From IWU Magazine, Winter 2009-10
Story by TERESA SHERMAN ’09
On the day of her final farewell to the Ugandan village — and to the people who had
become her family — Sarah Cowan paused in front of the inauspicious concrete building
that stood as testament to more than two years of service. Behind the squat, gray-and-white
walls and colorfully painted world map around the door sits a collection of more than
6,000 books, their glossy covers smudged by the fingerprints of dozens of children.
Before Cowan, a 2005 Illinois Wesleyan graduate in music education, came to the small
village of Ssanje in April 2006, there wasn’t a library in the entire Rakai district
in south-central Uganda, an area covering almost 2,000 square miles.
In Ssanje, Cowan was assigned to a school funded by Children of Uganda, a non-profit
group created to help some of the nearly 2.4 million children in the country who have
lost one or both parents to HIV/AIDS, extreme poverty or civil conflict. Though the
remote location does not have electricity or running water, Cowan soon learned that
the teachers and leaders of Ssanje had a vision for their village’s future.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in a remote village in Uganda, Sarah Cowan helped residents
build a community center that includes a library and computers with Internet access.
“When they approached me with the idea for a community center, I jumped at the idea,”
says Cowan. “I had learned already that, for development to be maintained, it has
to come from the people.”
Cowan connected the Ssanje villagers with people from her life back home — family
and friends, fellow Illinois Wesleyan graduates and the Peace Corps support network
— and raised $12,000 needed to build the library.
When Cowan’s time as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) came to a close in November 2008,
Ssanje attained solar power, a few computers and Internet access, as well as a book
catalogue in the thousands.
Cowan’s sense of tangible accomplishment is the dream of thousands of Peace Corps
volunteers and applicants who have responded to the call to serve since the program’s
creation in 1961. That call is being heard louder than ever: this year, the Peace
Corps received its largest-ever recorded number of applicants. The majority of those
are recent college graduates.
One of those applicants is Emily Franzen, an education major nominated to serve in
French-speaking West Africa after her December 2009 graduation. As she anticipates
the radical changes to which she will need to adapt as a PCV, Franzen is also trying
to stay grounded in her expectations. “If I’m able to help just one classroom of students
improve their English language skills,” she says, “I know the two years away from
home will be time well spent.”
Still, Franzen doesn’t pretend to know what her service might be like. Indeed, every
volunteer experience is different, as Illinois Wesleyan’s long list of alumni-PCVs
In the past 10 years alone, dozens of IWU graduates have gone on to serve in Peace
Corps posts from Azerbaijan to Paraguay, from Northern to Sub-Saharan Africa. For
some, the experience was everything they’d hoped for; others left with feelings of
frustration at all that was left unaccomplished. For most, the experience has involved
adjusting to the realization that change is often difficult, and can take far longer
than the span of their two-year service.
. . .
“Time is fluid here, which makes sense considering the 130-degree heat,” observes
2007 alumna Marisa Van Osdale, a health-education volunteer in Senegal at the tail-end
of her service.
Van Osdale remains enthusiastic about her time in Goudoude Diobe — a village of 500
that lies four miles from a paved road — and she enjoys its stark contrast with her
former life in Illinois. “I take a horse cart in and out of the village once a week
to go into the city for market and Internet access,” says Van Osdale, who has no running
water or electricity in her concrete house.
Van Osdale knows she is still very privileged in comparison to those she serves. “Life
here is hard for the people not receiving care packages from friends and family.”
Hunger is a very real problem, she says, citing the skyrocketing price of rice and
a particularly bad rainy season. Poor water sanitation and related diseases such as
dysentery and malaria are threats year-round.
Prior to arriving in Senegal, the closest thing Van Osdale had seen to the level of
poverty in Goudoude Diobe was during a May Term trip to South Africa. But, she admits,
“By no means was I prepared.”
Despite its austere way of life, Osdale describes her village as a place “filled with
laughter, jokes, smiles and squeals of delight from children playing games.”
Like Cowan, Van Osdale measures her success by keeping a number of short-term goals.
Since her arrival, she has worked closely with teachers at the local primary school
and at a middle school in the nearby village of Thilogne. Unlike Uganda, education
is free in Senegal up to age 16. Government stipends go toward school supplies, clothing
and even housing costs for children who live too far away for daily travel.
“Girls’ education is at the forefront of every new development push,” adds Van Osdale.
In Senegal, only 15 percent of girls are able to go to secondary school. Yet those
who have been educated tend to have fewer and healthier babies later in life, take
more active roles in their communities and are better able to protect themselves against
HIV/AIDS and other diseases.
Each year, Peace Corps Senegal awards scholarships to female middle-school students
to continue their studies. Last year, there was enough money to distribute two scholarships
to a pair of children whom Van Osdale taught at the Thilogne middle school. “Both
girls had radiant smiles when I gave them their scholarships,” she says. The girls
plan to continue their schooling through college at the University of Dakar in Senegal’s
In the few months that remain in Van Osdale’s assignment, she says she looks forward
to continuing her work with the girls at the middle school, teaching primary school
children about basic sanitation, planting trees in the village and “letting people
know a little bit about real American culture.”
Though Van Osdale does miss her family and friends in the U.S., nothing can douse
the spirit of adventure that she wakes up to every morning, even on days when she
gets frustrated with the cows mooing at 5 a.m. “Interacting with the kids, talking
about resting and eating right with pregnant mothers and drinking traditional tea
with the villagers makes it all worthwhile,” she says.
. . .
Because of the length, difficulty and low financial reward for their service, the
question “Will it be worth it?” often weighs heavily on the minds of potential Peace
Hearing about the successes of volunteers like Cowan and Van Osdale is reassuring
to nominees like Franzen. But nagging doubts remain.
“As excited as I am about what I can accomplish as a teaching volunteer, it’s daunting
to think of how limited the resources are going to be,” says Franzen. “I’ve taught
in classrooms with ‘Smart Board’ technology,” she adds, referring to a popular interactive,
electronic whiteboard. “I know Peace Corps is going to be a major wake-up call.”
That wake-up call sounded loud and clear to Allison Bannerman ’07. The political science
major studied international issues while at IWU and planned to further her education
in law and international studies after her Peace Corps tour.
“I had my life pretty well mapped out when I graduated, and Peace Corps was a natural
fit — or at least that’s what I thought at the time,” says Bannerman.
In the fall of 2007, Bannerman started in-country training for the Peace Corps in
the Central Asian country of Kazakhstan. Five months later, she was back in her hometown
of Bainbridge Island, Wash.
Currently a law student at Washington University, she doesn’t regret her decision
to terminate her Peace Corps service early.
“Every assignment is different, and I realized almost immediately that mine wouldn’t
allow me to fulfill any of the reasons I wanted to join,” she says.
According to Bannerman, none of the programs she wanted to implement were possible
and the ones in place had deficiencies too steep to overcome.
“The tools I had available to me were not the tools I needed to meet my goals,” she
says. “I wasn’t the right person for the job and the job wasn’t the right one for
me. That realization was the final straw that made me leave.”
Resigning in the winter of 2008, Bannerman became one of an estimated 30 percent of
volunteers who choose not to complete their service each year. Still, Bannerman cites
many reasons why her shortened experience was worthwhile. She still keeps in touch
with friends she made through the Peace Corps and returned to Kazakhstan this summer
Most importantly, she says, “It taught me to be true to myself and the causes that
I’m most passionate about. Peace Corps isn’t a feel-good vacation. As a volunteer,
you have a responsibility to serve your community to the best of your abilities. If
you can’t offer that, you owe it to them and to yourself to rethink your commitment.”
. . .
Ryan Smith didn’t join the Peace Corps expecting to change the world.
“My service was a tiny, two year slice of a giant, 50-year development experiment,”
says Smith, who worked in Gambia to promote sustainable community development and
“When I lost sight of the big picture, I started feeling like I was just banging my
head against a wall.”
Leslie Coleman (above left) leads a field trip to a Gambian nature reserve with an
environmental club she and her husband Ryan Smith launched.
Smith’s wife and fellow 2007 IWU graduate Leslie Coleman experienced similar feelings
as a Peace Corps volunteer working with the ecotourism and research units of Gambia’s
Department of Parks and Wildlife Management. Every day, she says, was a balancing
act between succeeding on a “small-scale” and questioning her impact.
“Misuse of project funds was something that I was able to stop by speaking with my
supervisors,” Coleman says. “But, now that I’m gone, I don’t really have any doubt
that the corruption has resumed.”
Still, thanks to what Coleman describes as the passion, intelligence and dedication
of several Gambian coworkers, most of her projects reached fruition — though her assignment
was aborted early due to a medical condition Ryan suffered that could not be treated
Smith is healthy now, and he and Coleman are back to work as English teachers in Thailand.
Though proud of her PC service, Coleman admits that the experience made her less inclined
to pursue a career in international development.
“Every day I was faced with cultural differences — a lack of environmental concern,
non-democratic ideals and the inferior position of women — that seemed to me to run
too deep to change,” she says. “As an outsider, I felt my capacity to address them
Coleman says she was sometimes not taken as seriously at work as her husband, while
their Western gender roles often drew sharp comments from their neighbors.
“Some people thought I wasn’t a good wife because my husband helped cook, clean and
sweep the front porch. That’s something that the older generation will probably never
understand,” she says. “But when we heard it from young men, we just joked with them
about how they needed to learn to do the same, or else no young woman would want to
Coleman also recalls the weekly club for students that she and Ryan hosted where conversations
on social and environmental issues revealed how much Americans and Gambians shared
core cultural values.
“I learned so much from my students, just seeing the challenges they face growing
up as young Gambians,” says Coleman. “They made me think critically about many of
the assumptions I came here with.”
Looking back, Smith regards his initial reasons for joining the Peace Corps as fairly
selfish. “I wanted the challenge,” he says. “I wanted to learn a new language. I wanted
to see if I could go two years without the amenities we’re so used to. I wanted this
experience to make me a better person.”
Ultimately, what changed Smith was a lesson in selflessness.
Ryan Smith prepares a mixture for a mud stove with children from his host family in
“Many of the Gambians we lived with seemed to be of the mindset that they’re all but
ignored by the rest of the world,” he says. “But PCVs put their American lives to
work side by side with them in the fields. They eat out of the same bowl as local
families. I think that says to them, ‘You’re the ones who matter.’”
. . .
When the final countdown to Cowan’s departure from Uganda began, the people of Ssanje
held multiple parties and dances in her honor.
“They kept thanking me for everything I’d done for them,” she recalls, “but I couldn’t
make them realize that I was the one who should be grateful for all they had done
In her role as a music teacher in elementary schools in the Chicago suburbs, Cowan
presents pictures, stories and videos from her time in Uganda. Her stories inspire
students and fellow teachers to send books, school supplies and encouraging letters
to the children of Ssanje.
Likewise, Cowan says that fellow PCVs who have also returned home continue to offer
friendship and support. “It’s really an experience that everyone involved carries
with them for a lifetime.”
Illinois Wesleyan PCVs make it a special point to keep in touch, Coleman adds. “The
class of 2007 is really active.” During her time in Gambia, she and Smith met up with
alumnae like Van Osdale and Jessica Scates in Senegal for a PCV softball tournament.
“It was really enlightening to compare our experiences,” says Coleman.
According to Franzen, even those just considering joining are invited into the PC
alumni community. “I’ve gotten to talk with so many volunteers, most of them IWU alums.
They’ve all shared really great advice,” Nevertheless, Franzen has a difficult time
imagining life as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa. “I have this image of myself
standing on the porch of a thatched hut, looking out into the jungle and thinking,
‘What the hell am I doing here?’” she says.
The idea is both terrifying and thrilling to Franzen, who looks forward to experiencing
what she describes as the “Peace Corps dualities” — teaching and being taught, wrestling
with prejudice and facing her own, failing miserably and succeeding wildly.
The author of this story, Teresa Sherman, graduated from Illinois Wesleyan in 2009
as an English-writing and history double major. She is now a Peace Corp volunteer
teaching English in the Agstafa region of northwestern Azerbaijan.
Click here to visit the Peace Corps home page.