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Peace Corps: The experience of a lifetime

By Irene Rotondo
@irenerrotondo

Peace Corps Volunteers range from virtually every background imaginable — the one constant, however, is their shared love of community and service to others.

The stories of each individual who made the decision to volunteer are all unique, given there is no one path a person can take on their way to service or affiliation with the organization.

There are many ways to become involved; one particularly intriguing way, for students especially, is to become a campus ambassador.

Randi Dermo served in Ecuador from 2017-2019, and is the Regional Recruiter for Vermont and Massachusetts. Dermo is looking for a student to represent the Peace Corps on the College’s campus.

“Campus ambassadors work closely with the recruiters in the area, to develop and foster relationships between the Peace Corps and new and diverse student organizations on Springfield’s campus,” said Dermo.

“The application goes live on March 1, and I would love to work closely with Springfield students and spread the word of Peace Corps. It’s a great opportunity for an undergraduate to have connections with federal government agencies, work to promote an organization’s mission, act as a liaison, so it’s also a really great opportunity for the student,” said Dermo.

Other than becoming a campus ambassador, another obvious way to get involved with the Peace Corps is becoming an in-country volunteer. It is unsurprising that there are even a few alumnus of Springfield College that have gone on to serve with the Peace Corps, and many volunteers who now associate themselves with the College after their service has ended.

During Dermo’s service, she worked with English teachers at a K-12 public school. One of her initiatives involved creating a curriculum for a cheerleading summer camp whose goal was to teach English through cheerleading. Students from fourth-through-sixth grade were invited to attend, with 50 students partaking overall.

“It was just really a great experience, I collaborated on carrying out this project with several of the English teachers at the school, and a couple of other volunteers in the area came to help me out, and the students learned cheers in English,” said Dermo.

“They also learned a choreographed dance to Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off,’ and they participated in gender equality sessions along with team building exercises. It was just a really great way to bond with the students,” she said.

Other volunteers from the Peace Corps have a variety of missions, similar to Dermo’s, of youth development programs.

Tammen Nicholson (G’10) is a graduate of Springfield College’s Sports Management program. Nicholson served with his wife, Bridgit, from 2015-2017 in Lesotho, South Africa, working on youth development projects. Nicholson said that he and his wife made the decision to join a few years after already graduating from college, making them a sort of anomaly amongst their peers.

Tammen Nicholson during his time in Lesotho, South Africa.

“I think for most people, they wind up doing Peace Corps immediately after graduation, so we were outliers in the fact that we weren’t just graduates,” said Nicholson.

“But we weren’t also a couple who was in their sixties that had just retired and wanted to do Peace Corps, so it was kind of unique to have that professional experience before we went overseas.”

Nicholson said that he faced some difficulties upon telling people of their decision, especially given that he and Bridgit had already been in the workforce for some time.

“One thing that people would say to me was, ‘Oh, you’re taking two years off from life to join Peace Corps,’ because by that time I had been working professionally,” said Nicholson.

“I kind of had to correct people often and be like, ‘I’m not taking time off, because I studied Sport Management, and this is maybe the first time I’m getting a chance to use my degree,’ because I’m teaching sport development classes, and how we can use soccer in HIV prevention techniques… that would raise awareness to public health campaigns.

“My favorite experience was that you can really tie in what your personal interests are to whatever your project is and put your own mark on that,” added Nicholson.

Nicholson recalled working as an intern during his time as an undergraduate at Springfield in a nonprofit office in New York. There, he learned firsthand how his Sport Management degree could be used in outreach programs for the community, rather than in just formal business settings.

During his service in Lesotho, Nicholson worked to raise awareness of sexual reproductive health education. He taught children the importance of healthy living and HIV awareness, an educational opportunity the children received because their community asked the Peace Corps for a volunteer to come and teach that exact topic.

“The thing that I’ve always liked about Peace Corps is that when the host community applies for a volunteer, the host community says, ‘I want a volunteer to come in to teach HIV medication practices, or teach sexual reproductive health courses,’ and that still needs to be approved by the Peace Corps, and they still need to agree and to offer to provide a volunteer,” said Nicholson.

“It’s totally different than an NGO coming in and saying, ‘We’re going to give you sexual reproductive health, whether or not the community thinks that’s a priority,’” he added.

Lauren Bishop, though not a graduate of Springfield College (she actually graduated from UMass with a Bachelor’s in Biology), was another volunteer who focused on youth development during her time in-country. She served in Bulgaria from 2013-2015 at a small orphanage.

“I was a youth development volunteer for Youth at Risk, and I was placed in an orphanage in the center for social support– it was a small town, maybe like 5,000 people, and an hour outside of the capitol,” said Bishop.

“I worked with primarily Roma– they’re the minority population in eastern Europe. I worked with some social workers, a psychologist, ran activities at a small orphanage. [The children were] 4-18 years old, about 15 or 16 kids, and I spent two years there, 27 months,” she added.

Bishop says that she initially had difficulty learning a second language, but the intensive three-month training volunteers endured was enough for her to pick up Bulgarian. One of her favorite experiences was learning that second language and subsequently building relationships while using the country’s native tongue.

“You’re thrown in-site after three months, and I didn’t have anyone on my site that spoke English, until I found out in like the last two months that my neighbor’s daughter spoke English,” laughed Bishop.

“I don’t know if it would be an experience, necessarily, but just like a collective experience really developing a familiarity with a second language. You can talk to just about anyone and after two years you surprise yourself,” she added.

When her service ended in 2015, Bishop decided that her next step would be to gain her Master’s degree from a Peace Corps fellowship program. After searching various programs and schools to complete them with, Bishop landed on Springfield College’s Paul D. Coverdell Fellowship. She was able to graduate from the program in 2018, opening up a spot for the next Peace Corps volunteer to come through.

That next volunteer was Erin Sarris. Sarris had served in Romania from 1995-1997 teaching English. After completing her undergraduate degree from University of New Hampshire, Sarris left just days after graduation for Romania. She had first heard about the Peace Corps from her campus recruiter, who was then able to help her set an academic track in college that would aid her in her mission to serve.

Sarris took classes on teaching English as a foreign language and as a second language, and did some tutoring on the subject as well. This was just enough to prepare her for the experience of her lifetime.

Sarris recalled staying with her host family in the beginning of her service as a time where she was first introduced to Bulgarian culture. The family had a nine-year-old son, and Sarris said that the family “bent over backwards” to make her feel comfortable, despite their financial situation.

One of her favorite memories was of the very first McDonald’s opening in Romania.

“The first McDonald’s in Romania actually opened while I was there, and so it was a big day. [The family was] like, ‘We’re going to McDonald’s today!’’ said Sarris.

“So, we all ventured out, and the little boy was all excited. It was like this shining beacon, if you can imagine ‘America’ in the middle of this newly emerging country that wasn’t sure what it was going to be as a democracy, but they’re really trying to embrace and figure out the identity between the West and who they are.

“It was the most spotless, beautiful McDonald’s I had ever seen– you had to wait in line to get in, and there’s people washing all the windows and they opened the door for you and everyone was walking down the middle like, ‘Whoa!’ It was just a great experience for me to really tie that together and realize what I was a part of, and how this is pretty remarkable,” she said.

Another favorite memory of Sarris’ was her helping hand in one of the programs that Peace Corps Volunteers had set up prior to her arrival. The group that was before Sarris had created Camp GLOW, a summer camp for young girls whose mission was, “Girls Leading Our World.” This camp was established to address the self-esteem issues Peace Corps English teachers had noticed in the classroom amongst the girls. It was extremely successful in its infancy, and one of the volunteers that had created this program decided to stay for the following summer and to bring it to other interested teachers.

“So we did Camp GLOW again, and we created some materials, and we had Romanian teachers there, and we were thinking, ‘This would be really cool if this stayed, if Camp GLOW was a thing in Romania when we left,’” said Sarris.

“Well, now if you look up ‘Camp GLOW’ it’s in 60 countries all over the world, and it’s been adapted for boys and girls. It’s really amazing the power of what a network like the Peace Corps can do. You want to leave something with the teachers you’d been working with too,” she added.

As mentioned before, Sarris is now a current graduate student in the Springfield College Coverdell Fellowship. Through the fellowship, Sarris was even able to partake in a study-abroad program, which brought her right back to where she had begun: Romania.

“One of the organizations I worked with in Romania when I was there [initially] was Outward Bound, which is an experiential education program… they were really just starting out and they got some seed money. So I helped them write grants, and they were trying to buy a little piece of land,” recalled Sarris.

“So we took this group… to Outward Bound Romania, 25 years after I had been there, and they have an International Youth Center. It was really amazing, and I feel like for me this tie-in of the Peace Corps, Springfield College, and the way the Springfield College Social Work program works, and being able to go back to Romania– it was kind of like this magical opportunity for me,” said Sarris.

If there is one thing that is constant through many volunteer’s experiences, it’s the fact that they recognize they are able to see a side of the country they serve in that regular tourists and vacationers do not.

Bishop said, “I think you’re there for so long, it’s not just like superficial travel– you get to go to all the small towns, and see other volunteers and their communities, and you really get to marinate more in the culture than most travel experiences.”

Nicholson was in agreement, stating, “There’s no way to really understand a country, or visit a country, and be as in-depth. I’ve studied abroad, I’ve traveled pretty extensively, but now I feel like whenever I go someplace, I know I’m just scratching the surface.

“There’s really no way, without spending a significant amount of time, to really see past that initial cultural– you know, like, ‘The food’s different, the language is different,’ there’s way more aspects to culture that you understand and you learn as a Peace Corps volunteer,” he added.

If you are interested in becoming Springfield College’s Peace Corps Campus Ambassador or a Volunteer, please reach out to Randi Dermo by email at rdermo@peacecorps.gov to get started.

Featured Photo Courtesy of Randi Dermo

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