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Alumni Essay: Hannah Dufford, '06 (international studies & Spanish double-major)
It has been over three months since I returned from my Peace Corps position in Guatemala. I worked as a youth development volunteer, teaching life skills to students of all ages and training teachers in this curriculum. Although much of my work was in the classroom, life was far different than that of a conventional school teacher.
Each day brought a new challenge as we explored topics of self-esteem, gender issues, communication, discrimination, values, leadership and sexuality. The classroom was our meeting place, but much of the real discussion took place when students would show up on my doorstep, sitting around our weekly bonfires, and in the park talking into the late-night hours. The Guatemalan culture has certain standards when it comes to schooling, but many students and teachers suffocate under such an outdated system. Bright students and passionate teachers are trapped in a traditional environment where rote memorization and dictation prevail. My teaching methods were constantly received with blushing cheeks, loud gasps and uncomfortable parents as I ventured to break the norm. I couldn't foresee successfully teaching teenage students about social issues and motivating them to follow their dreams of becoming doctors and lawyers when they couldn't even name their own body parts or find Guatemala on a map!
It began with my giant-sized posters of reproductive organs (talk about blushing!) and HIV/AIDS talks and ended with heated debates about the death penalty and abortion that forced students to think critically. Teenagers whose sole purpose had been to get married and continue living in their small village opened their eyes to a world of opportunities and a world with consequences. Suddenly, their culture of corruption and discrimination seemed oppressive to them and a world with gender equality and occupational advancement seemed desirable. We began to discuss everything from healthy relationships, safe sex and domestic violence to immigration, stereotypes and values. The change in the minds of students and teachers and the thrill it gave me to share with them such wild ideas reminded me of the power of education. Education is the foundation for everything - a good education can prevent corruption, violence, poverty, etc. Education should be a right for all people, and I'm glad that I could be a part of that.
I write all of this after spending 27 months of heartbreak and joy, failures and successes. But I wasn't always so sure that the Peace Corps would be the right fit for me. Always having had an interest in Spanish, and having worked with the Hispanic community since high school, I knew that I wanted to spend time in a Spanish-speaking country. However, it was after participating in the Central America Study Program in 2005, that I felt the need to go abroad again.
There were so many international volunteer organizations, so many NGOs and so many church groups that I could have gotten involved with. It was hard to balance the financial obligations with the time commitment I was willing to make. It seemed to me that a three-to-six-month stint was all I could afford, but that didn't seem like long enough to accomplish anything substantial. When I began researching the Peace Corps, it seemed like a great opportunity. I was able to live and work two years abroad without spending a dime. In fact, the Peace Corps covers living expenses and health insurance and rewards volunteers with a readjustment allowance when they return to the States. But did I want to work for the government? Did I want some big organization constantly breathing down my neck and telling me what to do? I was worried that I wouldn't be working for an organization that had a mission I identified with or motives I agreed with. It didn't take long for this concern to go away. I quickly realized that although the Peace Corps has a solid framework for development, its volunteers have great freedom in deciding what programs and projects are appropriate for their community. Volunteers are expected to perform community assessments to determine the needs of the community and are encouraged to steer clear of starting projects that don't have substantial community support and initiative. Furthermore, the presence of Peace Corps volunteers in each country allows volunteers to swap ideas, use each other's talents, and collaborate on projects. Volunteers decide whether they want to immerse themselves in the culture or team up with other volunteers to carry out larger-scale projects.
I would recommend the Peace Corps to any person who has the desire to serve the international community, is looking for a long-term volunteer opportunity, and wants to have relative freedom in his or her work. I remember seeking advice from one of the professors I respect the most, Dr. Yoder, and being told that the personal relationships you make while doing development work are the first step in achieving solidarity. It is through these relationships that we break down barriers that create hostility, suspicion and conflict. Only then can development work be successful and bring about real and lasting change. For this reason, I look at the Peace Corps as a stepping stone toward a possible future in development work. I was told I didn't have to "change the world" by myself - and once that pressure is gone, volunteers can do their very best to set realistic goals and overcome challenges with a clear vision.
Needless to say, the Peace Corps provides incredible experience in intercultural relations, international development, and foreign language acquisition - which makes returned Peace Corps volunteers very attractive to future employers.
Now, as I settle into my new apartment in Washington, D.C., I await my next adventure as I continue working with the Peace Corps at their office headquarters. I know that with such a great network of returned Peace Corps volunteers, there will be no shortage of opportunities for me. I encourage anyone considering volunteering with the Peace Corps or any other organization to contact me with any questions you may have.