By Kira Cordova
Asked what led her to her role as an environmental education volunteer with the Peace Corps in Panama — Rebecca Briesmoore, who is the Peace Corps Prep’s campus liaison for Western and a second-year Master’s in Environmental Management (MEM) student at Western — smiles and says it’s a long story.
“Both my parents were in the Peace Corps in Honduras in the early ‘80s and met there, so [I’ve] always been grateful for the Peace Corps because I’m a Peace Corps baby,” Briesmoore offers. “I grew up hearing stories about [the Peace Corps].”
Those stories, however, were not always positive.
“When my mom would talk about it, she would talk about how small her community was, how isolated she felt, and how difficult it was at times,” she adds.
“I called [my mom] to tell her my site assignment, and she was, like, ‘Oh Rebecca, that’s way smaller than [where] I was!’” she remembers with a chuckle.
Finding her way
Briesmoore, a credentialed professional engineer, studied civil engineering with a minor in Spanish at Iowa State University, where she graduated in 2013.
She was working in hydraulics with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when she realized she was ready for a change.
“It was very operations and maintenance-based, and I started feeling less and less fulfilled,” she explains. “I didn’t feel like I was making enough of an impact in terms of doing things for climate change or what I was really passionate about.”
“So I started thinking about my next step,” she recalls, “and I was like, of course it’s going to be the Peace Corps.”
Briesmoore tracked open volunteer positions on the Peace Corps website for two years while working with the Army Corps, but she wasn’t certain she meshed with any of the available roles until she came across an environmental educator position in Panama in March 2018.
Briesmoore applied soon after she saw the position, and got confirmation of her acceptance by by the end of July, which allowed her to get a head start on her medical clearance forms and the other logistics associated with relocating internationally
Hitting the ground running
Briesmoore spent the first ten weeks in a training community near Panama City. Once her training was completed, she received her site assignment: Los Corralillos de Pesé, a community in the Herrera province.
Briesmoore’s in-country training included language classes, which continued even after she was placed in Los Coralillos.
“I minored in Spanish in my undergrad and took Spanish in high school, so I had a decent background, but it had been years since I had used it,” she says.
“I was placed in the first level of the intermediate learners for my Spanish classes once I got to Panama, and when I left Panama, I was in the advanced level. My Spanish improved significantly. It’s hard to ever say you’re fluent in a language, but I can confidently have a conversation.”
Los Corralillos de Pesé has approximately 170 residents. When Briesmoore was living there, the community had just 11 kids in the town’s one classroom multigrade primary school.
Between the initial phone call with her mom and the fact that she had never lived in a place with fewer than 100,000 residents, Briesmoore felt panicked going into her assignment.
“But it ended up being really wonderful,” she adds.
She vividly remembers the words the Peace Corps trainer imparted on her 50-person Peace Corps cohort just before they left Houston — their last stop in the United States.
“He told us, ‘fall in love with your country because if you fall in love with it, it’s going to be so easy, and the time is going to pass so fast,’” she recalls.
Upon her arrival, Briesmoore quickly fell in love with Panama.
In particular, she remembers the kids in the small, tight-knit community, who she worked with regularly both in and out of the classroom.
“I would teach sustainability and science lessons,” Briesmoore elaborates. Sometimes, the school’s teacher would ask her to help teach English, too.
Identifying community needs
Briesmoore emphasized that a large part of success in the successful Peace Corps is listening to your respective community and working to identify their needs.
“What I really learned in the Peace Corps is how important it is to build relationships and communicate with people. In your first three months at your site, you’re not expected to get work done, you’re expected to get to know your community,” notes Briesmoore. “What that looks like is getting up every morning and walking around town and talking to people.”
During her first month in Los Corralillos, Briesmoore dutifully made the rounds introducing herself and beginning to understand her community. All that conversation and cultural immersion had the added benefit of helping her brush up on her Spanish skills.
“After a month, I started asking bigger questions,” she explains, questions like, “What would you like to see in your community?” And, “How can I help?”
In the end, the citizens of Los Corralillos voted to have Briesmoore focus on the issue of managing local waste. Unfortunately, the Covid-19 pandemic made it impossible to see that work through, as Briesmoore, like all Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) scattered around the globe, was evacuated in March 2020.
That said, she did make inroads in other areas within her community.
“Part of the reason why Peace Corps service is two years is because it takes so long just to integrate into a new community. My reading program was the most successful. I spent my own money on children’s books and came to the school once a week to make the kids practice reading with me,” recalls Briesmoore, who brushed up against many of the limitations volunteers commonly face during her service.
“I felt like when I left I hadn’t accomplished that much. My town really wanted eco-stoves, and I never got anywhere with that project because they were expensive and we didn’t have a way to fund them,” she adds.
Coming to Western
After she was evacuated from Panama, the Peace Corps community led Briesmoore to Western.
Before she joined the Peace Corps, she knew that her career ambitions in the environmental field would probably lead to pursuing a master’s degree upon her return.
“I ended up at Western because Dr. Jess Young in the MEM Department posted something on the Peace Corps Panama Friends Facebook page that was like: ‘come to Western and get an Environmental Management degree on a Peace Corps fellowship,’” she remembers
As part of that Coverdell Fellowship designed for returning Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs), Briesmoore took over the Peace Corps Prep (PCP) campus liaison position at Western in December 2021.
Prepping for the Peace Corps
The PCP program, which Dr. Jessica Young and LEAD and Orientation director Sara Phillips started and now oversee, is tailored to the Peace Corp’s six work sectors — but also has a broader focus on experiences and professional development to prepare participants to work in international and intercultural environments.
The Peace Corps’ six work sectors are education, health, agriculture, youth development, environment, and community economic development.
The five components of the PCP program are designed to prepare participants for the work sector of their choosing, allowing them to personalize the program based on their interests and career goals.
All program participants build intercultural competence, professionalism, and leadership development by taking core and elective courses “to build capacity to shift perspective and behavior around relevant cultural differences,” according to PCP documents.
During their time in the program, students also work with Western’s Career Services to improve their resumes and interview skills and take on leadership roles both on- and off-campus.
Additionally, program participants can develop foreign language skills by either taking language classes through the university or creating a plan for self-study.
According to Briesmoore and the Peace Corps website, many placements in Latin America require “a strong intermediate proficiency” in Spanish, while many placements in West Africa highly recommend proficient French (though they’re linked to colonization and imperialism, as official languages of many countries that the Peace Corps operates, romance languages are the languages that many Peace Corps Volunteers utilize).
Volunteers who already speak these languages or who are placed in certain communities may have the opportunity to learn local, more regionally-specific languages while deployed.
Self-study language-preparation for PCP can include studying online with learning programs like Duolingo or Mango. The latter is available for free through some public libraries. Immersion programs like study abroad experiences and the Critical Language Scholarship through the State Department can also count towards student’s program completion.
Native speakers of a language other than English can skip the foreign language requirement in the PCP program if they wish to serve in a country where that language is spoken.
The work sector skills component of the PCP program includes taking at least three courses that align with a specific sector, along with completing at least 50 hours of volunteer or work experience within that sector. It’s highly encouraged for students to complete the required hours in a teaching or outreach capacity.
As an example, students interested in roles in the education sector can utilize offerings in Exercise and Sport Science (ESS), Recreation and Outdoor Education (ROE), and Computer Science (CS) towards their PCP completion. Related work or volunteer experience for the sector can include student teaching, tutoring, developing interpretation programs for national or state parks, and working or volunteering at a community center or library.
For those students interested in the health sector, the coursework must come in the fields of Biology (BIO), ESS, or Psychology (PSY), and eligible experience includes working in health care, working as a RA or Peer Health Educator, taking a WFR or EMT course, joining the Mountain Rescue Team, or working in construction, plumbing, or set design.
Requirements for the four other work sectors are similar, and often overlap with multiple student organizations, course areas, and other offerings at Western.
An exchange of cultures
Briesmoore adds that there are intercultural experiences and opportunities at Western and in the Gunnison Valley that any student can seek out, including studying abroad with one of Western’s affiliate providers. Options are available for numerous different programs in Latin America, Africa, Europe, and Asia.
“What Peace Corps looks for is people who can interact with lots of people with different backgrounds and diversity, people who have seen different cultures,” Briesmoore says.
She notes that you don’t have to leave the country, or even the Gunnison Valley, to practice intercultural competence, adding “Another thing that I think we forget about in Gunnison is that we have a 12 percent Latino community, which most students who aren’t Latino don’t get involved with.”
One easy way for students to get involved with cross-cultural learning is via the school’s Multicultural Center, including the Amigo’s Club, which “strives to provide a forum for Western students, staff, administration, and faculty for support, understanding, interest, and awareness of Hispanic cultural information.”
“We forget that two thirds of the [Peace Corps’] goals are culture sharing and essentially being an ambassador, and I think that’s what I realized while I was there, that it was this wonderful cultural exchange,” Briesmoore offers. “That is what I found true joy in.”
A most personal decision
Despite the wide range of experiences included in the prep program, Briesmoore maintains that there’s no way to completely prepare to join the Peace Corps, largely because volunteers’ experiences will depend on their past experiences.
“No matter when you do Peace Corps or any international opportunity in your life,” she explains, “You’re going to have a learning experience, and that’s going to depend on where you are in your life. I think I would have had a completely different experience in the Peace Corps had I done it right after undergrad.”
“For me coming in five years after [starting] my professional career, I think I had a different mentality, and in some ways that was a good thing, and, in some ways, I think it might have hindered me a little bit because I came in a little bit more confident and I had a harder time at the beginning shutting up and listening to [the people in the community], and that was something I really had to learn,” she adds.
Yet Briesmoore is adamant that anyone with the right mindset can make the most of a Peace Corps stint, regardless of personal and professional timing.
“You’re just going to get different things out of it,” she explains.
The benefits of service — concrete and abstract
The Peace Corps, despite its serious level of commitment, is technically a volunteer experience. Accordingly, PCVs are not paid, but instead receive a housing and living stipend that “enables them to live in a manner similar to people in their community of service, according to the Peace Corps website’s benefits page.
Briesmoore’s in-country stipend during her service was $440 dollars a month (while Panama does mint its own currency, the Balboa, the U.S. dollar is legal tender)
Returned volunteers also receive a $10,000 payout (pre-tax) upon successful completion of their service terms to help them transition back to life in the United States. Additionally, returned Peace Corps Volunteers receive preference for federal jobs for up to one year after completing service.
Volunteers are also eligible for student loan deferment while serving in the Peace Corps and may be eligible for both public service loan forgiveness and partial cancellation of Perkins loans (a type of federal student loan based on financial need) during their service.
Additionally, during a volunteers’ term the Peace Corps covers all required medical and dental care. After completing their service, returned volunteers are eligible for the Coverdell Fellowship to help cover the costs of graduate school at participating universities — of which Western is one of more than 120.
For her part, Briesmoore would add a number of less tangible benefits to the list of reasons to consider the Peace Corps.
“I think as Americans, we’re used to comfort, we’re used to having access to everything. We get frustrated if the WiFi goes out for 10 minutes. We can’t deal with things being hard,” she says.
The Peace Corps can provide a serious attitude adjustment.
Speaking to the many challenges relating to joining the Peace Corps, Briesmoore highlights a competitive application, significant culture shock, and, for her, an ongoing process of deconstructing a white savior mentality.
But, she says, the “Peace Corps taught me how to deal with challenges and deal with things that are really out of your control. I became a really resilient person.”
Those changes in mindset extended to every facet of Briesmoore’s life during her 27-month term of service — and beyond.
“Peace Corps teaches you how to become part of a community,” she elaborates. “I used those skills when I moved to Gunnison.”
Understanding the application process
The Peace Corps application and deployment process can last many months, and comprehensive medical screenings, extensive paperwork, long waiting periods, and the web-based interview can filter out many qualified candidates.
“I think the biggest thing for the application process is patience and looking ahead. If someone’s interested in the Peace Corps when they graduate, they need to start applying to things in the summer or fall before they graduate [because] it takes a long time.”
The initial application largely consists of submitting basic personal information, a one to three-page resume, and writing a small handful of personal motivation statements.
During the subsequent interview stage of the application, applicants actually receive the outlined interview questions ahead of time, which, Briesmoore emphasizes, means preparation is critical.
“They want you to think of experiences you’ve had in your life where you’ve had cultural differences or you’ve experienced challenges, and they want you to think of those times in your life before you interview and really practice,” she says. “The Peace Corps is looking for people who are really trying, really invested.”
One of the question prompts emailed to applications asks them to consider: “past and current long term experiences that relate to the following:”
- Living or working with people from another culture;
- Working in an unstructured environment;
- Teaching, tutoring, or mentoring others;
- Failing to achieve a significant goal that was within your control.
Another prompt encourages applicants to consider “commonly faced challenges” Peace Corps Volunteers face, including:
- Uncommon foods/lack of variety in diet, altered living conditions, and modifying appearance;
- Separation from family/friends/significant other, geographic/volunteer isolations, and perception of privacy;
- Traditional gender roles and diversity and inclusion challenges and opportunities (e.g. ethnicity, race, physical attributes, sexual orientation, gender identity, religion, age, or other traits).
After the interview, successful applicants need to set aside time for checking off the extensive logistical steps, like completing their medical clearance forms.
Speaking to the challenges associated with culture shock, Briesmoore remembered that her return to the United States was actually far more difficult than the initial move to Panama.
“Peace Corps, in their training, they give you ways to help deal with culture shock. They give you tools and things and different perspectives of thinking to help you deal with that,” she explains. “For me, the hardest thing was not the culture shock of being in Panama, it was the culture shock of coming back to the United States.”
The Peace Corps typically hosts a closeout training that covers topics like reverse culture shock and reintegrating into the labor market in the United States, which Briesmoore’s cohort didn’t get because they were evacuated for the pandemic in March 2020.
She recalls coming home and thinking “I have no tools for dealing with this … Dealing with the amount of choices and also the amount of waste coming back to the US and the wealth that we have was really hard.”
Despite the challenges of facing that reverse cultural shock without the resources returned Peace Corps Volunteers usually receive, Briesmoore believes in the power of connecting with the Peace Corps alumni community back in the states.
“You almost have a cult with [other returned] Peace Corps Volunteers,” she explains with a smile.
Briesmoore notes that there are numerous Peace Corps alumni currently in Gunnison to commiserate with — most of whom are attending one of Western’s graduate programs.
Practicing cultural humility
Nowadays, as the liaison for the PCP program, Briesmoore often presents in classrooms across campus about the Peace Corps. She was kind enough to share one of her presentations for this article — the first bullet on her community engagement slide reads: “don’t be a white savior.”
The Peace Corps has a complicated history with the concept of white saviorism, defined as “A critical description of a white person who is depicted as liberating, rescuing or uplifting non-white people.” The criticism typically stems from the fact that the white individual, or individuals, is perceived as depriving the non-white person or persons of their agency.
When John F. Kennedy initially founded the Peace Corps in 1961, he wrote in the executive order establishing the organization: “Every young American who participates in the Peace Corps — who works in a foreign land — will know that he or she is sharing the great common task of bringing to man the decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace.”
On her end, Briesmoore emphasizes the importance of true cultural exchange and of building compassion and understanding by integrating into a community — working to empower the group from within — not trying to save it from an outside vantage.
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Michael Buckler commented on the Peace Corp’s history with white saviorism and how the Peace Corp’s approach of cultural immersion may, surprisingly, challenge some volunteers’ ingrained white savior beliefs in an article for The Hill in 2019.
The article echoes Briesmoore’s emphasis on becoming part of one’s service community:
“These communities struggle not because of a shortage of Westerners but because of a lack of political power,” he writes. “Volunteers forge the types of deep, trusting relationships necessary to sustain impacts long term. Many volunteers go on to found organizations that challenge saviorism by amplifying the voices of local people. After coming home, scores of former volunteers continue helping their host communities abroad in myriad ways, while challenging fellow Americans traveling to developing countries to act less like saviors and more like advocates.”
For logistical reasons related to school and the pandemic, Briesmoore hasn’t been able to return to Los Corralillos since she was evacuated in March 2020.
When asked about the possibility of returning, she is definitive. “I really want to. At some point I know I have to,” she says. “I can’t go back for a couple of days. It’s remote. It takes a whole day to get from Panama City to my community. There aren’t hotels in my community — I’d have to ask someone to stay with them…it’s complicated, but I definitely need to go back.”
Recalling her trainer’s advice to her Peace Corps cohort before they left for Panama, she adds, “I think all of us did fall in love with Panama, which made it so difficult to leave.”
Between several months of training and the time she spent in Los Corralillos before being evacuated, Briesmoore served in the Peace Corps for thirteen months before her evacuation.
Before the pandemic forced her abrupt evacuation, she was slated to stay more than another calendar year — until April 2021.
“I don’t think I’ll ever finish mourning the loss of that year until I go back and face it,” she concludes.
In the meantime, Briesmoore is leaning into her role as the PCP program campus liaison and finishing out her MEM degree at Western.
And yes, she is still in love with Panama.