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How my service in The Gambia led to a career change

Gambian village

I was already a professional social worker when I entered the Peace Corps in 1980, so I wasn’t anticipating that my experience serving in The Gambia would change the course of my career.

However, the Peace Corps opened up the whole world to me, giving me confidence that I could do amazing things and make a significant impact.

I was always curious about other places and, even as a young child in Caryville, Florida, I remember zeroing in on the small section of my Weekly Reader that shared information about other places in the world. Growing up, I heard about the Peace Corps on the news and thought it was something I’d like to do one day. When I graduated high school, I requested an application, but I learned then that I needed a college degree. Time passed. I graduated from college, went on to get my master’s degree in social work, and began working in hospitals and a community health center. For six years, I worked in pediatric and maternal and child health programs in Philadelphia and Cleveland.

One day, I was driving to work and heard a Peace Corps commercial on the radio. I remember the tagline clearly: “The toughest job you’ll ever love.” It felt like a sign. When I arrived at work, I called the Peace Corps and asked for an application. It seemed the perfect time to take international service off the back burner. I knew the Peace Corps was going to provide the route to fulfill my life purpose.

I was assigned to serve as a Health Volunteer in The Gambia, where I was able to use my professional skills as a social worker. I worked alongside a dispenser, which is equivalent to a licensed practical nurse (LPN) in the United States. Together, we traveled to different villages primarily to do health check-ups on children in rural areas. Almost immediately, I was struck by how the Gambian community took me in. Often, a child’s health check-up would take place in the village clinics, where families always welcomed me with a generous spirit.

I hadn’t traveled much before I left for The Gambia, and it turned out that many things I assumed were universal were not. Everyday interactions made me reconsider things I had always taken for granted.

For instance, in The Gambia I lived in a Muslim community, while at home I was used to being surrounded by people of Christian faith. In The Gambia, I lived and worked with people who had faith and community, as well as many of the same values and beliefs as Christians in the U.S. Being part of a Gambian community as a Volunteer showed me that there are many ways people can serve God in their own lives.

Dr. Evelyn Newman-Phillips, Ph.D
As the department chair of anthropology at Central Connecticut State University, where she's worked for nearly 30 years, Dr. Evelyn Newman-Phillips, Ph.D, uses her Peace Corps-developed skills to teach students.

In The Gambia, I realized that people and communities can sustain themselves in many different ways. During periods of drought, Gambians would collect seeds from a certain type of grass, which had a couscous-like consistency when cooked. It was an effective way to provide nourishment for families.

When I returned to the U.S., I settled in St. Petersburg, Florida, where I continued as a social worker at a community health center. But the field of social work began to feel limited to me. I felt I was imposing the cultural norm of a middle-class lifestyle on the people I served, who perhaps had other ideas for ways to live.

As I continued to integrate the insights I accrued during my time in The Gambia, I realized that I wanted to think more fundamentally about culture itself. With that in mind, I applied to the anthropology doctoral program at the University of South Florida. In anthropology, we challenge our own cultural assumptions and consider all cultures to be equally valid.

Now, as the department chair of anthropology at Central Connecticut State University, where I’ve been for nearly 30 years, I continue to use my Peace Corps-developed skills to teach my students. I am profoundly grateful for how my service not only influenced my career trajectory, but also shaped my teaching philosophy.

In my teaching, I try to stay open to all the ways people can learn and the ways that culture can constrain our understanding. Recognizing differences in learning helps me nurture my students in all of their diversity and expand their worldviews. I often require students to engage with the surrounding community. Students in one of my classes helped Bosnian refugees get settled into their new homes[SC1] . One student learned that the Bosnian women needed their own private space in the home when one woman requested heavy dark curtains to separate her space in the kitchen from her husband’s space in the living room.

I am also passionate about offering my students opportunities to see the world and develop intercultural competence through study abroad programs. Before they depart for a study abroad program, I help prepare them with the skills and perspectives needed to enter a new community.

I love what I do and can confidently say that I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for the Peace Corps. A radio commercial playing at just the right time changed my life in such a meaningful way. My hope is to be that same kind of advertisement for my students, by sharing with them how Peace Corps service can enhance their life and benefit their future careers.