Kristin (Sulewski) Oberdorf
James Madison College, 2008
Motivations:I wanted to work in international development and I felt that learning about it in school was only half of the story. The Peace Corps was a way to dive in and immerse myself in a completely different perspective of the world, and of people in the developing world.
Contributions: I was a 7th and 8th grade English teacher (beginner English for students) so I spent much of my time getting involved in the secondary school where I worked. In addition to teaching, I spent time helping my Beninese colleagues improve their own English and English teaching skills and provided English tutoring to some older students.
My favorite thing was the creation of a Geography Club for 7th, 8th, and 9th graders. The club met weekly and focused on a number of different aspects of world and local geography. The students learned the continents and their location on the globe, they learned how to read maps of Benin and their region, and then we moved on to learn about various countries around the world and their different foods, languages/alphabets, traditions, etc. It was great fun!
How did this experience change you? On a professional level, the experience completely shaped and informed the trajectory of my career—and my beliefs around how to make an impact in the world without falling into common "white savior" behaviors. To make a long story short, the real lesson is that as a Peace Corps volunteer you will never understand more than half of what you see around you—and so the only way to even imagine making an impact is to help others unleash their own capacity to make change.
On a personal level, I found strength in me that I didn't know I had. One of the Peace Corps slogans is "It's the hardest job you'll ever love" and any Peace Corps volunteer will tell you that's it's so true. At times it can get lonely, frustrating, overwhelming, and even scary, but at times it is also eye opening, wondrous, and inspiring. You go from the highest highs to the lowest lows and back again, sometimes in the same day! That lead me to find and build my reserves of patience, understanding, and flexibility.
Any anecdotes you’d like to include? My second year as a teacher, my mom had found and sent me some coloring book pages for teaching basic English. One was a simple color-by-number picture of a rainbow—which I thought was perfect for my basic colors lesson. So I brought in a bunch of markers and crayons to class (which students don't really have access to at home, so they were very excited) and was very proud of myself for giving them such a fun activity to practice their colors. Once everyone had finished coloring I asked the class if they could recognize what the picture was and they all shouted "yes, yes, yes!" One student raised his hand and said "Yes Madame, it’s the evil serpent from the sky!" Turns out rainbows are considered evil spirits in Benin. Oops!