Sometimes, in order to see the status quo, it takes a little distance. When MU’s Peace Corps Fellows return to the United States, they bring their global perspectives to the University of Missouri campus in order to open the minds of students, staff, and community members. Nathan Jensen, Jennifer Keller, Amy Bowes, and Andy Craver are among this year’s fellows. Their work in distant countries has changed them, helping them grow. Now they’re sharing their experience and newfound attitudes with MU.
This year’s Peace Corps fellows bring perspectives from West Africa, Southern Africa, and Kyrgyzstan. Nathan Jensen and Jennifer Keller (who are now married) met in Mali, where they worked as agriculture volunteers. Jensen’s work revolved around nutrition for women and children and education for farmers. “We would look at problems the farmers were having, with disease, pests, and production difficulties. We would talk to whichever research organization was working with those problems, and then hold formations between the two,” he explains.
Jensen, now a graduate student in Agricultural Economics, also encouraged the development of skills and income through small projects in the community in which he lived. If someone were interested in dyeing clothes, for instance, Jensen would help connect him or her with the resources needed. Since many of the community members had no access to funds, sometimes he had to lend the necessary money himself. “You invest in them, or you do whatever you can,” Jensen says. “Even though five dollars is not much money here—and it is not all that much money there either, to tell you the truth—but it’s a lot when you don’t have access to money.”
Keller, now a graduate student in Truman School of Public Affairs, was also an agricultural volunteer in Mali, worked with a women’s cooperative and a men’s group to cultivate mangoes. “We learned how to graft mango trees, how to grow them from seed and later graft them, how to take care of them and compost for them,” she says. Keller also worked on chicken-raising and small-income generation projects with members of her community.
The project that meant the most for Keller, however, was partnering with the president of a local maternity clinic to build another such facility in a nearby village. “During the rainy season, their women couldn’t make it to our maternity clinic in time because the roads were so bad,” she says. “If they were having a baby, they would end up sometimes having the baby on the road, and so they wanted to have a clinic for their village and some of the other villages out there. I wrote a grant to raise money to buy the equipment and to renovate the building they were going to use for their own maternity clinic.”
Amy Bowes, now a graduate student in Political Science, taught high school English in Lesotho in southern Africa. “About 25 hours a week I was in the classroom,” she notes. “I taught everywhere from 11- to 12-year olds who spoke very little English, to 25- and 28-year olds in a senior high school position.” The size of her classes ranged from 40 to nearly 100 kids. One of Bowes’ most memorable experiences was developing a debate team and watching it compete at an inter-school contest. “It was really awesome to see them stand up on a stage in front of a lot of people, which they’d never done before, and perform really well,” she recalls. Bowes also started a library and worked with youth groups on HIV- and AIDS-related issues.
Andy Craver, now a graduate student in Rural Sociology, had a similar kind of experience in Issyk-Kul, a large province in the north of Kyrgystan in central Asia. He taught English to students from the seventh through eleventh grades, organized an English club, and created a literary magazine and newspaper. He also started a project to modernize the water systems in Issyk-Kul and raised two-thirds of the required funding before his stay was over. For Craver, small moments with his host family were more memorable than the projects on which he was working. When he made an impromptu return visit to the family with whom he lived while training, his host-mother was overwhelmed. “She was just running me around by my hand to people’s door saying, ‘This is my boy. This is my boy’,” he remembers.
When he returned to the United States, Craver experienced a huge shock. “Something that strikes me is the amount of stuff people have here,” he says. “The way we use space here is different from the way Kyrgyz people might use it.” He also noticed that people in Kyrgystan devote much more time to their families than is typical in the U.S. “Here, we like spending time with family for maybe two weeks, but there they live together in close quarters and enjoy being around each other constantly, which to me was remarkable.”
Bowes was also struck by the difference between African and American cultures and sees that her experience in Africa has changed her. “I’m not as wasteful," she explains; "the first thing I noticed when I came home was how much we Americans throw away. In Africa, if you couldn’t burn it in the burn pile, then it just sat there until it biodegraded.” The way Americans waste food is especially poignant to Bowes. If she had leftover food in Africa, she would call out her front door to see if anyone could use it. “You don’t throw away food when people are hungry,” Bowes says. “Here, you know, we throw away food all the time. I got a job as a waitress when I came home, and it was really hard for me to pick up full plates of food and then go to the back and throw them away.”
Keller discovered that as a result of her residence abroad she looks at the world in part from the perspective of villagers in West Africa. “Even now, two years later, in my classes I’m still always thinking about what would Oumou have thought of this policy,” she comments. Jensen’s outlook on policy has changed as well. He says that although a lot of money is spent in Mali with good intentions, he has also seen some detrimental side effects. “But there is also the opportunity to do some good with development, and I plan on working with development,” he says. “I think it has made me a little skeptical of how it is all going to work out; it made me think through things.”
However, one goal of the Peace Corps fellowship at MU is to start changing things right here and right now. Toward this end, the fellows have been volunteering in the community. They have also decided to use their experience to develop a service-learning trip for MU. “We decided that a good idea for one of our projects would be to try to provide some more international service-learning trips [for students],” Keller notes. They hope to use what they learned as Peace Corps volunteers by serving as leaders on trips to non-traditional societies.
The fellows contribute in the classroom as well, teaching a course that educates students on the Peace Corps experience and relevant topics. “We recently developed a course rubric, through the Office of Service Learning, to bring undergrads into service in an international sense—to help the community of Columbia while also thinking about it on a larger scale,” Bowes explains. “The topics range from education and what a community is to the politics of poverty, and we’re leading a discussion with about twelve students. The hope is that students will want to go on a trip abroad afterward.”
Through their prior lives abroad and their current lives on campus, these four fellows are helping MU examine and solve human problems here and elsewhere.