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A shared dream: sister follows brother into Peace Corps service

Siblings share many things throughout childhood, from hand-me-downs, to toys, to rooms and last names. But Helen and Joseph Amiri of Marquette, Mich., had something bigger in common: the dream to grow up and depart for the Peace Corps.

On Jan. 21, both siblings can check that dream off their bucket list as Helen will follow in her younger brother’s footsteps as she departs for Peace Corps in Vanuatu.  Helen, 27, will serve as a hygiene education and water sanitation volunteer and assess her community’s health needs and use local resources to implement healthy water and sanitation practices. She will also work with community health committees and health centers to improve and strengthen Vanuatu’s current healthcare system.

“Serving in Peace Corps was a childhood dream, but my younger brother beat me to it,” Helen said. Helen’s brother, Joseph, 25, began serving in Peace Corps Ukraine as a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) volunteer in 2013. Joseph was relocated to Ecuador when Ukraine’s program was temporarily suspended due to security issues. He is currently serving as a youth and family development volunteer in Ecuador.

“The more I learned about Peace Corps service through my brother´s accounts, the more certain I was that serving would be a valuable experience for me,” Helen said.

Helen received her master’s degree in film studies and international relations from the University of St. Andrews in St. Andrews, Scotland, in 2010. After receiving her degree, she served in AmeriCorps, working as a field crew leader in Helena, Mont.

Currently, she is pursuing her master’s degree in environmental engineering from Michigan Technological University, where she is enrolled in the Peace Corps Master’s International program. The program allows students to earn their master’s degree while simultaneously serving in the Peace Corps. Helen will receive her degree when she completes her Peace Corps service in Vanuatu.

“There are courses at the university that prepare students for potential technical, social and cultural issues that may arise in Peace Corps service,” Helen said. “My academic advisor, Dr. Brian Barkdoll, served in Peace Corps Nepal doing similar work as an engineer, so I feel that my university has uniquely prepared me for my upcoming service.”

During the first three months of her service, Helen will live with a host family in Vanuatu to learn the local language and integrate into the culture. After acquiring the language and cultural skills that will help her make a lasting difference, Helen will be sworn into service and assigned to a community in Vanuatu where she will serve for two years.

Helen will work in cooperation with the local people and partner organizations on sustainable, community-based development projects that improve the lives of people in Vanuatu and help Helen develop leadership, technical and cross-cultural skills that will give her a competitive edge when she returns home. Peace Corps volunteers return from service as global citizens well-positioned for professional opportunities in today’s global job market.

“I hope that I can use my skills as an environmental engineer in my service to benefit my community,” Helen said. “I hope that my skills and the needs of my community find a healthy intersection.”

Helen joins the joins the 222 Michigan residents currently serving in the Peace Corps. More than 7,228 Michigan residents have served as volunteers since the agency was created in 1961.

About Peace Corps/Vanuatu: There are 52 Volunteers in Vanuatu working with their communities on projects in education and health. During their service in Vanuatu, Volunteers learn to speak local languages, including Bislama and French. More than 705 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in Vanuatu since the program was established in 1990.

Columbus, Ind., native departs for Peace Corps Ecuador

The world is Tim Hofmeister’s classroom and for 27 months there are no boundaries that he will not cross. The Columbus, Ind., native will depart on Jan. 26 for Ecuador to begin training as a secondary education English teacher and will train the local English teachers on new instruction methodologies to implement in the classroom. He will also work with community groups to create need-based development projects for his community and facilitate youth life-skills classes and professional development workshops. A graduate of the Grand Valley State University of Allendale, Mich., he shares below how he was inspired to serve.

What motivated you to join the Peace Corps?

The intercultural exchange between two people. I get to learn from Ecuadorians and they get to learn from me. Does it get any better than that? I want to improve the lives of others, as well as my own, by engaging with new people and communities. Joining the Peace Corps gives me the chance to teach Ecuadorian teachers and students English, as well as an incredible opportunity for me to improve my teaching and Spanish-speaking abilities. It’s a real win-win situation.

How did GVSU prepare you for your Peace Corps service?

I realized my true leadership potential, as well as the importance of making a difference in any community I am fortunate enough to be a part of. I would not have the opportunity to be in the Peace Corps without GVSU, my friends, family and role models.

What kinds of activities were you involved in at GVSU that will directly translate into your service in Ecuador?

At GVSU I got many leadership opportunities, from participating on the cross country and track teams, to being president of the Spanish Club, all the way to being part of organizations who better their communities in both the Dominican Republic and Peru. These opportunities not only gave me leadership experience, but also furthered my education with real-world applications in a Spanish-speaking environment.

What aspect of your service are you most excited about?

Although I did not specifically apply to Ecuador or have a favorite place or position, I couldn’t be more excited to go to a country with some of the world’s greatest biodiversity, culture and people. The informal education is what I’m most excited about. It’s truly amazing how much someone can learn outside the formal classroom. Frankly, the world is a classroom.

What are you hoping to gain from this experience?

From this experience I hope to become a better, savvier and mentally tougher person. The experience requires volunteers to be flexible, open-minded and to be problem solvers, and I am so excited to get the chance to use and improve these skills.

What professional goals do you hope to achieve during your service?

I hope to improve my Spanish speaking abilities, as well as my teaching skills. I’m also hoping to help the learners and the community somehow, someway. Although I am not sure how exactly I can accomplish that, it is definitely an aspiration of mine. I know I have a long way to go, but I am really excited for the next couple years!

Meet Your Peace Corps Recruiter: Bryce Rinkenberger

Name: Bryce Rinkenberger
Country of Service: Paraguay, 2011-2013
Assignment: Agriculture
Recruitment Territory: West Michigan

10 Things Gained from my Peace Corps Service

10. A Second Home
Before service I probably wouldn’t have selected Paraguay on my own, but over my two years there it became my home. The people, the food, my community, my house … I love it all. Not a day goes by that I don’t daydream about eating watermelon while sitting in my hammock on my front porch and chatting with my host brothers.

9. Value in my Education
I learned so much while studying crop and soil sciences at Michigan State University, but it was mostly theoretical. In Paraguay I grew my own food, got up in the early morning to work in my fields, and had to protect my crops from animals and other pests. Being able to bring all those concepts that I learned at MSU to reality in Paraguay provided real-life application for my education.

8. Friendship
My fellow volunteers from my training group are my best friends; they’re actually more like family. I talk to them almost every day. Peace Corps is a unique experience that binds people together. I also have a network of Paraguayan friends that had a huge impact in my life by sharing their lives with me, and luckily technology has made it possible to keep those relationships alive.

7. Technical Skills
Having a degree in crop science, I had never focused on the animal side of agriculture. While in Paraguay I learned the whole cycle, from raising to butchering, for a variety of livestock. I also learned how to use a machete and developed a real passion for building things out of bamboo. Peace Corps forces you to develop your resourcefulness and innovation.

6. Confidence
I had traveled to other countries alone before, but in Paraguay I was able to learn a new language and navigate without any trouble. One of my favorite memories is when a Paraguayan asked me for directions in Asuncion because they assumed I was a local. Finishing my service is an accomplishment that I’m very proud of, and it has had a profound impact on my confidence.

5. Flexibility
Peace Corps forces you to adapt and slow down. In the U.S., we are expected to pack our days full with tons of different activities and have something written on every day of our calendars. Volunteering in Paraguay taught me to listen, value down time, and really get to know people.

4. Fearlessness
After giving hour-long presentations in a language I barely spoke, I don’t allow myself to feel nervous about public speaking anymore. I lived among snakes, rats, and tarantulas. Getting on the bus to go to my site on my own for the first time is the scariest thing I have ever done, and it is going to take a lot to top that. Peace Corps gave me the opportunity to rise above what I thought I could do.

3. Clarity
Getting away from the influences and habits of home allowed me to get to know my true self. Living in Paraguay exposed who I really am as a person, what I like and dislike, and what motivates me. Getting an opportunity for that kind of clarity is rare, and one of the results of my service that I value the most.

2. Adventure
I lived in a very remote community—a six-mile hike from the nearest town. I often describe my experience as a dream. Occasionally I would see something like a sunset or do something really unique and it would wake me up and I would realize where I was and what I was doing. Every day was new, with new surprises and challenges.

1. Purpose
Peace Corps gave me the opportunity to get to know myself, practice my skills and better understand the world. It exposed the things that really matter: people, relationships, and appreciating every day. It transformed my whole attitude for life. Gone are the days of dragging myself out of bed to fall into a routine. Now that I’m back home, my life is all about embracing every day, pursuing challenges, and connecting with the people in my life.

Meet Your Peace Corps Recruiter: Jason Lemberg

“People join Peace Corps for many, many reasons. My reasoning for joining was really quite selfish. I was so turned to Peace Corps knowing it would allow me to experience the ups and downs of living in a foreign land, to learn a new language, and to really explore the caverns of my shifty mind.”
– July 8, 2006, Jason Lemberg, Peace Corps Blog

Name: Jason Lemberg
Country of Service: Kyrgyz Republic, 2006-08
Assignment: Secondary English Education
Recruitment Territory: Wisconsin

The above quote was written the day after I left for staging and the day before I departed for Kyrgyzstan. I had a vague idea at the time of how living and working in the mountains of Central Asia might affect me. That image, the idea of what it would mean to be a Peace Corps Volunteer, was shattered, reconstructed, and manipulated in so many ways during my service. It really depended on the week, or even the day, as to what my service meant to me and the effect it was having me. Nearly ten years now after that blog post was written above, I am just beginning to understand how influential my Peace Corps service was. I knew I would have two years of life changing experiences. I didn’t realize just how deep those changes would go; everything from the way I parent to the mode of transportation I take to work in the morning has been affected.

My inspiration to serve in Peace Corps was, as is quoted above, largely an attempt to explore who I was. I wanted to shake to the core (pun!) of my being and have to question my identity. During my junior year of undergraduate studies at Aurora University, I was fortunate to have participated in a semester-long study abroad trip called Semester at Sea. That experience (traveling to 10 different countries!) and the people I met (including a returned volunteer) sparked an interest into diving deeper into living and learning.  I wanted to become part of a community abroad and explore my identity anew as a community member in a new country, culture and language. In the end, my community—specifically my volunteer cohort and my host family—was the catalyst for my self-exploration.

The community I gained from Peace Corps is both frozen in time and evolving with me as I age. The people I met are memories of experiences and images from a distant time. The picture of Sezim in sunglasses and a hoodie; the school Halloween party that was a beautiful disaster; the moment I met Amy in Cholpon-Ata (a fellow volunteer whom I would eventually marry and start a family with); the three days of camping on the beach; the final hug from my host father (and the ensuing tears as I drove out of the village for a final time). All of these experiences are part of a larger story that is uniquely mine; a story that I constantly use as inspiration to become a better person today.

These same people are also very real part of my everyday life. From attending weddings of my returned volunteer group to Facebook chatting (in English!) with my host-sister, Nurila, I get to see my new friends and family grow and change, carrying with them the memories of our experience ten years ago. Some of these people I haven’t seen in years, others I see every few months. The commonality is that no matter the time or distance between us, we rarely need to spend much time catching up when we see each other. We are usually one good hug away from joking about vodka toasts or sharing stories as a parent. I am a better person because of them, my cohort, my counterparts, my host family; all of them. And without saying a word to any of them, they already know it.

My hope for anyone interested in Peace Corps is to be as lucky as I was to meet the people I did. The people are what gave meaning to my service and are what drive me to inspire other to serve in Peace Corps.