- By Amanda Kenyon Waite
Maybe it’s the size and scale of Vermont or its agricultural heritage, but there’s something about the Green Mountains that entices citizens and students to answer the call of the Peace Corps. Professor Emeritus Frank Bryan might say Town Meeting culture and the practice of hashing out a community’s needs face to face plays a part. Whatever the reason, year after year, Vermont and UVM rank among the highest producers of Peace Corps volunteers. In the Corps’ 2013 ranking, Vermont was second among all states for residents who served, and UVM was fifth among like-sized colleges and universities. Since the Peace Corps’ inception in 1961, 210,000 Americans have served around the globe. Counted among the volunteers are 819 UVM alumni. Read on for the stories of two alumni abroad today.
Winter Heath '11 finishes her bucket shower after a day of sowing seeds. When they sprout, she’ll plant the three hundred young trees with a group of 10-year-olds from her village, members of the environmental club she’s running. The trees will help counteract the deforestation that plagues her area in the north of the West African nation, one kilometer away from the border with Burkina Faso. Wood is in strong demand there, where residents live with no electricity and no running water.
Heath, who graduated from UVM with a degree in environmental studies, applied for the Peace Corps with the benefit of having already visited two service sites, the first on a UVM study-abroad trip to Belize and the other after graduation, when she worked through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms in Guatemala. Even though she joined the Corps with eyes more open than most, dealing with day-to-day life 6,000 miles from her Littleton, N.H., home takes two key attributes, she says: flexibility and a sense of humor.
Learning two languages at once, both French and Moba, the more prominent of the local dialects, is better approached with a willingness to laugh at yourself, says Heath, who had a background in Spanish when she arrived in Togo in late 2012. “At first I took it very seriously,” she admits, “but I honestly think that was hindering my experience here.” Once she was able to lighten up and laugh when she accidentally called someone “grandma,” the task became easier. And the people of her village were happy to laugh along with her. “Oh, it’s just the yobo (white person) trying to speak Moba,” they say.
Flexibility is crucial to surviving the emotional ebb and flow of life in a different culture, where obstacles to your mission can crop up at any time. Heath’s host family, also transplants to the village from the more modernized capital city Lomé, help settle her at the end of the day, when the five of them dig into a shared plate of pate (pronounced paht), a traditional Togolese corn-based meal. She calls them her “mini America” because of their shared difficulty — at times more acute than her own — in adjusting to evenings of candlelight, no TV and no nightlife.
Heath sounds almost surprised when she admits how much she misses American food, a frequent topic of conversation when she gathers with other volunteers serving in the country. “Pizza and ice cream and those neon blue slushies you can get at the movie theater,” she laughs. “You don’t think it’s something you would really miss, and then you go without it for eight months, and you think, ‘Man, I want one of those slushies.’”
For the most part, though, she says that at eight months in, she’s stopped comparing her life in Togo to her life back at home. Looking ahead, she’s staying open to the possibility of extending her service in her village or applying to serve in the Peace Corps’ Response program, which sends returned volunteers back into the field where they’re needed most. She’s honest about the struggle that comes with giving up friends and family and a familiar life for two years of service, but she’s conscious of how this has already changed her life forever. “Things get annoying, I get frustrated, but it’s a fleeting thought. It’s so exciting to realize I’m in West Africa.”
It’s Saturday morning in March at Uncommon Grounds on Church Street, and Jed Glosenger '12 is thinking about the future. In three months, he’ll leave behind his computer job with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and depart for Panama. While he can’t yet know what life will be like where he lands, today, in between swigs of the house blend, he lets his thoughts percolate, and a complex blend of hope, excitement, and trepidation emerges.
The trepidation comes only from the language hurdle. Although he’s been practicing his Spanish in advance, he knows how important immersion is to attaining true fluency, and hopes he finds ways to connect and communicate with his new neighbors quickly. But “friendliness is universal,” he says, a comforting thought that tempers the uneasiness.
He’s looking forward to the health benefits of life at a slower pace and more connection with nature. After graduating, he worked for the following summer and through harvest at a farm in Ferrisburg. He’s never felt healthier than when he was farming. “I live right now hunched over a computer the majority of the day, and it doesn’t feel like what humans are meant to do,” he says.
Glosenger, a biology major, knows he’ll be working in an agricultural capacity, but doesn’t yet know where he’ll be stationed within Panama. But he’s been prepped for the range of possibilities by Kelly Dolan, a master’s candidate in Community Development and Applied Economics and a Peace Corps recruiter based on campus. Dolan served first in Guatemala and then volunteered through Peace Corps Response in Panama, where she worked on sustainable agriculture. As a recruiter, a position which helps subsidize her master’s degree thanks to a partnership between UVM and the Peace Corps, Dolan reaches out to students and others in the surrounding community to educate those interested in serving. As a Saint Michael’s undergraduate, she was recruited through UVM’s Morrill Hall Peace Corps office herself in 2000.
Having also served in Panama, she’s been a significant resource for Glosenger, who, more than anything, is hoping to find a way to help others. Dolan’s advice? Be patient and take the time to build relationships. The first year is about “getting to know the community itself,” she explains. “Going to baptismal parties, building that confianza, or trust.”
“I understand that I’m not going to help people immediately with my Spanish skills,” Glosenger says. “It’ll be slow, but just by being easy going and friendly, eventually they’ll see I’m there to hopefully do good for both of us.”
UPDATE: We caught up with Glosenger in September, when he took his first excursion from his new home in the remote mountain village Cerro Cacicon, population 350, to the closest Panamanian city, David. He subsisted on rice for three meals a day during his first month of service, so enjoying some culinary variety was a priority on the trip. And, to add variety — and protein — to diets back in Cacicon, Glosenger will continue the project he’s already started there — digging ponds with a pick axe to raise fish.
See the original version of this article, which includes the stories of two more alumni and information about UVM's participation in the Peace Corps' Paul D. Coverdell Fellowship Program, on the Vermont Quarterly website.