The view from Suzanne DeTar’s home in Kamabia, Sierra Leone. Suzanne DeTar | Courtesy

From Namibia, a small country in Southern Africa, to Sichuan Province in South­western China, to Sierra Leone in West Africa, Hillsdale’s 2019 grad­uates jour­neyed far and wide to promote peace, build cul­tural bridges, and teach. 

Erin Fla­herty, Nathanael Cheng, and Suzanne DeTar all embarked on two-year service tours with the U.S. Peace Corps, during which they will com­plete a three month training program and lan­guage immersion course. At the end of training, all three Hillsdale grads will be left com­pletely alone to use what lan­guage skills they have developed to build com­munity, teach lan­guage, and develop friend­ships. 

Though she has only just arrived in Namibia, Fla­herty has become familiar with simple phrases in each of the coun­tries’ 15 lan­guages. The national lan­guage is English, but Fla­herty studies a tribal lan­guage called Oshin­donga. 

Moti­vated more by a desire to explore culture and lan­guage than teach English, Fla­herty dreamed of joining the Peace Corps since high school. But, she agreed to get a college degree before globe trekking. 

“I realized how much I love learning cul­tures, and how much I wanted to join the Peace Corps, and then I got an invi­tation to Namibia. Everyone’s first reaction was ‘where is Namibia,”’ Fla­herty said with a laugh. 

“But the more I looked into it, the more it seemed really cool.”

Inter­spersing her crash courses in Oshin­donga, Flaherty’s training ses­sions also included lessons in teaching. 

“I had never thought about being a teacher before, but I am going to learn to do it,” Fla­herty said with uncon­tainable optimism. 

DeTar, sta­tioned in Kamabia, Sierra Leone as a Biology and Chem­istry teacher, is also studying tribal lan­guage, but, unlike Fla­herty, she has to learn three: Krio, Limba, and Mandingo. 

“Tribal lan­guages are quite hard to learn because they are not written, they’re only verbal,” DeTar said. “There is no set of gram­matical rules that we can simply follow, so fig­uring out how to for­mulate intel­ligent sen­tences is a bigger chal­lenge than I antic­i­pated.” 

For Cheng, who is based in Sichuan Province, lan­guage is less of an issue. Having studied Man­darin, he only had to brush up his skills and accent upon arriving in China. 

“I was inter­ested in learning more about Chinese culture, including Man­darin. Also, China is a pretty important country, and the oppor­tunity to teach stu­dents and serve in that capacity is very attractive to me,” Cheng said. “I thought it would be a good oppor­tunity to give back in some way.” 

Once they reach their place­ments, Cheng, Fla­herty, and DeTar won’t get monthly pay­checks, but the Peace Corps pro­vides a stipend that allows them to live in a manner com­pa­rable to the people they are serving. 

Fla­herty, who just fin­ished training, doesn’t yet know what her living con­di­tions will be like, but Cheng will not be unfa­miliar or uncom­fortable in his. He teaches English at Chongqing Normal Uni­versity, which pro­vides accom­mo­da­tions. 

“It is a pretty nice apartment,” Cheng said. “In other Peace Corps coun­tries, the con­di­tions are a lot less developed. I have an apartment, kitchen, bathroom, and air con­di­tioning.” 

His biggest chal­lenge is not the standard of living but cul­ti­vating respect from his stu­dents. Since he only just grad­uated in the spring, he is about the same age as the stu­dents he is teaching. However, he said his liberal arts edu­cation at Hillsdale pre­pared him by devel­oping his critical thinking and cre­ativity. “I have taken a lot of classes in the German department, par­tic­u­larly with Dr. Nauman. I really like the way he taught German and lan­guage, I will apply a lot of those tech­niques,” Cheng said. 

DeTar lives in one of those “other Peace Corps coun­tries” Cheng said. Her small, two bedroom home has no running water, so DeTar carries buckets of water to an outdoor latrine/washroom to shower. Tra­di­tionally, cooking in Kambia is done with coal pots over an outside fire, so DeTar watches the African sunrise and sunset each morning from her veranda while siz­zling up her breakfast and dinner. 

Being one of the few white women in Kambia, DeTar also attracts certain unwanted attention. She said that she has received at least one mar­riage pro­posal a day since she arrived, but hopes that as she becomes a fixture of the village, the attention will subside.  

But within her role as a science teacher, DeTar said that she hopes to bring some of the Western teaching method­ology into the classroom. 

“My main goal is to teach critical thinking skills to the stu­dents,” DeTar said. “The edu­cation system here does not enforce critical thinking and therefore the stu­dents just practice brute mem­o­rization to pass their exams. I hope to guide them to a more sci­en­tific approach to real life sce­narios. That is, ask ques­tions, think of a pos­sible hypothesis, try out their hypothesis and adjust as needed.” 

But beyond each chal­lenge and lan­guage barrier, all three vol­un­teers share a similar desire to spend the next two years exchanging culture and friendship with their com­mu­nities.