Sydney Blair ’16 captured mosquitoes in Great Smoky Mountains National Park as part of her field work for a Western Carolina University course in which environmental health students help track mosquito species and the diseases they can carry.
Now, Blair serves as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda working to prevent the spread of malaria, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes that is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide each year. When Blair visits Ugandan schools, she talks about the benefits of testing for the disease and early treatment. She takes an insecticide-treated bed net to show what she urges everyone in Uganda to sleep under, even in thatched-roof huts. She helps members of the Bed Net Brigade youth club learn how to go into villages, educate others about malaria prevention and demonstrate how to hang and care for bed nets.
“I hope that families will see the children taking initiative with the nets and follow suit,” she said.
Blair is one of 94 WCU alumni who have served in the Peace Corps since its founding in 1961, according to 2016 Peace Corps data. Launched by the U.S. government to promote world peace and friendship, the Peace Corps receives thousands of applications from people who want to volunteer, and selection can be competitive. In September 2016, the Peace Corps had 7,213 volunteers and trainees but received more than 23,000 applications over the course of the year. “We want to match the most highly qualified candidates with the positions that are right for them,” said Emily Webb, public affairs specialist for the Peace Corps East Region Office.
Peace Corps deploys volunteers to help community members abroad develop sustainable solutions to challenges in agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health and youth development. Volunteers train for three months and commit to serve for two years. In exchange, they receive medical and dental care, transportation to and from their country and enough money to live on in the communities they serve.
Today, the Peace Corps volunteers serve in 65 countries, with nearly half of volunteers in Africa and the next largest contingents in Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia. Last fall, WCU alumni serving in the Peace Corps were based in Uganda, Ethiopia and Guatemala.
The work can be fulfilling, with opportunities to help, meet new people, learn a new language and culture, and find adventure. The experience also can be emotionally and physically challenging, said Blair and other Peace Corps volunteers connected to WCU.
In addition to working in school-based malaria prevention educational outreach, Blair chairs a malaria prevention think tank that offers educational programs, training and resources to Peace Corps volunteers and their counterparts who want to implement activities at their sites. She also is working on programs such as sack gardening, a method in which tall grain sacks are filled with dirt and seeds to form a vertical garden that produces vegetables even during the three- to four-month dry season.
A significant part of her work is serving as one of five staff members at a health clinic. On Tuesdays, when mothers bring their babies for vaccinations, Blair helps weigh the children and complete their immunization cards. Among the most difficult moments for her was seeing an HIV-positive orphan whose life depended on urgent treatment for a knee infection but whose caretakers could not afford to go to a hospital. Another was witnessing a 15-year-old give birth in the health clinic without family or friends there for support. “I have seen that happen several times,” said Blair. “There is no way to prepare yourself for those kinds of things.”
A native of Wilkesboro, Blair said her experience has helped her to be more patient with herself and more thoughtful about what is important in life. The people she has met are so appreciative and welcoming that even when meeting for the first time they will invite her in for tea. “Time in Uganda is not like time in the United States,” said Blair. “People walk everywhere. Everything is at a slower pace, and people appreciate everything so much more. It is just a different world that’s been really hard to explain to friends and family back home.”
For Teawan Gausi ’11, navigating cultural differences and perceptions to make connections with people in her community has been critical to carrying out her work as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. Gausi, who earned degrees in psychology and sociology at WCU, is charged with helping young people learn life skills to lead healthier lives, teaching them about substance abuse prevention and reproductive and sexual health, and expanding their leadership skills. Sometimes, community members do not understand what the role of a Peace Corps volunteer is, or exactly what she is there to do. “The challenge is bridging the gap,” said Gausi.
Gausi seized the opportunity to be a volunteer when she saw a program at Indiana University, where she is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration, that linked coursework with Peace Corps service. She became particularly interested in development work after a two-week WCU summer travel course to Kenya in 2010 led by Anthony Hickey, professor of sociology, and Nyaga Mwaniki, retired anthropology faculty member. The class stayed in the Taita Hills and studied development issues while working with Kosmos Solutions International, a nongovernmental community development and humanitarian organization. Three alumni of the Kenya service learning trips have gone on to serve in the Peace Corps, said Hickey.
Service-learning experience at WCU also was meaningful for Ada Sloop ’15, an environmental health graduate who left in June to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uganda. Sloop was in a course taught by Lane Perry, WCU director of service learning, centered on service and leadership. The students traveled to New York and helped repair homes damaged by Hurricane Sandy. Afterward, she continued to be involved as the service-learning officer for WCU’s chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers. She encouraged participation in activities such as roadside and river clean-ups. After graduation, while completing an air quality internship in Cherokee, she saw photos of a classmate serving as a Peace Corps volunteer that rekindled her interest in the possibility.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that really is something I would like to do,’” said Sloop. Further fueling her interest was what she remembered hearing about the experiences of Phil Kneller, a retired WCU environmental health professor who worked to help eradicate smallpox while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia, and conducting research in a class taught by Brian Byrd, WCU associate professor of environmental health. She applied for Peace Corps community health educator positions and was selected for a position centered on preventative health measures related to malaria, HIV/AIDS, maternal child health and hygiene.
Perry said he was not surprised Sloop went on to serve in the Peace Corps. Service is in WCU’s DNA, and students who come to the university with a passion to serve graduate as informed, highly active and committed servant leaders, he said. “It is when these two elements align that WCU helps produce the balance between heart, culture, service, knowledge and leadership that produces a Peace Corps volunteer,” said Perry.
What Sloop, who grew up on a dairy farm near Statesville, was most looking forward to is immersing herself in a new culture. She was excited to live with a host family and made them a dreamcatcher as a gift before she left. “It’s important to find spiritual connection with my host family, and dreams are a good way to do that,” said Sloop.
Sloop said she looks forward to her experience serving and to returning with Peace Corps on her resume. “Everybody in the United States is going to know what Peace Corps is,” said Sloop. “They have a history. They have success stories. They have a foundation.”
Jim Lewis, WCU professor emeritus of history, was among the second group of Peace Corps volunteers to work in Venezuela in 1964. Lewis lived in a two-room cement block house in a village of about 300 people. Electricity was available several hours a day, and the roads were mud. He volunteered at a school and helped establish credit union services in a rural coffee-growing region.
“The thought was this would mainly benefit people who had no access to banks or for whom banks were not interested in opening accounts with $5 or $3,” said Lewis. “We started with $200 in the credit union, and when we left two years later we had $50,000.”
The experience led him to shift his research focus from European to Latin American history, which he taught at WCU while on the faculty for more than three decades.
Another former Peace Corps volunteer on WCU’s faculty, Barbara Jo White, professor of computer information systems, initiated the World Map Project for the Peace Corps. While a volunteer in the Dominican Republic in 1988, she realized paper maps would not last in that country’s rainy, humid climate, so she and two students painted a world map on a school wall. She developed a grid method to create the map to scale that is now part of a manual to help volunteers worldwide replicate the project.
What faculty and staff members share with students about their personal experiences abroad and in the Peace Corps offers students insight into being citizens of the world. Byrd said seeing former students such as Blair and Sloop go on to tackle global health issues, especially as Peace Corps volunteers, is inspiring. “It is often said that ‘environmental health affects everyone, everywhere and every day,’” said Byrd. “We expect our graduates will make a difference wherever they are in the world. Ada and Sydney are shining examples of what our alumni are trained to do. They were not the first, and they will not be the last.”