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Profile: Carmenza Cespedes, and her mother, Isabel Cespedes

Panama

Carmenza’s story:

My name is Carmenza Cespedes. I am 28 years old, and I was born in New York City. I went to Baruch College, City University of New York, and then served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama from 1998 to 2000.

I had participated in a career fair where there were lots of big corporations taking resumes from students, and there was a table for the Peace Corps. I spoke to some returned Peace Corps Volunteers, and I was very interested in the programs. As I was going through the brochures, I realized they had a small business development program, which took me by surprise, but also interested me. I had heard about the Peace Corps before this, but that was my first one-on-one introduction to the Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps never left the back of my mind, and I decided to look into it seriously. I needed to define what career track I really wanted to pursue. I thought that by going away I’d get a much clearer idea of what I wanted to do with my M.B.A. and my future. I applied a year and a half after I graduated, and within six months I got my acceptance and left for Panama.

I was sent to Panama as a small business development Volunteer to work with a nonprofit association that helps to organize small businesses to find strength in numbers, and get resources from the government or banks. I also had the opportunity to branch out and work with individual businesses and with indigenous female artisan groups. The work I did with indigenous women was a very important project to me. I helped them organize and taught them the importance of leadership and communication skills so that they could work better together. We covered a lot, and it was definitely a learning experience on both sides.

When I returned from the Peace Corps I wanted to work with small business owners who needed help in the United States. Currently I work for a nonprofit microlending organization that provides small business loans to New York City business owners. I find this job 100 percent fulfilling. Prior to the Peace Corps I worked in the private sector in the heart of New York City, the financial capital of the world. I was doing interesting work but I always felt a bit small. I couldn’t necessarily work one-on-one with people and really develop that side of myself, which is so important to me. I had a business degree, but the term “business humanitarian” doesn’t exist. Now I am doing what I like.

As the daughter of immigrants, there is always pressure. We come to this land to take advantage of all the opportunities, which means education, so that you can support your family. When I graduated with my business degree, I was making good money. The idea of the Peace Corps was not such a great thing to my mother. She didn’t embrace the idea and was very hard to convince. But I think that was based on cultural differences, because she didn’t understand the opportunities that the Peace Corps provides for U.S. citizens who are looking to develop their careers and to grow personally.

I tried to educate my mom about the Peace Corps and encouraged her to speak to other people, and she eventually turned around. In her heart she knew I was leaving, and she made the decision as a really good mom to say, “She’s going to do what she wants to do, because that’s the way I raised her, and I can either stand by her or fight her.” She stood by me.

My mother came to understand why what I am doing is so important to me. She sees the great advantages that the Peace Corps provided for me.

Isabel’s story:

I grew up in Colombia. We were poor, really poor. It was a hard time for us, but we were very happy. I met my husband, and we decided to get married and move to the United States. We came to New York in 1968 because my husband had some relatives here.

I saw all of my children, not only Carmenza, as important people. I had big hopes for them, and every day at the table, or whenever I had the opportunity to speak to them, I would let them know that I had big hopes for them. This is a hard country, and if you want to succeed, you have to work hard.

When Carmenza told me she wanted to join the Peace Corps—ouch!—she almost killed me. At the time, she was the one helping me to pay the bills for the house, because my husband was retired. I worked full time, and she helped me with the bills. I was surprised when she told me she was going to join the Peace Corps. But then I started thinking that she would be helping my people, and she would see, with her own eyes, the scenes that I told my children about when I raised them. I thought, “What can I do?” She wanted to do it, and I had to support her. It was her life, and I knew she was going to learn very good things.

I went to visit her, and we had a very good time. Carmenza is a leader, so she got along very well with the people. I saw that she could live by herself and all that she was able to achieve. I now see that the decision she made was right. Her experience in the Peace Corps has been very good for her.

Carmenza Cespedes (Panama)

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