We heard from three more Spartan Peace Corps Volunteers . Their stories unfold on the following six pages. ALEX PLUM: SWARTZ CREEK JAMES MADISON COLLEGE, 2008 Motivations: James Madison College inspired me to make an impact on the world. I took advantage of MSU Study Abroad and went to Thailand and Laos to study political and economic development, which did a couple things: it infected me with the travel bug and instilled in me a deep value for the concepts of reciprocity, humility, shared learning, and global citizenship. For me, the Peace Corps was the logical next step in my journey of growing and learning about how to become a global citizen and impact the world. Contributions: I taught English as a second language in a high school setting and I also initiated community health programs. My students were the first class of 11th and then 12th graders at a community high school that hosted young people from several neighboring islands. We had a 100 percent graduation rate and over 90 percent of the students passed the College of Micronesia Entrance test and enrolled in the fall. I still keep in touch with them—many have started families, have continued with further graduate studies, and others have returned home to the island. About a year into my service, one of my students committed suicide after he and another boy got into an argument about chores at their home-stay family’s place. Suicides in Micronesia are more common among young men, ages 15-24, than in other places and they are the result of complex forces involving families, changing social dynamics, and the effects of rapid Western culturalization. In response, I worked with island leaders to rekindle a traditional coming-of-age phenomenon in the form of a retreat for young men to learn important life skills and develop mentorship bonds with positive male leaders. Over 100 young men from throughout the region have attended the camp since we started it in 2010—not a single one has committed suicide. Did it change you? I learned to value relationships over any other factor. Part of me entered the Peace Corps with the hope of spring-boarding into a career in international development, but I came to believe that development doesn’t mean much outside of cultivating and sustaining reciprocal relationships. Today, I direct a program at Henry Ford Health System that identifies and adapts promising health care innovations from outside the U.S. to transform the health and wellness of vulnerable populations. My career in global health is a direct result of my Peace Corps service. Favorite Anecdote: People often ask about the scariest thing to happen to me during my service. I took four fishing trips on the open ocean during which our 40 HP motorboat engine would suddenly cut-out and we couldn’t get it restarted. Luckily, the winds were always in our favor (the sign of a smart boat operator is one who took us into the wind on the outbound journey) and we would just drift back to some point on the atoll and then walk our boat for several hours until we got to our island. After the stomach-sinking dread of impending death-on-the-high-seas wore off, the relaxation necessitated by quietly drifting back toward home is a sensation unparalleled by any I’ve had since. And drifting at night, lying on my back in the middle of the Pacific Ocean with an entire universe worth of stars to enjoy—well, I’ll never forget. LIZ WISE: NAPERVILLE, IL JAMES MADISON, HONORS COLLEGE, 2008 Motivations: Most of my extracurricular activities at MSU focused on education—tutoring with the Student Literacy Corps, teaching adults English as a second language, and working with high school Model UN teams through MSU’s Model United Nations. When I graduated, I had an idea that I wanted to combine my growing interest in education as a career path with my desire to live abroad. Peace Corps seemed like the perfect way to be able to do that while ensuring that I would be deeply engaged with the local language and culture of my host country and community. Contributions: I find it difficult to really assess the long-term outcomes of my own work because of course nothing that I accomplished in Namibia was accomplished alone. One of my biggest projects at my site, besides actually teaching in the classroom, was reviving the school library, which had fallen into disuse. But I didn’t do it alone. I had a lot of support from my colleagues and my students in getting books catalogued and ready for borrowing, and there was collaboration with teachers at my school and throughout my region for establishing best practices for school library use and management. I practically lived in the library during my first year. So I do feel like I personally contributed a lot in that area and that it did and does have a positive impact on the school and the community. I’m also really proud of the number of students I taught at the village school who were able to go on to some of the really excellent high schools in our nearest large town or in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia. Many students from rural areas don’t go on to high school for a variety of reasons and access to top schools can be very competitive. These were all highly motivated kids who had a lot of really good teachers throughout primary school, and it’s been really satisfying to follow their educational progress from afar through Facebook and email. I like to think that I played at least some role in helping them to enjoy school and improve their English skills. English is the medium of instruction in Namibian primary, secondary, and post-secondary schools, but isn’t a first language for the vast majority of the population. Did it change you? Peace Corps service put me firmly on my current career path. After three years of teaching in Namibia I came back to the U.S. and earned my master’s degree in teaching at Boston University. Today, I teach ESL to newcomer students in the Boston Public Schools, and the majority of my students are from Africa, although none from Namibia. Of course, schooling varies from country to country, but I think my experience in Namibia has helped me to better understand my students’ educational contexts and to meet the needs they bring to the classroom. KRISTIN (SULEWSKI) OBERDORF: CHICAGO, IL JAMES MADISON COLLEGE, 2008 Motivations: I wanted to work in international development and I felt that learning about it in school was only half of the story. The Peace Corps was a way to dive in and immerse myself in a completely different perspective of the world and of people in the developing world. Contributions: I was a 7th and 8th grade English teacher (beginner English for students) so I spent much of my time getting involved in the secondary school where I worked. In addition to teaching, I spent time helping my Beninese colleagues improve their own English and English-teaching skills, and provided English tutoring to some older students. My favorite thing was the creation of a Geography Club for 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. The club met weekly and focused on a number of different aspects of world and local geography. The students learned the continents and their location on the globe, they learned how to read maps of Benin and their region, and then we moved on to learn about various countries around the world and their different foods, languages/alphabets, traditions, etc. It was great fun. Did it change you? On a professional level, the experience completely shaped and informed the trajectory of my career—and my beliefs around how to make an impact in the world without falling into common “white savior” behaviors. To make a long story short, the real lesson is that as a Peace Corps volunteer you will never understand more than half of what you see around you—and so the only way to even imagine making an impact is to help others unleash their own capacity to make change. On a personal level, I found strength in me that I didn’t know I had. One of the Peace Corps slogans is “It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love” and any Peace Corps volunteer will tell you that’s it’s so true. At times it can get lonely, frustrating, overwhelming, and even scary, but at times it is also eye opening, wondrous, and inspiring. You go from the highest highs to the lowest lows and back again, sometimes in the same day! That led me to find and build my reserves of patience, understanding, and flexibility. Now I work for the Rapid Results Institute. We have a 100-day method to help communities and organizations around the world come together to realize amazing change in 100 days. It’s about giving people on the front lines more ownership and authority to use their ideas to create change. My experiences in the Peace Corps directly led me to this career. Favorite Anecdote: My second year as a teacher, my mom had found and sent me some coloring book pages for teaching basic English. One was a simple color-by-number picture of a rainbow—which I thought was perfect for my basic colors lesson. So I brought in a bunch of markers and crayons to class, which students don’t really have access to at home, so they were very excited. I was very proud of myself for giving them such a fun activity to practice their colors. Once everyone had finished coloring I asked the class if they could recognize what the picture was and they all shouted “yes, yes, yes!” One student raised his hand and said “Yes madame, it’s the evil serpent from the sky!” Turns out rainbows are considered evil spirits in Benin. Oops!
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