Pursuing my passions through Rotary and Peace Corps

By Cecilia Kern, former Rotary Global Grant Scholar and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

Community service has always been a big part of my life. When I was 11-years-old, I joined the youth leadership organization, Job’s Daughters. This group of adult and peer mentors instilled in me the principles of leadership, compassion, empathy and selfless service. Guided by these values, I spent much of my free time in high school and college volunteering and fundraising for various charities.

These activities however, remained fairly separate from my studies and professional life. In 2008, I was preparing to graduate from a four-year university where I had earned a Bachelors in Business Management, and suddenly it hit me: this was not at all who I was or what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My heart was in the volunteer work where I had dedicated so many of my years. Why does a professional career have to be separate from what one is truly passionate about? Pursuing Peace Corps was my way of finding out how to merge the two.

I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cape Verde, where I worked in the area of small business and community development. The experience was life changing. When spending two years completely immersed in a small village, the community becomes your friend, and friends become your family. I learned so much about myself through cultural exchange, respectful dialogue and meaningful engagement.

Returning to the United States left me feeling empty, yet inspired. I was saddened to leave what became my second home, but I now knew, more than ever, my life mission. I am meant to dedicate my life to a cause higher than myself, something that outlasts me, something that leaves this world a little better than I found it.

I spent some time volunteering for non-profit organizations in the U.S. and Brazil before joining the World Bank in their mission to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity. Working among esteemed economists and specialists at the World Bank inspired me, but I quickly realized that I would need to further my education in order to make a meaningful difference. After researching and applying to several programs, I decided on a Master’s of Science in International Development and Public Policy at the University of Manchester, England. As a perpetual volunteer who had only worked for about 24 months in the past 7 years, funding a graduate degree would be the next immediate challenge.

I had been familiar with Rotary mainly because I saw their signs everywhere, from my village in Cape Verde to the streets in Porto Velho, Brazil. I reached out to my local Fairfax Rotary Club and was blessed to be connected with Rotarian Verne Tuininga, the Youth Service Director, who graciously guided me through The Rotary Foundation’s Global Grants Scholarship application process, interview and eventual acceptance process.

I set off for the United Kingdom in September 2015, as a Rotary Global Grants Scholar. I began my graduate program where I also co-started the fundraising group Students Unite to End Polio in support of Rotary’s PolioPlus campaign. Students Unite to End Polio consisted of ten international students committed to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in an effort to raise funds and awareness around polio eradication.

After graduating from the University of Manchester and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, I have returned to the World Bank as a research analyst for the social protection department. Looking back, Peace Corps and the community I served, gave me the self-belief and drive to pursue radical social change; and my Rotary scholarship equipped me with the education and knowledge I needed to transform that drive into action. It may be awhile before we see the end to extreme poverty, but my experiences with Peace Corps and Rotary give me hope that lasting change is possible through time, unwavering focus and fierce determination.

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Related:

  • Read the Rotary-Peace Corps partnership fact sheet for collaboration opportunities for clubs and districts. If you’re attending the 2017 Rotary Convention in Atlanta, visit the Peace Corps booth in the House of Friendship and attend a Rotary-Peace Corps breakout session to learn more about the partnership. Email service@rotary.org if you have any questions.
  • Rotarian Returned Peace Corps Volunteers are invited to District 5450’s Rotary-Peace Corps workshop on 4 August 2017 in Denver, Colorado, USA. Contact Charlie Hunt or Steve Werner for more information and to register for the workshop.

Prioritizing women’s and girl’s health through Rotary and Peace Corps

By Katie Northcott, Rotary Global Grants Scholar and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

“Je ne sais pas quoi faire”. I don’t know what to do. Six words that can define any experience with an unintended pregnancy, especially for a teenager. In this case, I was standing in front of a 16-year-old Burkinabe girl who had participated in a youth sexual health education camp I had organised just a few weeks earlier. During the camp, she learned about sexual and reproductive health issues including contraception, gender-based violence, sexually transmitted infections and HIV, and the importance of planning for the future. During the session on pregnancy, the young woman realised that perhaps the symptoms she was experiencing were more than just general illness. A pregnancy test at the health clinic the following week confirmed her fears.

My Peace Corps service in Burkina Faso, where this experience took place, guided my current career path and life focus. I wanted my work to ensure that other young people would not find themselves in similar situations. Initially motivated by the concept of economic opportunity in Sub-Saharan Africa as a conduit to support women’s rights, I had pursued Economics, African Studies, and French during my undergraduate studies.

A research project studying women’s experiences starting their businesses took me to Senegal where I met the president of a micro-finance office providing income-generating activity training as well as contraceptive and reproductive health services. Here, I directly connected a woman’s and girl’s well-being and participation in the public and economic sphere to the ability to make choices about her own health. From then on, I knew I wanted to focus on sexual and reproductive health rights, which led me to apply to Peace Corps and serve as a Community Health Development volunteer in Burkina Faso.

Working in a rural setting in a country with some of the world’s worst health outcomes, particularly for maternal, neonatal and child health, is challenging. As a volunteer, you often expect to make ground-breaking changes in your host community within a two-and-a-half-year time span. Realistically, projects and their outcomes only reach a small community, and their effects may not be seen until after the end of one’s service.

However, the focus on local, context-specific solutions – working from grassroots community level rather than a top-down approach – became a cornerstone of my career goals. I decided to apply for a Master’s degree in Population and Development at the London School of Economics, focusing on sexual and reproductive health in low-resource settings in Sub-Saharan Francophone Africa.

After much research, I applied for a Rotary Global Grants scholarship to help me pursue the graduate degree. I was awarded a scholarship focused in maternal and child health through District 7620 in the United States. Rotary’s alignment with Peace Corps’ own vision, to make a lasting impact on the world around us, made me feel proud to be a Global Grants scholar. Upon arriving in London, the Rotary community was warm and welcoming. While I have since left London, I still feel very much a part of the Rotary community.

Once I completed my degree, I began working for AmplifyChange, a multi-donor fund providing grants to civil society organisations in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America who advocate for and promote better policy and action on neglected sexual and reproductive health and rights issues. As a member of the grants support team, I interact with grantees who are doing vitally important work all over the world.

Without first living in Burkina Faso with Peace Corps and working on the ground, my goal to continue supporting local efforts to advocate for sexual and reproductive health rights would not be realised. Without Rotary’s grant for my master’s degree, my pursuit of this goal would have been nearly impossible to achieve in such a short span of time. Now, I can contribute to the work of organisations around the world who envision universal access to the services and protections individuals need to fulfil their sexual and reproductive health and rights.

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