The Adventure of a Lifetime

The Adventure of a Lifetime

By Laura L. Acosta

Whenever Pamela Lizette Cruz turns on the water faucet in her home, she thinks of her adopted family in Zamblala, a rural village in the country of Mali.

 For nearly a year, Cruz, a volunteer in the U.S. Peace Corps, lived with a host family in the small West African village where access to clean water and sanitation is almost nonexistent.  

Families fetched water for drinking, cooking and washing from hand-dug wells that were topped with rocks, rotting planks and old tires. The lack of infrastructure created a breeding ground for mosquitos, bacteria and other pollutants.

Before Mali, Cruz planned to serve in a Latin American country when she joined the Peace Corps in June 2011. But that changed after she mentioned to the Peace Corps recruiter that she took French at The University of Texas at El Paso, where she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2010.

Instead, the El Paso native traveled more than 6,000 miles to Mali to build wells and latrines in the French-speaking country.

She did so by working with her Peace Corps homologue (French for counterpart) Samuel Dembele to mobilize the villagers to cover, line and reinforce the wells. They built metal doors and concrete drainage aprons to prevent contaminated surface water from flowing back down into the wells and added wash areas for dirty dishes and laundry.

By the time Cruz returned to El Paso in April 2012, they had built 15 top well aprons and wash areas and 21 latrines and soak pits.

“I found my sense of adventure when I stepped out of my comfort zone,” recalled Cruz, the village’s water sanitation extension agent. She also helped with food security and malaria monitoring.

When she wasn’t digging wells or latrines, Cruz immersed herself in the local culture. She cooked toh (a thick porridge made of millet) for her host family on an outdoor stove, made shea butter with the Women’s Association of Zanzoni, and went to the mosque with her host mother to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

“I wanted to travel and learn about different cultures and people,” explained Cruz, a research analyst for the Mexico Center at the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. She received a master’s degree in political science from UTEP in 2014. “Peace Corps gave me the opportunity to fall in love with a country and culture that otherwise I doubt I would have gotten a chance to know.”

UTEP’s history with the Peace Corps stretches back to 1961 when the program was created by President John F. Kennedy to send volunteers abroad to fill a need and promote friendship and mutual understanding between countries and cultures.

Texas Western College (TWC), now UTEP, is one of the first two sites to train Peace Corps volunteers. Corps officials changed the training site from The University of Texas at Austin to TWC after an African-American member of an advance team was denied access to a UT Austin faculty lunchroom. Sargent Shriver, the Peace Corps director, was aware that TWC was integrated and moved the training to El Paso. Rutgers University in New Jersey and TWC began their training on June 25, 1961, but Rutgers is recognized as the first to start because the institution is in the Eastern time zone. However, TWC was the first to graduate its cohort from the training program with its ceremony on Aug. 20, 1961. The Rutgers ceremony was five days later.

In April 2016, UTEP was ranked by the Peace Corps as one of the top volunteer-producing Hispanic-Serving Institutions in the United Sates. One of only two ranked Texas universities, UTEP placed No. 12 nationally.

“We are making a very strong effort now to recruit a diverse volunteer force, the best and the brightest of our nation, but a volunteer force that reflects our nation as we truly are, which is increasingly diverse,” said Carrie Hessler-Radelet, director of the Peace Corps, who visited UTEP in April 2016.

“We are extremely excited to be partners with UTEP.”

The Peace Corps also awarded UTEP a $125,000 grant over the next five years to establish a Peace Corps Campus Recruitment Office and hire a graduate student who is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) to become a campus-based recruiter for the organization.

Peace Corps volunteers work at the grassroots level to develop sustainable solutions that address challenges in agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health and youth development.

Volunteers typically serve 27 months. They are paid a living allowance that enables them to live in a manner similar to the local people in their community. Ninety percent of volunteer positions require a bachelor’s degree. 

To date, 220,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in 141 host countries, including 161 UTEP alumni who have answered the call to give back to their country by helping people across the globe improve their life circumstances.

Answering the call to service, such as working with the Peace Corps, is one of the criteria used by Washington Monthly magazine to rate national universities. UTEP ranked among the top 10 universities in the nation in the publication’s 2015 college rankings.

“UTEP students are excellent candidates for the Peace Corps,” said Donna Ekal, Ph.D., associate provost for undergraduate studies at the University and a RPCV. Ekal served in Thailand in 1983-85 after receiving her undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota.

“Our students have all sorts of assets that they can contribute, such as language skills and family commitment,” Ekal added. “They understand the power of an education and what a difference that can make.”

To promote the mission and benefits of the Peace Corps, Ekal often talks to interested students about her service in Trang, Thailand. As an agronomist, Ekal dried and stored grain products, vaccinated chickens and grafted fruit trees. 

During a Peace Corps presentation at UTEP, she captivated the audience with a story about how one of the local families presented her with a frog for breakfast.

After the first rain of the season, the family had been out all night hunting frogs for their meat. The following morning, the family greeted Ekal with the biggest frog. They hadn’t eaten meat for weeks and they were honored to present their guest with a frog for her morning meal. Even though she no longer remembered what the frog tasted like, Ekal said that moment helped to define the person she is now.

“I tell the story in my presentation because I remember I had a choice,” Ekal said. “I can be the person who eats the frog and makes all these people really happy, or I can be the person that says ‘no.’ I think that decision and others in that same vein have really contributed to who I am today.”

The Peace Corps put Ekal on the path that eventually led her to UTEP. 

And just like it did for Ekal, the Peace Corps can help students who are unsure about what’s next after graduation figure out what is important to them.

Anne M. Giangiulio, an associate professor of art and graphic design at UTEP, can attest to that. Unsure of what she wanted to do after graduating from Villanova University with a degree in English, Giangiulio applied to the Peace Corps. She taught English to elementary school-aged children from 1996-98 in the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of western Africa.

An art project that involved teaching children how to recycle plastic bags by turning them into kites got Giangiulio thinking about ways to combine teaching art with community service – something she has continued to do with her UTEP students since joining the University in 2004.

“I do a lot of community-based projects with graphic design students,” Giangiulio said. During the spring semester, students in her Graphic Design 4

class worked on a new logo for the Rescue Mission of El Paso.

“I try to instill in them the importance of service and how there are a lot of great causes in our community that deserve graphic design, but (organizations) can’t afford it,” she said. “They’re fulfilling a real need within their own community.”

Giangiulio said she discovered her passion for art in the Peace Corps.

Ivan Gallegos hopes something similar happens to him.

Gallegos graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in metallurgical and materials engineering from UTEP in May 2016. Thinking about becoming an aerospace engineer, Gallegos decided to take a break before starting graduate school. Instead, he will teach chemistry and biology to high school students in Mozambique for the next two years to reflect on his career choice. 

Before joining the Peace Corps, he met with John McClure, Ph.D., professor of metallurgical and materials engineering at UTEP. McClure taught science in Ghana in 1968-69 with the Peace Corps and encouraged Gallegos to take advantage of the opportunity to travel abroad with the volunteer program. 

“I want to work in engineering, but ultimately I want to branch out into the education sector and teach STEM (science, technology, engineering and math),” Gallegos said. “It amazes me how much we’ve figured out through STEM and I want to share that with other people, starting with the kids in Mozambique so they can develop a passion for it.”

Before he leaves on Aug. 30 for a three-month training in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, Gallegos is learning Portuguese, the country’s official language, using the Duolingo app. He plans to tutor students at Socorro High School over the summer to help with his teaching skills. 

Part of the Peace Corps mission is to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served. Gallegos plans to share the Hispanic-American culture with the people of Mozambique by introducing them to Mexican-American music and break the stereotype that all Americans look Caucasian. As a trained mariachi, Gallegos sings and plays the violin, guitar and bass. He hopes to fit one of his instruments into his luggage. 

A Fulani woman at a spring carries water back to her village in Mali, West Africa. Photo courtesy of the Peace Corps.

A Fulani woman at a spring carries water back to her village in Mali, West Africa. Photo courtesy of the Peace Corps.

The 19th director of the Peace Corps, visited UTEP in April to announce that the University was one of the Peace Corps’ top volunteer-producing Hispanic-serving Institutions.

The 19th director of the Peace Corps, visited UTEP in April to announce that the University was one of the Peace Corps’ top volunteer-producing Hispanic-serving Institutions.

Donna Ekal, Ph.D., right, works with UTEP students. Photo by Laura Trejo

Donna Ekal, Ph.D., right, works with UTEP students. Photo by Laura Trejo

Ivan Gallegos

Ivan Gallegos