To teach, to learn

"Nowhere is the profile of the best of American youth better drawn than in our Peace Corps volunteers ... (who) clearly recognize their obligation to their country and to mankind."

-President John F. Kennedy, message to Congress, Feb. 14, 1963.

By Donna Lenz Wright/The Week

(Published September 14, 2006, 10:08 a.m.)

"I expect to totally be changed," says Sara Miller.

Miller, 23, of Genoa City, leaves Monday for a two-year mission with the Peace Corps in the small village of The, in Senegal, Africa.

"This was a really big decision," Miller said. "But I feel that I'm doing the right thing."

Peace Corps volunteers have been donating two or more years of their lives to work with communities worldwide in need since 1960. Today in Africa, there are just over 100 volunteers who work mainly in the areas of education, health and HIV/AIDS, business development, agriculture and the environment.

Senegal has a relatively stable political climate, a free society and democratic institutions, according to the Peace Corps Web site.

The Peace Corps has been working closely there since 1963, yet it ranks among the least-developed countries in the world. One of its biggest problems is the 25-year-and-counting drought. About 70 percent of the population makes their living in agriculture but the industry represents less that 25 percent of the gross domestic product.

Miller first heard about the Peace Corps from a television commercial while in college at UW-LaCrosse, she said.

"At about the same time we had a guest speaker talk on campus. Right away I knew this was something I wanted to do."

Although Sara graduated with a degree in archeology, her first career goal was medicine.

"I wanted to be doctor to save people's lives," she recalls. "But as I got older I knew I didn't want to be around all of that blood and stuff. So I thought this is a way I can help people for the rest of their lives and have a positive influence on the world."

Sara's Peace Corps assignment is in agriculture, something new to her.

"I never studied agriculture in college," she said. "I can look at landscape and interpret how it could have been used, but that's about it."

But that's OK because she will be going through three months of intensive training for her assignment, mainly in teaching the farmers irrigation and farming techniques, "using better techniques in how to get more output for less input," she said.

"The biggest problem is that they're in the midst of a 25-year drought. So I'll be working to raise money for water tanks and whatever else they're going to need."

The language barrier is another obstacle Sara will need to overcome.

"During my training, I'll be studying the technical stuff and also the language," she said. "They speak French, but 65 percent of the population speaks Wolos, their tribal language."

While she has studied French since her high school days, Wolos is a little more of a concern. So, she's has been studying that since she received her assignment last Christmas.

"For the two years that I'm there, I'm going to be in a very remote community and they probably will not have gone to school, so I'll really need to get fluent with Wolos."

After her training, Sara will be going alone to live with her host family in The.

"I'll have my own room, but I'll share meals and learn about the culture through them. Then I'll try to integrate myself into the community the best I can."

But Sara isn't as concerned about the living conditions as she is about her impact on the community she hopes to serve well.

"I really hope that what I teach them will still be effective when I leave and for a long time afterward," she said. "I'll be their leader for two years, but this is the rest of their lives."

Sara's determination and strong desire to make the world a better place firsthand will most assuredly bring her hopes to reality.

After Sara's two years in Africa, she plans to attend graduate school to study marine archeology. Her dream school is the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, but an American coastal school would do too, she said.

After that, she sees herself traveling globally in her archeological career with her first stop being African digs.

There is so much to look forward to, but today is the last day Sara will be spending in Wisconsin for a long time.

Her friends have been very supportive, telling her to be careful, have fun and write often, she said. But her parents' support has been second-to-none.

"My parents have been great," she said. "They just want me to be happy. They've raised me good and aren't holding me back.

"I know it's going to be so worth it."

 

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