Peace Corps Panelists Share Their Stories

Could Peace Corps be the right fit for you?


by Lauren Dunn ('23)

PC Prep Panel Article Image

SUMMARY: Four returned Peace Corps volunteers participated in a panel at JMU on Wednesday, February 22nd, to speak to students on behalf of their service experiences and how their lives have changed because of their participation abroad.

To carry out the Peace Corps mission of promoting world peace and friendship, the organization's primary goals include helping people of interested countries in meeting their needs for trained individuals and promoting mutual understanding and global cooperation on behalf of the United States. There have currently been more than 240,000 total volunteers to date that served sectors such as Agriculture, Youth in Development, Education, Environment, Health, and Community Economic Development.

During the presentation, four panelists shared their stories about volunteering in other countries, the challenges they faced, and the impact that Peace Corps has had on their lives.

Soua Pha was the first panelist to share about her time serving in the Fiji Islands for Youth Development. There, she spent three days a week teaching sexual reproductive health at a local high school and the other two days contributing to her community. She explained that her biggest challenges overseas that she had to overcome were learning the culture, customs, and learning to acknowledge bias and assumptions. Pha is now working at D.C headquarters as a Peace Corps recruiter helping individuals get started with the process.

PC Panel SpeakersThe next panelist that spoke was Kayuyum Koban who served in the Republic of Moldova from 2015-2018. Her original assignment area was Community & Organizational Development but took on the “Diamond Challenge” for a secondary project that allowed her to stay a third year. Koban shared her experience volunteering in the village, working in the mayor’s office, and learning a completely new language and the interchanging of cultures. With the help of a grant, she was able to help build volleyball and basketball courts where many of the children spent time playing sports. When asked about the challenges of Peace Corps opposed to studying abroad, Koban explained to the students that the organization prepares you very well before you get to your assigned country. “You first are in the country with your Peace Corp group and you have a mentor. For the first 8-10 weeks you are with your first host family where each day is four hours of language courses and culture classes, so you are not just thrown in.” Although she had thought of going home within the first few months of being in the Republic of Moldova, she advised students to stick it out because it will get easier.

The third panelist to share his story was Travis Hellstrom. From 2008-2011, Hellstrom served in Mongolia in the Public Health sector. During his time there, he worked as a health volunteer, summer camp leader, and taught English and health in the schools. While overseas serving, he told the students that he even met his wife there! Additionally, Hellstrom offered extremely wise advice to the audience. “Deciding whether I was going to volunteer in the Peace Corps was one of the biggest and hardest decisions I’ve made. It is a decision that takes a lot of thinking and should not be rushed. However, do not let others make decisions for you. Who do you want to be and what do you want to do?”

The final panelist to speak was Rollin Johnson who served in Nepal and Burkina Faso from 2003-2005. He shared his personal experiences working on business projects in both nations, including microfinance and economics. Due to domestic issues in Nepal after the first year, his Peace Corps program was transferred to Burkina Faso. Johnson explained that it was incredibly hard to leave because of the relationships he built and the impact his time there had on him. He advised students “All through your life you’re going to face situations where you are not in one place forever.  Although it is daunting, it is also rewarding. Focus on how you enter and exit them and how you bring that going forward in your life.” Johnson gave further insight sharing personal stories and interactions that he had with individuals in the village. Additionally, he left the audience with advice that his mentor had given him, “Whatever your expectations are for something, lower them. Be present wherever you are and be in the moment.”

Each of the four panelists shared the emotional impact that the Peace Corps has had on their lives. Collectively, they agreed that the remarkable experience allowed them to become extremely flexible individuals, significantly broaden their perspectives, and influence their careers and education.

To the more than 130 JMU students in attendance, it was a reminder that you never know where life will take you and who you will meet along your journey. It is essential to consider the options presented and find ways to be globally-minded.

“Peace Corps: Stories from the Field” was hosted by JMU’s Peace Corps Prep Certificate Program, in partnership with the Peace Corps University Programs. Apply to Peace Corp Prep today!

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Published: Friday, March 24, 2023

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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