Life as a Volunteer prepared alumnae for “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love”
When Erin Schwie Langston graduated from the University of Tennessee in 2000, she didn’t start working at an entry-level job or jump into graduate school. But she did put her international studies coursework to good use—with the Peace Corps.
Always independent, Langston said, “It wasn’t very surprising to my family and friends that I made that decision [to join the Peace Corps] and followed through with it.”
Langston began the application process during her junior year at UT, interviewed the fall of her senior year, and was ultimately offered her choice of two potential assignments: water sanitation in Morocco or public health education in Honduras.
“I had already studied French and wanted to learn Spanish,” Langston said. She chose Honduras.
UT alumna Leah Dove (‘06) chose Costa Rica for her service in the Peace Corps—or, rather, Costa Rica chose her.
“The application process is long,” Dove said, “but the reason is because the Peace Corps is being thorough. They want to place you somewhere that you are meant to be.” Dove just began her two-year Peace Corps term of service in 2009, but she already feels like she belongs in Costa Rica.
“So far, my Peace Corps experience has been awesome!” she said. Dove said she has surprised and impressed herself by learning Spanish quickly, and she’s beginning to embrace the Costa Rican culture of pura vida, or “pure life.”
“Costa Ricans are such happy-go-lucky people, always positive and ready with a smile!” Dove said. “The attitude of this country is tranquilo… No one is stressed; no one is worried. It’s a very calm and happy place to live. The locals in my town have really taught me a lot about that.”
That’s an important point: that the “teaching” in the Peace Corps goes both ways. While in Honduras, Langston focused on teaching public health—“basic public health,” she said, “things like boiling water.” She also took on other projects, though, like a literacy program and youth development, particularly with girls and young women. “There’s still a strong machismo culture,” Langston explained. “I formed a girls leadership club to foster self-esteem and leadership, to open their eyes to what they could do.”
Dove has been helping teach English classes at the local high school in Piedades Sur, Costa Rica, and she has offered free English classes to others in the community. Her official title is “micro-enterprise advisor,” and she’s helping people with their small businesses. “For example, I’m helping a man who has his own little shampoo business. He makes shampoo from plants in his garden, and I’m helping him create labels for the containers for better marketing,” she explained. Dove has plans eventually to start a recycling program and a Girl Scout troop as well.
Though service in the Peace Corps is overwhelmingly beneficial and rewarding, it can also be just plain overwhelming.
“It’s not easy being a 22-year-old girl, dropped in middle of a foreign community,” Langston said. “And you’re the only one around, and you have to figure out where to live, what to eat, how to make a call if you get access to a phone…”
But Langston said, if she had it to do over again, she would in a heartbeat. In fact, she and her husband, Bill (‘00), have even discussed the possibility of applying for an assignment together down the road, after retirement.
“Going to college at Tennessee—we’re the Volunteers!” said Langston. “So volunteering and giving back, that’s such an integral part of life.
“The motto of the Peace Corps is ‘the toughest job you’ll ever love,’ and it’s true,” she continued. “Nine years removed, there are still a lot of lessons that I’m figuring out from that time. I learned a lot about myself, that I’m a passionate person. And about standing up for what I believe in, and helping those who don’t have their own voice. I learned a lot about my independence and what I’m capable of.”
Langston is one of approximately 470 UT alumni who are returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and Dove is among approximately 30 UT alumni who are current Peace Corps Volunteers. UT Knoxville is the No. 1 school in Tennessee—as well as the No. 4 school in the Southeast and No. 98 school in the nation—for producing Peace Corps Volunteers.
To learn more about the Peace Corps, visit www.peacecorps.gov, or contact the Peace Corps Office in UT’s Center for International Education at 865-974-3177.
—Leigh Powell and Rebekah Winkler