Louise Stenberg knows "the Peace Corps shakes up your plans" -- and in a way, that was why she decided to join after graduating from the College of St. Benedict in 2003. She had majored in journalism but wasn't sure it was really the field she wanted to go into. Her sister had done a volunteer stint in Africa and encouraged her to look at an international volunteer program. Stenberg applied during her senior year and was sent to Guyana, South America, in February 2004.
"They are upfront about the process taking a while -- it's a government agency," Stenberg said. "There's medical clearance, the application process. It's a long process to go through." Stenberg left Minnesota on a below-zero day and experienced a full 100-degree temperature swing within two days.
"I was placed at a nonprofit that needed help with organizational development and grant writing," Stenberg said. "It helps a lot having a broad background. They get a lot of liberal arts graduates; they look for commitment to service." In addition, Stenberg worked as a health education volunteer. "I did a lot of youth education work -- primarily HIV work. My background was not in health, not in HIV at all. They had high expectations. I had to learn very quickly, become very proficient in this pretty intense information -- not just know it but use it and understand it and teach it to others."
She discovered that the complex topic of public health was "really fascinating. It's not just an isolated topic. Health is influenced by all areas of life, and health influences all aspects of people's life. That had never occurred to me before." Stenberg applied to graduate school while still in the Peace Corps and completed a two-year masters program with a public health education focus. She now works at the Centers for Public Health Education and Outreach at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
"In journalism, I loved educating people about the topic I was writing about -- I didn't realize that the education piece was what I loved. My job now is building the capacity of the public health workforce in Minnesota and North Dakota. The Peace Corps motto is that your goal is to work yourself out of a job. We train country staff to do the work themselves so the Peace Corps won't have to be there anymore. I really believe in that."
What were the biggest challenges of your experience?
Time is a challenge for most Americans when we go overseas. We're very scheduled here. We like the concept of time. In most countries that's not the case. In Guyana they use the expression, "I'll get to that just now." It can mean a few minutes to never happening. You really never knew.
Besides finding a career path, what are the benefits of your Peace Corps time?
The network worldwide is amazing -- it's one of the great benefits. You have a connection with thousands of people who have done this. Even though everyone's experience is different, you are part of this amazing network of volunteers.
Was it hard to readjust to the United States?
Going straight from the Peace Corps to graduate school, I hadn't fully processed what I had learned. I'm not good at taking time between experiences. It's good now to look back and see how they fit together -- what I did really did fit with what I learned.
Poll: Would you let someone turn your yard into an edible landscape?