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Peace Corps volunteers gain valuable experience in foreign countries

Published January 24, 2019

They wanted to make a difference in a world far from home, miles from anything they knew. So they left their families, their friends and their familiar beds for an opportunity to teach and learn in places foreign to them.

One by one, these four former Long Beach State students arrived as Peace Corps volunteers in Ghana, China and the Ukraine. Others have embarked on journeys that would take them to Senegal, Ethiopia and Samoa, where they would become immersed in the language and culture of their new homes.

Why would these young adults willingly give up their venti coffees, cellphones and Netflix for the unknown of a Peace Corps assignment? Ask any of them and they echo the same reason – to make a difference.

The Peace Corps is a service opportunity that gives wannabe changemakers the chance to work side-by-side with local leaders to tackle the challenges facing various countries. They teach in schools, assist in hospitals or work to improve the environment.. Through the College of Professional & International Education, and partnerships between Center of International Education, Global Studies Institute and Career Development Center, a Peace Corps recruiter works with the Los Angeles Peace Corps Regional Recruitment Team to recruit, advise, and educate potential Long Beach State volunteers.

Pooja-Accamma Somaiah, who graduated in 2017 with a degree in electrical engineering, traveled to Ghana to teach mathematics and improve the critical thinking of students. The task isn’t always easy.

“I live without running water, electricity and phone service,” Somaiah said. “This took adapting to an entirely new lifestyle. … (Also) I am the only foreigner and most of my community members don’t speak much English.”

Andrew Avitt, who serves as a university lecturer for the Peace Corps, said he joined the Peace Corps to be a part of something bigger. The 2018 graduate currently teaches English in China. He also is receiving a few lessons in return.

One day a student approached and asked if he could look over a script. Avitt asked what the script was about and she replied, “Stones.” He immediately thought of geology or the Rolling Stones.

The woman’s script was based on a quote from Deng Xiaoping, the former leader of the People’s Republic of China, who wrote about crossing a river by feeling the stones beneath your feet.

“In a way, that’s what I’m doing here,” Avitt said. “I’m learning to assume my assumptions are wrong and laugh often and hard when they are.”

Anna Parsons, who graduated with her masters in Speech-Language Pathology in 2016, recently headed to Tanzania as a health volunteer. She said that while she expected challenges, “I refuse to let these fears take hold of me.”

Before embarking on their assignments, Peace Corps volunteers must undergo intense pre-service training, an eight-week course that helps trainees alleviate fears of not fitting into their respective communities. The time spent in their countries help foster language and intercultural learning, while eliminating concerns of living in a foreign country. The Peace Corps believes that work based on relationships helps them integrate into the host country community.

Allen Gonzales-Willert, who graduated in 2018 with a communications degree, said one of his favorite memories was the rich bonding that occurred during the daily 10-hour sessions in which he learned the Ukrainian language, customs and culture.

“I can honestly say that I’d like to be friends with them the rest of my life,” Gonzales-Willert said. “I also have many fond memories of living with my host family who were a retired couple that were excited to meet and host their first American. I am eternally grateful for their hospitality, support and kindness.”

Somaiah said she wakes up every morning wanting to learn something new, whether it is through a skill, story or experience. It is the reason she joined the Peace Corps. One of the main things she has learned in Ghana is how to live without the comforts of home.

“Living here has given me the new opportunity to appreciate the quiet and not-so-busy lifestyle I once had,” Somaiah said.

The students all said the experience of living abroad has changed them. Somaiah has gained patience, Avitt learned not to make snap judgments and Gonzales-Willert said he isn’t so self-centered as he was before working with the Peace Corps.

“I can say that it has made me more conscious about other peoples’ needs and not only my own,” Gonzales-Willert said. “After finishing training and being placed in your country, you realize how much responsibility you have and that many people are counting on you.

“It can be daunting at times, but I’m just happy to be able to make a difference in students’ lives, and hopefully make a lasting impact these next two years.”

For information on how to donate to a Peace Corps project visit https://www.peacecorps.gov/donate/projects/ or information on volunteering contact Jessica Wilson, CSULB Peace Corps Recruiter, at Jessica.Wilson@csulb.edu or 562-985-8461.