Seven months after returning to America, Katie Kirouac is readjusting from – and reflecting on – her Peace Corps experience. Serving as a health education volunteer for two years in Ghana gave her a new extended family in the community members she lived alongside and made her reexamine previously held notions about how international aid benefits the needy.
“Service in Ghana allowed me to dig deep and discover things within myself that I didn’t know were possible,” Kirouac, 24, said. “I found my voice, I learned how to push myself beyond what is comfortable, and I became confident in my ability to take on challenges independently.”
Kirouac’s journey started at Grand Valley State University, where a professor who had served as a Peace Corps Volunteer decades ago encouraged her to do some research into the agency. She graduated in 2010, majoring in political science and minoring in Spanish. The Spanish program, in particular, encouraged students to expand their cultural understandings and explore the world.
“Grand Valley’s emphasis on providing a well-rounded liberal arts education was ultimately the springboard for my decision to serve,” she said. “I think that people who live, serve, work, and travel abroad generally have a particularly open mindset and a thirst for new experiences, which were qualities instilled in me through my education at Grand Valley. My mind was opened to so many opportunities and my life was influenced by the diverse group of people I interacted with on a daily basis.”
In Ghana, Kirouac completed intensive language, technical, and cross-cultural training to prepare her for service before being posted in the country’s rural northern region. Working with other volunteers, she implemented large-scale health campaigns in more than three dozen villages, educating local residents about HIV/AIDS and testing more than 4,000 people for the virus. She also helped train 40 men and women to be malaria peer-educators, providing them with information about how the disease is transmitted, prevented, and treated that they, in turn, brought back to their communities. Sustainable projects such as this one help ensure than Kirouac’s work continues after her departure.
Along the way, she formed close relationships with the children in her village and other Peace Corps volunteers who shared her experience. Being immersed in a new culture sometimes posed challenges, such as when she confronted the relaxed way Ghanians approached time and deadlines. “It was often frustrating to plan a meeting and wait for two hours until people started leisurely strolling in, but it forced me to question my own value of time and challenged my priorities,” Kirouac said.
Originally from Three Rivers, Mich., Kirouac is now living in Grand Rapids working as a tutor and a nanny while setting up a non-profit to provide free and reduced tutoring services to students learning English as a second language and at-risk students. Her journey has truly come full circle, as she plans to return to Grand Valley to get her Master’s in Public Administration next fall. Her ultimate goal is to work in the non-profit sector.
“Peace Corps taught me about my strengths and passions and exposed me to the world of NGOs and non-profits in the field, which is what made me choose the career path I am now headed toward,” she said. “There are so many ways in which my experiences in Ghana impacted me and changed my perspectives.”
Currently, 28 Grand Valley State University alumni are making a difference overseas as Peace Corps Volunteers. More than 223 alumni have served since the agency was created in 1961.
About the Peace Corps: Since President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps by executive order on March 1, 1961, more than 210,000 Americans have served in 139 host countries. Today, 8,073 volunteers are working with local communities in 76 host countries in agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health and youth in development. Peace Corps volunteers must be U.S. citizens and at least 18 years of age. Peace Corps service is a 27-month commitment and the agency’s mission is to promote world peace and friendship and a better understanding between Americans and people of other countries. Visit www.peacecorps.gov for more information.