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Kristen McDowell heads for Senegal to work in agro-forestry
Kristen McDowell heads for Senegal to work in agro-forestry
Lending the world a hand
By Alisha Cox
Sunday, March 9, 2003
FRANKLIN -- Kristen McDowell packed for an extended trip once before.
In 1999, she tossed some precious belongings into a couple of bags and flew to London for a semester in college while she was a student at University of New Hampshire. It was the first time she left the country for a long period of time.
"I remember being this nervous to go, but I loved it and didn't want to come back," 23-year-old Kristen said as she took a break from packing for a very different trip.
In just one week, Kristen will board a plane in Providence and fly to Philadelphia. She will spend the next three days getting to know 50 other volunteers embarking on what could be a life-changing journey.
Kristen will then fly to Senegal where she will spend the next two years working as a Peace Corps volunteer.
"The hardest part will be just getting on the plane and going," said the lifelong Franklin resident.
She recalled someone mentioning the Peace Corps while she was studying for her bachelor of arts degree in philosophy at UNH in Durham, N.H.
"I heard of it, but I never knew what it was in depth," Kristen said.
The next time she sat in front of a computer, she punched in the Peace Corps' Web site and starting peaking around. Soon, she was hooked. Kristen wanted to volunteer.
More and more 20-somethings are following in Kristen's footsteps, according to Doreen Sabina, public affairs specialist in the Boston branch of the Peace Corps.
Her branch witnessed a 10 percent increase in the number of people wanting to volunteer over the past few years, she said, crediting President Bush's State of the Union address last year with the influx.
"We saw a surge of interest in our Web site," Sabina said. "President Bush seems very committed to it."
While 65 percent of the applications come from people fresh out of college, like Kristen, the average volunteer's age is 28, Sabina said.
"What we are finding anecdotally is that college grads are going out into the work force with the Peace Corps on their minds," she said, explaining they are soon disenchanted with their jobs. "They decide they are going to make a change and go into the Peace Corps."
Kristen's desire to improve other people's lives led her to volunteer to spend two years in a Senegal tribe, living with a family that speaks little to no English.
"It is scary. It's a combination of me wanting to help other people but also for personal growth," Kristen said.
While chatting with former Peace Corps volunteers, Kristen received a letter from a woman who served in 1985. Kristen said she offered the best explanation for why people volunteer to live in developing countries.
"It's a combination of selfishness and altruism," Kristen recalled.
When Kristen first arrives in Dakkar, Senegal, she and 50 other volunteers face three months of intensive training in the language, culture and skills they will need.
After that, each will live with a family for two years, completely immersed in the culture.
While she knows basic French, which is West Africa's main language, Kristen will have to learn her village's own dialect.
"At first, it's going to be, `where's the bathroom?' if there is one," she joked.
She chose West Africa as the continent she would like to be assigned, but Kristen said there were no guarantees. She did ask to work with the environment and was placed in Senegal as an "agro-forestry environment education extension agent."
She will spend her time working with youth clubs, organizing community outreach programs, similar to Earth Day, and helping teachers plan lessons. Kristen said she will pick up some technical skills to help Senegal's farming community, but that won't be the focus of her time.
"What they really need from volunteers is their organizational skills," she said.
While environmental education will be her main program, Kristen will also branch out and start other, smaller projects. She talked with a friend who is a second-grade teacher about starting a pen pal system with the class.
Even though she earns two days of vacation a month, in addition to her small living allowance, Kristen does not anticipate having much free time.
"You have this status of a Peace Corps volunteer, a working volunteer," she said, adding most work more than 40 hours a week. "They say you are on the job 24 hours a day."
The Peace Corps volunteers stand out from the culture, mostly at first, according to their spokesman. With the United States seemingly poised at the brink of war with Iraq, volunteers in developing countries all over the world are protected and regularly contacted by ambassadors.
"Safety and security is our number one priority. When we are invited to a country and while we are there, we are constantly doing assessments," Sabina said.
In the past, some were evacuated from Madagascar, she said. All volunteers have been suspended from traveling to Jordan for their own safety.
"Peace Corps is on top of it. They are working with the ambassadors in the countries," Sabina said. "The Peace Corps makes it a number one priority."
The more time volunteers like Kristen spend immersing themselves in a culture, the better, she added.
"Once you get involved in the community and they see you want to help, they take you under their wing," Sabina said.
Kristen said her parents have a voice of reassurance as their daughter prepares for her trip. Her uncle was a Peace Corps volunteer.
"They're proud," Kristen said. "They are supportive but nervous."
Leaving her family and friends behind will be the hardest part of her time in Senegal, plus "the comforts of civilized life," such as running water and toilets, she said.
"They say that is the easiest thing to live without," she added.
Kristen is not sure what she will do after her two years in the Peace Corps.
"Who knows," she said. "I don't have plans yet. I know I would change my mind a million times in the next two years."
But that's half the fun of life, she added.
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.