Peace Corps Stories

Peace Corps Stories

From Africa to South America and beyond, UCF students and alumni are working to improve the world as Peace Corps volunteers.

When UCF campus Peace Corps recruiter Carlos Rojas, ’11, tells students about the impact they can make by volunteering with the global service organization, his pitch is simple: “It’s gold.”

“What you know as an undergrad can go a long way in an impoverished country,” he explains. “[Peace Corps volunteers] become the liaisons of information from the outside world.”

Rojas, a former Peace Corps volunteer with a bachelor’s degree in political science, spreads the word about these opportunities in monthly campus meetings and classroom visits. About 35 UCF students are selected for the program annually, a little more than half of the applicants. A simplified application that offers students greater influence over their deployment destinations has increased interest, he says. “We target classes where the Peace Corps would be relevant to the degree,” Rojas says. “A lot of education majors want to teach abroad, so the Peace Corps fits into that goal. In health care, the Peace Corps allows [students] to apply theories learned in the classroom to the real world. For students who want to go to graduate school, it provides real-life experiences to add to their academic research.”

Such experiences abound in his and others’ stories within the Knight community.

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Jeremy Cahill
Jeremy Cahill
Jeremy Cahill
Heidi Jo
Heidi Jo
Heidi Jo Bartlett
Heidi Jo
Johnathon
Johnathon

Heidi Jo Bartlett, ’15, used familiar pop stars and TV characters from the U.S. to teach English in Santa Marta, Colombia.

The Colombian teachers applauded Barlett’s innovative method of using popular American song lyrics to teach grammar lessons.

To achieve a true cultural immersion, Bartlett embraced the local customs of her Colombian hosts. 

“The culture is different. You learned to work around things, so it was a good experience in resilience.” — Heidi Jo Bartlett, ’15

Johnathon French, ’07, spent three years in Moldova, a destination he had longed to explore.

During his assignment, French taught English in middle schools, colleges and retirement homes.

“I learned to integrate into another culture. It’s empathy, really.” — Johnathon French, ’07

Through play Jeremy Cahill bonded with his students in Madagascar, where he taught English.

To communicate successfully, Cahill learned 16 dialects of the local Malagasy language.

“It was chalk and a chalkboard and 70 students. It was a chance to experience what works, what doesn’t work.” — Jeremy Cahill

Finding a Home in Cameroon

For Rojas, the Peace Corps answered his big question about life after college: “What did I want to do?” He says, “I wanted to see the world; I wanted to learn new languages; I wanted to help people. In the Peace Corps, I could do all of that.”

Rojas volunteered in a remote village in the western African nation of Cameroon, where he taught English and Spanish to children and adults.

“You travel two hours deep into the desert,” he says. “Then, out of nowhere, this deep, lush village opens up. The culture is almost completely communal, an approach to life I wasn’t accustomed to.” He also helped villagers with farming, health tips and business ideas. In one memorable instance, he introduced a deaf student to sign language. “It was like giving this man the [winning] lottery ticket,” says Rojas. “He told me, ‘Wow, this is my language!’ … It was changing his life.” During his service, Rojas was able to immerse himself in the region’s Fula language and culture and learn to cook, a skill he had generally avoided. “You go in there as a volunteer, and it feels like you’re there for work or vacation, but at some point, it stops feeling like that,” he says. “It starts feeling like you’re at home.”

Teaching with “The Simpsons” in Colombia

Even in a foreign land, there are glimpses of home. While teaching English in Santa Marta, Colombia, Heidi Jo Bartlett, ’15, discovered that her most valuable instructional tools were familiar pop stars and TV characters from the U.S. “American songs are very popular,” Bartlett says. “All the fourth- and fifth-grade girls really loved One Direction. I had to look them up. And my host [family] brother would watch ‘The Simpsons.’”

Bartlett, who recently earned her master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at UCF, used song lyrics as a foundation for grammar lessons. She played scenes from popular American movies and TV shows to illustrate how people interact. “I wanted to make it more real, to show that people actually use [language this way],” says Bartlett. And the Colombian teachers she assisted reacted positively to her innovative methods. “They were happy that I was able to give them different ideas about what can make class interesting.

“The culture is different,” says Bartlett, adding that afternoon siestas are routine, and it’s not unusual to cancel classes for bad weather. “You learned to work around things, so it was a good experience in resilience.”

Bridging a Cultural Gap in Moldova

During his time in the eastern European country of Moldova, Johnathon French, ’07, taught English in middle schools, colleges and retirement homes, an assignment that altered his preconceived notions about Peace Corps service. “You always have this idea of living in a hut, although that wasn’t my experience at all,” says French, who is currently pursuing a master’s degree in TESOL. “Still, there’s this romantic idea of giving up everything to help other people.”

French spent three years in a nation that borders Romania, a destination he had longed to explore. “I’ve had a fascination with Romanian culture and language since I was a child,” he says. “I’ve always wanted some reason to go there, to study there.” His host family drilled him in proper Romanian language, which they used to discuss their cultural differences. French hopes to develop educational programs for nonprofit organizations abroad, a career that will be bolstered by his Peace Corps experience. “I learned to integrate into another culture,” he says. “It’s empathy, really. You’re struggling to survive — to speak in a foreign language every day. I know what that’s like.”

Testing Theories on a Chalkboard in Madagascar

Before graduate student Jeremy Cahill could teach English to high school students in Madagascar, he had to learn 2 dialects of Malagasy, the language of his students. “Aside from it being a show of respect, it allows you to form relationships with people and become part of the community yourself,” says Cahill, who is completing his master’s degree in TESOL. He explains, “You’re not an outsider. You’re living there for two years.

“There were so many people who helped me with so many things,” says Cahill, who returned to his graduate classes at UCF with real-life teaching examples that expand on his academic research. “They helped me with my classes, invited me into their homes. I ended up getting more help than I ever gave.

“It was chalk and a chalkboard and 70 students,” he says. “It was a chance to experience what works, what doesn’t work. What are my strengths? What are my weaknesses? Now that I’m studying the theories of learning languages, it has really helped me a lot because I have that experience to draw on.”

Images courtesy of Heidi Jo Bartlett, ’15; Jeremy Cahill; and Johnathon French, ’07