Alumna returns to recruit for Peace Corps

Peace Corps volunteers serve others and their country, and in that process they undergo an unforgettable and life­changing experience.
Recruiters for the Peace Corps visited South Dakota State University last Tuesday in order to promote this experience and to encourage students to think about the organization after graduation.

Heather Mangan, a 2007 SDSU graduate, 2010­2013 Peace Corps volunteer to Niger and Lesotho and public affairs specialist for the Peace Corps Midwest Regional Office in Chicago, joined Peace Corps recruiters on their visit to SDSU.
Mangan said she wanted to join in on the recruitment endeavor because she felt SDSU students would make great volunteers.

“I personally think South Dakotans would make such great volunteers because of our work ethic and we’re really friendly people and are really interested in getting to know people,” Mangan said, “and I really think that that’s kind of how South Dakotans are and the type of people we need [in the Peace Corps].”

Mangan’s experience with the Peace Corps started a few years after she graduated from SDSU.
“I was out of college for a couple years and I personally felt like it was a good time and I wanted to travel, wanted to kind of get new experiences … and then just really wanted to go into the world and do something big—something bigger than myself—I wanted to give something,” Mangan said. “I wanted to know that I was contributing in some big way, and for me, that was the Peace Corps.
Mangan was originally sent to Niger for her first volunteer service, but was sent home after six months because of terrorist activity in the country. In 2010, she applied again and was assigned to be a secondary education volunteer in Lesotho.
Through both of her experiences in Niger and Lesotho, Mangan found that building relationships was her favorite thing about the Peace Corps.
“It’s … the friendships and the relationships you build,” Mangan said. “Whether that’s my host family who took me in and treated me like a daughter – I was not someone who lived with them, I was a member of their family – or … knowing that you made an impact in someone’s life, not by doing something big, but just by your presence, I think is the best part of my experience as a volunteer, and I truly feel that Lesotho is not just a place I lived in for two years, it’s my home now.”
Mangan also said that relationships are a key focus of the Peace Corps’s mission.

“The Peace Corps is about making a difference in the lives of the people we serve,” Mangan said. “It’s very much about creating relationships and friendships and closing the gap between cultures and really proving to ourselves and to people that we can go back and share these stories that we’re all humans—that we all love, we all cry; we’re all sad, we’re all happy—that we’re all the same.”

Guljemal Mammetmyradova, a freshman early childhood education major, is originally from Turkmenistan and had the opportunity to experience the Peace Corps from another perspective. Mammetmyradova said that through her experience with a Peace Corps volunteer she was able to learn about America through another outlet, other than social media.

“She [Peace Corps volunteer, Kera Halverson,] was from America and she was my and my family’s first experience with someone from America,” Mammetmyradova said. “Kera gave us the chance to know the real America.”
Mammetmyradova stayed in contact with Halverson through email after her service was over. She told Halverson that she wanted to come to America, and so Halverson encouraged her to contact the American Embassy in Turkmenistan to get a visa. Halverson also suggested SDSU as a school for Mammetmyradova to attend.

The Peace Corps program in Mammetmyradova’s town is no longer running, but Mammetmyradova still believes that the Peace Corps is helpful for other countries.
“They also learn the things that I learned and they also have chances like Turkmen people had to know everything about the USA, people and their life here,” Mammetmyradova said. Mangan agreed with Mammetmyradova, saying, “People in other cultures, a lot of the things they know about the U.S. is they think of things like Jay Z and Beyoncé, or the military. They don’t know what it’s like to be a regular [American] like you and I, and so when we can go and show them and be friends with them, they start to see that Americans really do care about people in far away places, people in impoverished countries, and that makes them feel special, that they really do matter.”
Another SDSU graduate, Aaron Merchen, volunteered in the Peace Corps from 2010­2012 in Cambodia. Merchen’s site was a village with about 200 people where he taught 10
th and 11th grade English with a co­teacher.
“I really appreciated the opportunity to get to know one certain culture and community and country,” Merchen said. “The more I got to know it the more it meant to me afterward.”
In addition to Merchen’s work in English, he also developed textbooks for English and developed a conference on gender education, educating young men on the gender gap in Cambodia.

“One great thing about the Peace Corps is that your experiences and resume up to the point gets you in the Peace Corps, but by no means restricts you for what you’ll be doing in the Peace Corps,” Merchen said. “Even if your assignment is like an English teacher of microfinance, you can find what you’re passionate about and meet the needs of your community.”
Merchen said he was also thankful for the perspective he gained from his experience.
“It gave me an appreciation not just for things I took for granted but also appreciation for how far people are able to stretch a dollar or how much people can have in their lives when they have very little,” Merchen said. “It’s a good reminder day in and day out.”
Mangan also found that she was changed by her experience in the Peace Corps in a similar way.
“I think I’m better at slowing down and paying attention to what’s really important,” she said. “I think just focusing on human interaction and what’s important in life and being more attuned to those things in life. It’s more about having a greater sense of what’s important and trying to remember that in the things I do.”
Although Mangan and Merchen were out of the “professional world” for a few years, both found ways to stay professionally current during their service.
Merchen said that volunteers should “lay some groundwork before you leave, stay in touch with people in the know and make contacts in the country you’re serving in.”
“Peace Corps as a brand is very well recognized and respected … but in terms of staying relevant professionally, it looks great on your resume and it’s also a known entity,” Merchen said. “And so you’re not really taking yourself out of the game for two years, you’re more investing in a step in your career.”
Because Mangan was a journalist, she kept a weekly blog and wrote a bi­monthly column for her home newspaper. She also found that she gained skills in the Peace Corps such as communication and leadership skills.
Mangan said that for those in other professions, the Peace Corps is a good opportunity to work on professional skills.
“If you want to go into public health, Peace Corps is a great start because you get hands­on experience immediately,” she said. “It’s the same with agriculture, or if you want to be a teacher you have in­classroom experience, and so you can use those things.”
Mangan said that public health, teaching, engineering and agriculture were some of the highest volunteering positions in demand, especially agriculture.
“I really think agriculture is a huge importance in the developing world,” Mangan said. “They [residents in the countries where Peace Corps serves] really want the [agricultural] knowledge

… and I think the Peace Corps is a huge opportunity, specifically in agriculture, to go over and help farmers to do things more efficiently, to help them produce better results. And they really want that.”
Abby Evans, a senior agronomy major, will be leaving Sept. 25, 2015 for Senegal in West Africa to work with sustainable agriculture.

“I’ve always wanted to travel and get around, and mostly just help people,” Evans said. “I got into agriculture because I grew up on a farm, but I went into it to improve the sustainability and food security of other countries, and mostly in Africa.”
Evans said she is excited for the experience and is thankful for former volunteers in the community who can help her understand what’s going on in the process.

“Everyone’s super open about talking to you about what’s going to happen,” Evans said. “I’m excited to go to a different country and learn new culture and help them out.”
Evans said that she believes the Peace Corps is a great opportunity for people because there are “so many opportunities to get out and serve.”

“People would be more willing to do it if they just knew about it,” Evans said.
Since July 2014, the Peace Corps launched a new application process which, according to Mangan, makes the application process much more transparent. Applying today would mean six to nine months before a volunteer’s departure, rather than waiting almost a year for volunteers such as Mangan and Merchen.
Volunteers are now able to select a preferred country or job as well. With these changes the Peace Corps has seen a spike in its volunteer applications.
According to Mangan, the most popular destinations are coastal and tropical countries, as well as Easter Europe and Latin America.
For those considering the Peace Corps, Merchen also sat on the decision of whether or not to join and encourages others to think about the possibility.
“When I was thinking about the Peace Corps and nervous about two years’ worth of a salary … I thought, South Dakota’s still going to be there,” Merchen said. “You’ll get home—there might be a new Mexican restaurant and it’s delicious and you might have missed that, but that’s the best thing and the best reason to do it because your family will still be there, your friends will still be there, South Dakota will be there. … Don’t worry about missing out … it’s really just a blink of an eye that lasts a lifetime.”