From 1996 to 1999 I served in the United States Peace Corps as a teacher trainer in Cape Verde, an island country off West Africa. I had just finished a degree and a teaching job at a state university. While my peers joined Boeing and Microsoft, I arrogantly (and, perhaps, foolishly) spurned corporate life and turned to service as a means to postpone the responsibilities of adulthood, for at least two years, and “escape.” I volunteered for purely selfish reasons. After this unenlightened beginning, I would learn so much about service, responsibility, and humanity.
As a volunteer in a country that does not have the economic advantages of the U.S., you encounter many people who are more intelligent, more talented, more passionate, even more athletic … and yet all of them have accomplished more at a greater disadvantage. While this seemed unfair to me, it called on qualities I needed to improve to become a better trainer. In brief, my students transformed me into a teacher equal to their needs. This was not easy; for example, in the Department of Foreign Languages we rotated our idiom weekly by department so to represent my students I needed to improve a lot in French and start from virtually nothing in Portuguese. After a career in academics where it seemed I’d only been given assignments, service was unpredictable, demanding, sometimes overwhelming, and—most important of all—the choices mattered and they were my responsibility. I loved it.
Service at the teacher training college grew outward into experiences with the Ministry of Education, secondary schools, primary schools, younger students, their communities and, ultimately, their homes. Many families showed me over and over again the warmth, generosity, and humanity that is distinctly Cape Verdean. Slowly, I learned the dialects of the native language (Crioulu). I finally learned how to dance. I requested an extension of service and toured the Barlavento islands, working with teachers at eight schools. I learned new ways to be a responsible, productive person and a professional equal to the needs of those I served. Most important of all, one personal relationship led to our son, RL student Lo Monteiro-Clewell, the most important experience of my life. While volunteer work may not always lead to life-changing events, however, those in service conclude that you very often receive far more than you give.