Naim Edwards, an EEB Frontiers master’s student, spent two years in the Peace Corps before he came to the University of Michigan. This is his summary of the life-changing experience:
I was inspired to join the Peace Corps because there were three things I really wanted to do that I did not take advantage of during my undergraduate years and wanted to complete before "moving on" to more career-oriented goals or graduate school. These three things were:
- Live abroad: Get out of the United States to experience the world and life without the U.S. culture, government, and English language. To some extent, I also wanted to be a positive representation of a U.S. citizen abroad.
- Volunteer: community service projects are fulfilling and rewarding, but for me were sporadic and ephemeral. Peace Corps would allow me to focus two years on actively and consistently motivating myself to participate in a foreign community, with a persistent intent to contribute to improving the local environment.
- Become a world citizen: This is simply a euphemism for gaining fluency in a foreign language and integrating into a foreign culture. The opportunity to learn to effectively communicate with people in their native tongue and the opportunity to immerse myself in a foreign culture was extraordinarily appealing to me. I also wanted to be exposed to the poverty and living conditions people in less developed countries deal with on a daily bases and in many cases, their whole lives.
While in Ecuador, I served as a Natural Resource Conservation volunteer. I volunteered in three sectors of a relatively affluent town in the southern transitional zone – a beautiful town called Zaruma.
- Tourism: In the tourism office, I translated and helped design promotional materials and the tourism website from Spanish to English. I contributed photos for brochures, gave tours to visitors who spoke English but not Spanish, and attended tourism fairs to promote travel to Zaruma.
- Coffee growing: Through Zaruma's Environmental Administration, I got involved with the building and maintenance of a coffee plant nursery. Here I provided mostly manual labor and helped concoct a natural fertilizer for the plants. I helped construct plant beds, prepare soil, transplant seeds, weed, and irrigate the coffee plants. After four months, the municipality and other supporting organizations gave over 100,000 coffee plants to local coffee farmers to promote organic coffee farming in the region.
- Education and public schools: I spent extensive time working in public schools. My first project was writing, directing, and organizing a 20-minute play about the history and culture of Zaruma with a group of about 30 fifth graders. I also taught basic English for a few months, but the most enjoyable aspect of working in schools was teaching biology and managing an organic vegetable garden at one of the high schools. Here, I taught students about the value of not littering, climate change, fresh water, biodiversity, and they had the opportunity to work outside with plants. I also worked with a group of four young students gardening and volunteering at a nursing home. Lastly, I worked with the senior class to establish an orchid garden of about 80 plants. The project turned out to be my primary legacy, as the seniors decided to name the orchid garden after me, and the garden is still being maintained by the school today.
Outside of work I also engaged in social activities and a fair amount of travel around the country. I participated in the Patrimonial Festivals and danced with a group in a parade throughout the town!
My 26 months in Ecuador were the most enlightening years of my adult life, thus far. From religion, to social issues, government and education, I developed a new perspective and direction in life. The experience definitely highlighted the value of education and how powerful knowledge and consciousness are. This led to me being more proactive in applying to and planning to attend graduate school.
The Peace Corps opened my eyes to a world that I believe the "West" and United States, in particular, have profoundly impacted from exploitation, globalization, and climate change. I desire to play a part in not simply protecting the environment, but also cultures, which are lost when schools only offer English, and KFC and MacDonald's spread and change the diets of communities around the world. The experience also helped me put things in perspective back here in the states; our education system and government are pretty darn good, but there is much room for improvement.
When I left Ecuador, I left a home and a people who I can consider family. I carry with me memories and a vision for what the future can hold, as well as an awareness that the world is much bigger than what we see in our daily lives. There are people who are underprivileged: poor, starving, dying of curable diseases. The majority of our world does not enjoy the privileges that we enjoy, and this gives reason to live more humbly, strive to improve the lives of others, and be thankful for the blessings we enjoy. Still, it was inspiring to see that even though many people live in harsh conditions, whether they realize how hard life is and how better off others live, they still find time to laugh, smile, and love their family. With all of this in mind, I try to work hard, remain cognizant of others, and strive to make the world more just and fair.