“My service helped solidify my commitment to public service.” – Courtney Ward
Never in my life did I expect for two years of my early twenties to be spent in a mud hut in the middle of Sub-Saharan Africa with no running water or electricity. But indeed, upon graduation from college in the middle of the great recession with an all but useless political science degree, I stepped onto a plane, and headed to the place that would ultimately become my second home. I served as a Peace Corps agro-forestry volunteer in Zambia for 27 months in a rural village about 20 miles, via bicycle, from any town or other volunteers.
Thinking back today, it is difficult to even remember what I knew about Africa before I served as a volunteer. It’s difficult to remember a time when I didn’t feel guilty for running my dishwasher or washing machine because I remember what it was like pulling water from a 20 meter deep well and heating it on a charcoal cookstove to wash my dishes and laundry by hand. It’s difficult to remember a time when I wasn’t consistently disappointed by the produce section at American grocery stores because the vegetables and fruits that I ate in Zambia were the most flavorful and delicious I had had ever tasted. It’s also difficult for me to remember a time when I hadn’t the foggiest idea of what living on less than $2 a day looked like, because while in Zambia, such a budget was more common than not. What I first thought would be a fun adventure in Africa ended up being a life altering experience that reshaped the lens through which I viewed the world.
My keen interest in government and politics was nurtured in Zambia as I worked with local forestry and agriculture extension agents of the government. I saw first hand how a developing country’s government works, and it was enlightening to say the least. This experience in turn led me to pursue a Master of Arts in International Development. My non-competitive eligibility then allowed me to apply for a position with GSA, where I have now been for over a year and a half. Today, in the Great Lakes Region Regional Administrator’s office, I am able to use daily the patience and flexibility that Peace Corps staff drilled into my head during training as a necessary skillset for working in the often times slow moving Zambia.
I may not ever be able to remember exactly the way I thought about a lot of things before Peace Corps, but I am beyond grateful for the way it changed the course of my future. I hope to one day help countries like Zambia again, but for now I am honored to be working for the US government. My sense of duty to serve others grew exponentially while witnessing the resiliency and gratitude of the dozens of Zambian farmers and school girls I worked with on a daily basis. Their commitment to making their lives and their country better inspired me to do the same for my homeland. I have spent a great deal of time away from this country, and while my Peace Corps service made me appreciate my American upbringing that much more, beyond anything else, it helped solidify my commitment to public service.
This week is National Peace Corps Week, when we celebrate President John F. Kennedy’s call to establish the agency 55 years ago. GSA is proud to have many talented returned Peace Corps volunteers included among our staff.