from a snowy walk in the Rattlesnake, Missoula, Montana

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Commencement Speech

Dumela, Hola, Salam or simply hello. I cannot express how happy I am to be here today, I traveled through three continents over three days to be here today. 

It seems like just yesterday I was sitting in Scriber Gym surrounded by a group of strong, intelligent and passionate women soon to be scattered around the globe. I can only speak for my experience in the Peace Corps, but I suspect my words will ring true to my sisters sitting here today.

(part of) Cohort 8! 
I have wanted to join Peace Corps since my freshman year of college, I vividly remem
ber meeting a recruiter and deciding that I wanted to one day become a Peace Corps Volunteer, however, I cannot at this time articulate why my reasons why. I suspect it is because Peace Corps has changed me.

I am in the process of completing my third year as a PCV in Botswana. I chose to extend my service for an addition year, for I felt like my time in Botswana wasn’t done. I have been blessed to see both beautiful and complex sides of Botswana. Botswana is a world of dichotomies, a clash between traditional culture and modernity. Which couldn’t be truer about my Peace Corps service. As 21st Century PCVs, gone are the days of only communicating by snail mail and yearly phone calls home. We live and work in communities racing towards Westernization. Balancing my service straddling two worlds at times was harder than learning Setswana or navigating cultural differences.

My first two years were spent in a small village in the middle of the Kalahari, hours away from grocery stores, banks or anything the western world would consider as civilization. My house was little more than a glorified hut, I didn’t have electricity and water was scarce.  There were weeks where I only ate potatoes and onions because that was the only available food and there were weeks where I feasted on the freshest mangos, avocados and care package goodies.

I arrived in Lehututu late on a Friday afternoon; my belongings were brought in my students and piled into the middle of my house. One by one I was greeted by villagers and dusk settled in. My house was getting darker by the moment, my candles were still buried in my pile of belongings. As the darkness settled in, a strange feeling came over me. It took me a while to realize what it was—it was silence. The defining silence of the village forced me to confront my thoughts and be okay with silence. My generation of America is never unplugged or silent; the ability to sit on the porch and watch the world go by is lost art.

At some point in time, every volunteer dreams of the accomplishments they will achieve during their service. Early on I decided that I wasn’t going to be the volunteer who put in a 1000 pit latrines, start a preschool or a coffee exchange. I decided that I would be here for relationships. Being placed at a school, the best thing I could do was be a role model for my students. Over time, my relationships with the students grew, students would stop by my house just to say hello or ask for advice. My students didn’t just learn from me, I learned from them as well.

The parents 
One day, I was having a particularly bad day—one of those “why did I give up my life in America days” as I was walking to school and wallowing in self pity a student came up to me. She had been looking for me. Talking was the last thing that I wanted to do, however I listened to her. She had just been diagnosed with HIV, which she had contracted while at school. She didn’t know what to do and she needed my help. I was humbled that she trusted me, however I felt ashamed. While I was felling sorry for myself about meaningless matters, while her life was forever changed. In helping her navigate her new diagnosis, she taught me a new meaning strength and acceptance.

In Botswana, I am the third sex, an outsider. As an outsider I have freedoms that other Batswana and women don’t posses. I have the power to speak, when others feel they must remain silent. As a woman some traditional cultural norms didn’t apply to me with my status in the village. As hard as I tried to integrate and not be treated as a guest, I often sat at the head table with the tribal chief or was served before other women. With this power comes responsibility. I was conscious of using my voice and actions with care.

 In Botswana, I learned about forgiveness, forgiveness for myself and others. I have learned even more, that things are not always what they appear. I have learned patience, humility and how to ask for help. I have learned about love and heart break how to survive through it all. Through it all, I have learned about me. Peace Corps’ slogan is “ the toughest job you will ever love” the Marines say that bootcamp is to break you down then build you back up. My service in the Peace Corps was very similar, through failures and success, through tears and laughters, through 9 hour bus rides in 100 degree heat and learning how to find joy in the small things. I am a stronger woman because of it.

Poet Mary Oliver said “don’t worry things take the time they take. How many roads did St. Augustine walk before be became St Augustine.” Things in Peace Corps take the time they take, while a hard pill to swallow, we are strong because of it. We have all walked many roads in our services—through the twist turns and bumps in the road we have grown, blossomed and spread our wings.

Through is all, none of us would be here without our families. Our real family, our cohort family and our Peace Corps family.  

It is customary to end speeches in Botswana by shouting “pula”