The toughest job you’ll ever love
By Brian Fitzgerald
In Kenya, despite sleeping under a mosquito net, Leilani Johnson gets bitten. And bitten again. She slathers on repellent, but some of the insects still find a way to get to her. There are other inconveniences as well, such as taking warm “bucket baths” instead of hot showers.
But then there are the rewards of being a Peace Corps volunteer in Mombasa: assisting in the creation of an HIV/AIDS counseling and prevention program in this coastal city, which has been ravaged by the disease. She is also helping upgrade a computer lab there.
Johnson (SPH’04) is one of nine students enrolled in the Peace Corps through the SPH Master’s International Program (MI), which allows students to earn up to five credits during 27 months of service and directed study. By the end of the year, another 10 SPH students will be placed in such destinations as Honduras, Cameroon, and the Dominican Republic.
At present, 63 BU students and graduates serve in the Peace Corps around the world. The University has historically had large numbers of students and recent graduates volunteering in the organization — consistently earning a spot on the list of 25 top-producing colleges and universities. BU is also the Peace Corps’ 21st all-time greatest supplier, boasting 1,063 volunteers since the Corps’ inception in 1961.
This year, however, BU jumped from number 18 on the list to number 11. Why does the Peace Corps attract so many BU students?
“A lot of BU students apply to Teach for America as well,” says Deborah Halliday, assistant director of the Office of Career Services. “I think many students here are in tune to the fact they can go into these one- and two-year service programs and come out with a unique experience, along with additional skills to bring into the job market. I believe that doing something like this, as an interim transition after college and before starting a career, is really beneficial to them. Plus, it’s a great way to help others.”
“Some of the Peace Corps volunteers in the MI program have already been overseas and want to go again,” says Joseph Anzalone, MI program director. “They have a sense of what it’s like out there, and they want to serve people in developing countries through the Peace Corps. Others in the program haven’t had that kind of experience yet, but they’ve taken some course work, have a sense of what they can do, and the Peace Corps gives them a chance to apply those skills — to test the waters and see if they like development work.”
In monthly meetings, MI students have an opportunity to hear firsthand from returned Peace Corps volunteers what to expect living and working abroad. They discover that the experience is incredible, but it isn’t for everyone. There is a great deal of truth to the Peace Corps slogan, “The toughest job you’ll ever love.”
Johnson writes in a Web log about the ups and downs of her stint in Kenya: getting dizzy from malaria pills, having no electricity or running water (and the wonderful smell of the “choo,” or outhouse) while training for several weeks in Naivasha. But finally, she moved to Mombasa, into a house with a flush toilet and a shower room. Also on the plus side: a whitewater rafting adventure in Uganda and a trip to the Shimba Hills Wildlife Preserve to see elephants, giraffes, and ostriches.
Then, on December 26, the tsunami hit. Fortunately, she wasn’t on the coast. “All of our cell phones started going off,” she writes. “The Peace Corps was warning us not to go anywhere near the water.” The next morning was a somber one: the volunteers huddled around her radio listening to the news.
Her odyssey is “certainly frustrating at times,” she writes, “but I just keep thinking, even if most of my work here goes largely unnoticed, just making the positive difference in one or two lives will help in the butterfly effect needed here to help the general population.”
Togo is another African country hit hard by the AIDS pandemic. Kevin Fiori (SPH’03), who is stationed in the town of Kara, is working with Association Espoir Demain (Hope for Tomorrow), which provides comprehensive HIV/AIDS services at the community level. Fiori has no specific advice for potential Peace Corps volunteers to ready them for the experience of a lifetime. “Language training is useful,” he says. “Job experience is useful. People skills are useful. An advanced degree in a relevant field is useful. But in truth, there doesn’t seem to be anything that will prepare you for the demands of living and working in another culture — except living and working in another culture.”
Volunteers must be at least 18, and a college degree is necessary for some opportunities. Living arrangements vary, and while the organization takes applicants’ geographical preferences into consideration, it ultimately places people where they are most needed.
Suzanne Pouliot-Khamis, a recruiter for the Peace Corps New England Regional Office, told BU students at a recent information session at the Office of Career Services that “there is no typical Peace Corps experience.” Duties range from bringing clean water to communities to information technology and business development. “There are more than 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers in 72 countries,” she says, “and each assignment is unique.”
To read Johnson’s Web log, visit www.itesafety.com/Kenya.htm. The Web log of Erin Reynolds (SPH’05), a Peace Corps volunteer who is teaching in Togo, is at www.xanga.com/home.aspx?user=ereynolds. For more information on the Peace Corps, visit www.peacecorps.gov or stop by the information table outside the GSU Union Court on March 17, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.