Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Speaks at ‘Let Girls Learn’ Event in London

WASHINGTON, D.C., June 16, 2015 – Returned Peace Corps volunteer Bina Contreras joined First Lady Michelle Obama today to speak about the importance of girls’ education and empowerment during a roundtable discussion at the Mulberry School for Girls in East London. The discussion was part of the First Lady’s Let Girls Learn initiative, which was launched in March to bring increased focus, resources, and impact to the critical issue of girls’ education as more than 62 million girls around the world are not in school. Since the launch, the First Lady has called upon world leaders to collaborate with the United States and to renew their efforts to advance adolescent girls education.

Special Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady Tina Tchen moderated the discussion, which also included U.K. Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening, the Director of Research for Equitable Access and Learning Center at Cambridge University Dr. Pauline Rose, and Camfed Alumnae Association Founder Fiona Mavhinga. Each participant highlighted their personal and professional experiences in relation to girls’ empowerment and education, including Contreras, who spoke about the important role education has played in her life and the girls empowerment projects she spearheaded with her Ugandan community as a Peace Corps volunteer.

“Despite the challenges that my family faced, I pushed myself to achieve my personal goals,” said Conreras, who was raised by a single mother in inner-city San Francisco. “I worked hard in school because I knew that, for me, education was key to my success.”

As a student at the University of California, Berkeley, Contreras studied Japanese and became one of the first females to join the local breakdancing club, later becoming involved with a female hip hop collective called Sisterz of the Underground. She then went on to pursue a career in international education when she met her husband who had served as a Peace Corps volunteer and was interested in serving overseas again. The two decided to apply for Peace Corps together and ended up in a small town in northern Uganda from 2009-11, where Contreras worked with vulnerable youth at a vocational training school and, by pure coincidence, discovered a breakdancing project that had been started by a Fulbright Fellow in the community.

“I started working with the breakdancing group right away and noticed how few girls participated in the program,” she said. “When I asked why, I was told that most girls were not allowed to come. They had to stay home to cook, clean and serve their families.”

With the hopes of empowering girls in her community, Contreras organized a breakdancing workshop for girls that included educational sessions on HIV/AIDS, self-esteem and leadership. The sessions were taught by local community members to ensure sustainability and foster an inclusive community of male and female peers.

“My experience in Uganda showed me what is possible when you give girls a chance to step into the circle,” continued Contreras. “Let Girls Learn will give Peace Corps volunteers around the world the ability to start projects like mine, blending their technical skills and their passions to help their communities invest in sustainable solutions.”

About the Peace Corps: The Peace Corps sends the best and brightest Americans abroad on behalf of the United States to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world. Volunteers work at the grassroots level to develop sustainable solutions that address challenges in education, health, economic development, agriculture, environment and youth development. Through their service, volunteers gain a unique cultural understanding and a life-long commitment to service that positions them to succeed in today’s global economy. Since President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961, nearly 220,000 Americans of all ages have served in 140 countries worldwide. For more information, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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