by Ama Debrah
If you feel like graduation is rapidly approaching and you’re looking for after-graduation plans, or just an under-class(wo)man just freaking about the future in general, here’s a look at becoming a member of the Peace Corps. BC senior Cattie Rolfe will be heading to Panama with the Peace Corps this spring, and I was able to ask her a few questions about what the application process was like and what she expects to gain from her time abroad.
What made you first interested in joining the Peace Corps?
I first heard about the Peace Corps when I did a summer volunteer trip in Ecuador. I was teaching English in a town on the coast, and our group’s leader had recently finished her Peace Corps service in Ecuador. Her passion and dedication to service really inspired me. On top of that, I really loved teaching English to kids in school and in adult community classes, and I’ve tried to make it a part of my life ever since.
What specifically will you be doing in Panama?
I’ll be teaching English! I won’t know more specifics until I finish my in-country training. While teaching English will be my main project, I’m also really excited about possibly working with the Muchachas Guias, an organization kind of like the Girl Scouts of America.
I went on two month-long summer service trips to foreign countries (Ecuador, and then Ghana) during college, and both increased my interest in the Peace Corps. From these experiences, I knew that I really liked traveling to volunteer, and that I flourish in new environments—so I think that made me pretty confident as an applicant. Apart from that, I’ve been a volunteer English teacher with Columbia Community Impact and other groups on and off for the last couple of years. I also took on a leadership role in my sorority to manage our organization’s service and philanthropy. So I think all of those things helped to strengthen my application and demonstrate my passion for service.
What was the application process like? For example, how early did you start the application process, were you able to pick where you wanted to go and what you wanted to do, etc.
The Peace Corps recommends that you start the application process about a year before you would like to ideally leave for service, so I started my application in October 2011. I filled out a pretty exhaustive, comprehensive online form about my academics, experience and health concerns (not unlike the college application process), and submitted a few essays about why I wanted to serve. The Peace Corps lets you request a region of the world in which you’d like to serve, but they warn you that those requests can’t always be honored. I don’t recall ever requesting a particular project. A month after submitting my online application, I was called in to the local Peace Corps office here in the city for an interview. About a month after that, I received an email saying that they couldn’t match me with a program leaving in the fall and had deferred me to trips that were leaving in early 2013. This actually worked out really well, since I ended up taking my spring 2012 semester off and coming back to graduate in fall 2012 (this semester) instead. In the spring, I was assigned to teach ESL in Central or South America, and then over the summer submitted all of my medical paperwork. Finally, in November I received and accepted an offer to serve in Panama, for a project beginning in February 2013.
What challenges do you expect to face when transitioning to Panama?
I expect to get pretty homesick at some point during my service. I’ve loved my past experiences volunteering abroad, but those were never more than 5 weeks long. 27 months is a very long time to be away from family and friends, not to mention your native culture. I know it isn’t going to be easy, but I plan to just focus on my service and make the most of this truly unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience.
What are you most excited about accomplishing from your time with the Peace Corps?
I’m really excited to be fluent in Spanish. I love learning languages, and I think Spanish skills will be an important asset for me both during my service and after it ends. I’m also, obviously, very excited to contribute to positive change in Panama. I really hope I can make an impact on the lives of the people in my community and help them work towards their goals, even if they’re not related to learning English. I’m hoping to travel and explore Panama, as well as Colombia and Costa Rica if I can.
Ama is a junior at Barnard and the Features and On Campus Editor for The Nine Ways of Knowing.