July 25, 2013 2 Comments
Joining the Peace Corps in midlife is not easy to do, but April Muniz (’90) has no regrets. After a recent post here on Dukes in the Peace Corps, April sent us her story — a look at her experience as a volunteer in community economic development in Senegal — and it’s well worth reading. April, who studied psychology and dance at JMU, writes of her service: “It pulled me out of my comfort zone and challenged me to become someone that I had aspired to be. I had traveled quite a bit in my past, but the Peace Corps provided me with an opportunity like no other to live in and truly become part another culture.”
By April Muniz (’90)
I graduated from JMU in 1990 and had every intention of attending my 20-year reunion in the fall of 2010. Instead, I found myself over 4,000 miles away living with a host family in a West African village training to become a Peace Corps volunteer.
My godmother and her husband joined the Peace Corps in the early 70’s and were sent to Kenya as Health and Water/Sanitation volunteers. At the time, the Peace Corps allowed couples to bring their children with them, so my Godmother and her daughters become our international pen pals. They regularly corresponded with my family through letters, opening my eyes to the world around me. Their experience planted a desire in me to learn about other cultures, speak other languages, and share my knowledge and experience with people who could benefit from them. After a 20-year career, it’s natural to pause to reflect on life, and when I did, the little voice in my head said: “It’s never too late to change your course….do what you’ve always wanted to do…be who you’ve always wanted to be.” I listened to that voice, completed my Peace Corps application, and a year later I was stepping off a plane in Dakar, Senegal, about to embark on an exciting new chapter in my life.
After the 8-hour direct flight from Dulles International in Virginia and a 2-hour drive to our training facility in Thiès, Senegal, my 62 fellow trainees and I arrived at an old French army post that had been bequeathed to the Peace Corps by the Senegalese government soon after their independence from France in 1960. There we attended our pre-service training, a 10-week long, intense program that required we live with Senegalese host families while learning local languages and culture. I was grouped with three other trainees and sent to live in Tivaouane, a Muslim pilgrimage site about a half hour north of our training facility. As a business volunteer, it was necessary to speak French, the country’s official language, at an intermediate level so my group spent a month getting our language skills up to speed before moving on to the more prevalently spoken Wolof. Peace Corps also provided technical training related to our sectors (Community Economic Development, Agriculture, and Forestry) as well as training that would help us survive in this new foreign land: safety and security, medical and first aid, traditional customs, religious beliefs, food, and emotional health. There was a lot packed into these first two-and-a-half months to prepare us for living on our own out in the communities where we would ultimately be assigned.
Five weeks into our training, I learned where I would be living for the next two years – Diourbel – an “urban” post which is centrally located in the dry, arid western interior of the country. I worked with an association called Baol Environnement that promoted environmental education and safeguarded biodiversity in the region. My host country partners and I educated women’s groups and communities about the importance of the environment and introduced appropriate technologies, such as solar ovens, seed-oil presses, and hand-crank peanut-shellers. We also worked with the community on a paper briquette press project, turning recycled paper into “eco bricks” that can be used as an alternative fuel source, thus reducing the need to chop down trees for firewood in an area that already struggles with deforestation.
During the course of two years, I taught English and Entrepreneurial Skills classes at a local vocational high school and built curriculum for an Environmental Education program for elementary school students. In my role as a Community Economic Development Agent, I worked with women’s groups on business and marketing concepts and collaborated with local artisans to expose their products to a larger market.
I also served on the Peace Corps’ Gender and Development group, empowering Senegalese men, women, and youth to appreciate and incorporate equality in their lives. We implemented programs that motivated, educated, and inspired individuals to reach their full potential and encouraged sustainable change in gender perspectives within our communities. This included conducting much-needed and quite controversial LGBT Safe Zone training for our host country national staff and Diversity training for our new volunteers.
The most rewarding part of my service was learning that I have the ability to do what it takes to get a job done even in challenging circumstances. Had anyone told me five years ago that I would be teaching Senegalese teenagers the ins and outs of corporate management, in French no less, I would not have believed them. It’s amazing to discover what you are capable of when you throw yourself out into the world.
It’s also great to develop friendships along the way. Sharing your Peace Corps service with other volunteers is the ultimate bonding experience. Although we each were assigned to our own posts often a great distance from one another, we made an effort to meet up periodically to help with group projects and to catch up and socialize. I was happy to find three other JMU graduates among the more than 200 Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Senegal with me, Elizabeth “Lyzz” Ogunwo (’08), Kourtney Rusow (’08), and Amanda Cassiday (’08). They had attended JMU more recently than me, but we shared a love of the ‘Burg and a common path. We are all now Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) living back in the states. I spent the 2012-13 academic year working as the Peace Corps Campus Recruiter at the University of Virginia and am now working full-time as a Community Liaison/Event Coordinator for Harvest Moon Catering in Charlottesville and am heading up the company’s Green Initiative and sustainability efforts. I also serve on the advisory board of Better World Better, Charlottesville’s favorite resource for green living.
In future posts, we’ll share some of the experiences of Lyzz, Kourtney and Amanda…and other Dukes who have a great story about how they are Being the Change. Let us hear from you.
And April — many thanks for sharing your story of change.