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Sarah Francis to serve in Turkmenistan
Sarah Francis to serve in Turkmenistan
Local Woman joins Peace Corps
Aug 15, 2004
Greensboro News & Record
by Meredith Barkley Staff Writer
Sarah Francis' first mission trip made quite an impression.
She was in high school at the time and traveling with a church group. They'd gone to Reynosa, Mexico, to build a medical clinic in the border village.
"One of my team members was Norma Matto, who had just returned from the Peace Corps," Francis recalled. Matto, of Greensboro, had spent her two-year tour in Paraguay as a nutritionist.
"Just talking to her really inspired me," said Francis, now 27. "That led me to the path I'm on now."
In May Francis graduated from UNCG, a newly minted doctor of nutrition. On Sept. 3, she will travel to Washington to begin her two years with the Peace Corps.
Her assignment: Turkmenistan, a republic of the former Soviet Union, where she'll be a community health educator.
She's not sure exactly where in the country she'll be assigned. That comes later. But she knows it will be a vastly different way of life.
Francis will be living with a host family while there. She's been assured her home away from home will have a concrete floor, electricity and running water, and that her basic needs will be met.
But she's assured of little else. There won't be many comforts and no money to provide them anyway.
For example, she probably won't have hot water for baths, even in the dead of winter. And, although she gets 24 days off a year, she can forget fancy vacations. She'll have to cover everything out of her meager pay, which is based on the average for her village. Because she does not yet know in which town she'll be placed, she doesn't know what her salary will be. When she does get some time off from her assignment, Francis will be staying in Turkmenistan.
Fortunately, she said, she's been able to defer her nearly $60,000 in school debt until she returns and finds a job.
Francis says she's been assured it's safe in Turkmenistan, even though the former Soviet Union republic borders Iran and Afghanistan.
And she's not concerned that Turkmenistan's isolationist leader, President Saparmurad Niyazov, runs a repressive regime.
A terrorism expert she knows at UNC-Charlotte has told her she should be fine, and, through e-mails, a Peace Corps volunteer there now has confirmed it.
"She says she feels very safe there, which makes me feel even better," Francis.
What's more, she said: "If things get hot, the Peace Corps jerks you out. They don't mess around with their volunteers."
So these days she's preparing for her two years in the Third World. She's packing up and selling off belongings, saying her goodbyes and giving plenty of thought to what lies ahead.
Winters are much like North Carolina's. Temperatures, she has learned, generally range between 20 and 40 degrees. Spring and fall can be rainy. The summers, though, are really hot - frequently up to 120 degrees.
"It's a desert," Francis said. "The majority of it is arid."
The impoverished nation, which also borders the Caspian Sea, sits atop vast oil and natural gas reserves and is a big cotton producer. But Francis, with five years' experience as a clinical nutritionist, expects to devote her tour to its people's health.
"They're trying to move more toward preventive medicine," she said. "But they have no experience with that."
She'll be working with local hospitals and health clinics, teaching staff to develop health programs and determine their people's health and nutrition needs, she said.
That's the plan, anyway. Still, she realizes she may be called to help out in areas she never expected.
"You're a jack-of-all-trades in the Peace Corps," Francis said. "You've got to be flexible. Expect the unexpected. But that's why I'm going."
She's been dreaming of the Peace Corps since that first mission trip. And she's nursed that dream through four years at Appalachian State, a master's program at Western Carolina and her doctorate at UNCG.
Before her departure from Washington, she'll have several days of preparation - shots, a new passport and other necessities - before flying to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan's capital, and a three-month crash course on the country's culture and languages. Then it's on to her post.
Now that it's all about to happen, Francis is filled with anticipation and apprehension.
"I'm very close with my family, very close with my friends," said Francis. "I'm going to miss out on graduations, potential births of nieces and nephews, potential marriages.
"The living conditions, you can prepare yourself for that. But I'm losing the support system I've had for 27 years."
Still, she says, she's looking forward to all that lies ahead.
"I'm excited," Francis said. "I like challenges."
Contact Meredith Barkley at 373-7091 or email@example.com
When this story was prepared, here was the front page of PCOL magazine:
This Month's Issue: August 2004
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and who can come up with the funniest caption for our Current Events Funny?
Exclusive: Director Vasquez speaks out in an op-ed published exclusively on the web by Peace Corps Online saying the Dayton Daily News' portrayal of Peace Corps "doesn't jibe with facts."
In other news, the NPCA makes the case for improving governance and explains the challenges facing the organization, RPCV Bob Shaconis says Peace Corps has been a "sacred cow", RPCV Shaun McNally picks up support for his Aug 10 primary and has a plan to win in Connecticut, and the movie "Open Water" based on the negligent deaths of two RPCVs in Australia opens August 6. Op-ed's by RPCVs: Cops of the World is not a good goal and Peace Corps must emphasize community development.
Read the stories and leave your comments.