as they say, the rest is history.”
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From 2001-2004, Fjell worked in Malawi, a small country in southeastern Africa that is neighbored by Mozambique, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. "While I was there, I was doing community health and HIV/AIDS work. Like a lot of places in southern Africa, Malawi has really been hit hard by the AIDS epidemic,” she explains.
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Fjell was assigned to work at Kalaluma Health Center, in the central rural region of Kasungu. By the end of her time in Malawi, Fjell was primarily working on three projects: 1) a drama group on the topic of HIV/AIDS, 2) a group of high school girls on the topic of life skills and self-esteem, and 3) a youth success team, which did similar things in the context of soccer. “In Chichewa, the national language of Malawi, there isn’t a word for ‘self-esteem’ or ‘confidence’ or any of those things, so we did a lot of teaching about what it means to like who you are, and that, if you like who you are, you are not going to make poor life choices or risky behavior choices,” Fjell says.
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While Fjell’s approach toward her work was holistic—ranging from education and economic development to agriculture and self-esteem training—whenever possible she focused her attention on women’s groups. “Women really are the key, in my mind, to change in Malawi,” she observes, and so she tried to connect with women’s networks: “I always wanted to be sure I was seen as a woman, and not just a white person, or an HIV/AIDS person.” As such, Fjell made a special point of getting involved in traditionally female activities like pounding maize and cooking nsima (the Malawian staple food).
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For Fjell, language acquisition was one of the most challenging parts of being a Peace Corps volunteer: “I remember, after all those hours of language training, I felt pretty confident, and I went into the village and I was surprised that they didn’t talk as slow as my teacher, and they didn’t speak in such formal tones.” In the end, Fjell says she learned from young children: “They taught me a lot. I learned so much of my language from going to primary school! I remember that one of the first phrases I learned was ‘what is that?’”
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About sixteen months into her service, Fjell experienced a major accomplishment: “I still remember [when] I got my first joke in Chichewa, when I knew I understood the language. We were all waiting for the prenatal clinic to start, just hanging out, talking, and somebody cracked a joke, and I started laughing. And they all looked at me, and someone said, ‘Did you understand that?’ and I said, ‘I get it! I get it!’ It was so amazing. It was just like everything clicked. From that point on, my work was better, my relationships with people were better, and it started to really feel like home instead of just somewhere I was trying to survive. And that was a major shift in my service.”
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Originally from Boston, Massachusetts, Julie Feeney joined the Peace Corps right after graduation to help her narrow her career goals: “I knew that I wanted to work in the non-profit sector helping people, but those are very broad goals. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I didn’t feel ready to jump into the work world.”
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From 2001 to 2003, Feeney worked in Paraguay. While there, Feeney served as a municipal development volunteer, working with the local government on matters related to decentralization. “We did everything from workshops on budget transparency to working with the local health center. But my biggest project, I would say, was building a community center in a rural area and working in conjunction with a youth group,” she explains.
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“It was a long, long process. And, actually, I [initially] didn’t want to get involved,” Feeney admits. “But then they started having fundraisers on their own. We did a Peace Corps course on family planning and career goals, and they came every Saturday for three hours. Their dedication really impressed me, so we started working on this project.” Feeney helped the community apply for grants from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the local government. She also helped with the health center’s construction.
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When asked which moments stood out for her, Feeney recalls a hot morning under a shade tree when an elderly man epitomized the Guaraní value of giving. “I really saw how people who had so little gave everything that they could,” she began. “We had been working in the morning, which in the summer can be more than 100 degrees and heats up very quickly, and we were taking a rest under a shade tree when an older gentleman comes with this really, really big bundle on his horse. He stops and takes off the bundle. And we’re talking for a while, drinking a tea everyone shares in Paraguay, and he opens up the bundle, and it’s bananas. He had gathered as many bananas as he could and ridden probably four or five miles just to bring them. Once we had eaten together, and shared for a little while, he got back on his horse and went back home. It was just a really incredible moment for me, realizing how much he had sacrificed.”