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.