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Returned Volunteer Profile

Sumona M.

“Peace Corps gave me an opportunity to go outside my comfort zone and engage in deep self-reflection, which helped me understand my own strengths and how I wanted to apply them in my professional life.”

Sumona M headshot

1. What were your primary responsibilities during service?

I served as an Environment Volunteer in Morocco from 2005 to 2007. I learned Darija (Moroccan Arabic) and lived in a small agricultural village in the Middle Atlas mountains in northern Morocco. I lived in a room in a family compound for the entirety of my service and spent a lot of my time building a relationship with my host family and other members of the community. My counterpart Aziz worked for the Ministry of Water and Forests in a nearby city. I met with him about once a week. Together with my counterpart and the members of my community, we developed a set of projects for my service.

Sumona working with others in Morocco
Sumona with her host family, sifting recently harvested grains of barley.

2. What projects did you collaborate on with your community?

Primarily I coordinated a reforestation project in collaboration with my community and neighboring villages. This involved identifying areas around the community that would benefit from replanting native trees (i.e., eroded areas that were impacting the waterways), as well as identifying species of fruit trees that community members wanted to plant in their own plots. I then coordinated with NGOs and the Ministry of Water and Forest to make fruit trees available to the community for their own benefit with the agreement that they would plant and tend to the native trees. I also worked with the ministry on youth environmental education activities that were primarily geared to school field trips to the mountains. Finally, I worked with the local association to strengthen their capacity and connect them with NGOs. On the side, I regularly gathered with youth in my village and did a bit of English teaching.

3. How did Peace Corps service influence your professional path and development?

Following Peace Corps, I went to Georgetown University Law Center to pursue a legal degree, with the desire to focus on environmental law. Peace Corps gave me an opportunity to go outside my comfort zone and engage in deep self-reflection, which helped me understand my own strengths and how I wanted to apply them in my professional life. I also had an opportunity to appreciate the importance of legal frameworks to protect the environment and natural resources. Finally, I believe my Peace Corps service demonstrated to future employers that I was someone with a commitment to service, a willingness to take on hard things, and an ability to navigate across cultural differences.

2. How do you use the skills you honed during service in your current job?

I am currently the chief executive officer of Earth Island Institute, an environmental nonprofit based in Berkeley, California, that inspires, activates, and supports individual and collective action to protect the planet and its inhabitants. In this role, I draw heavily from the skills I developed during my Peace Corps service. First and foremost, I am constantly managing and responding to new and changing circumstances, which require that I practice adaptability. I also work with a very diverse team and the cultural competence that I honed during Peace Corps has been critical in our effective collaboration as well as in navigating conflict. Peace Corps also taught me that to create durable change you need to first build trust through relationship building. I have embraced this as a leader and I build in time to create trust among members of our team as well as those that our work serves. Finally, Peace Corps taught me to be humble and to really understand that there are many different ways of knowing and doing any particular thing. This understanding has been critical in helping me see different perspective and try out new ways of doing things, which have made me a more effective leader.

Sumona chatting with locals in Morocco
Sumona meets with the village association.

3. How have you shared your experience to help those at home understand the value of Peace Corps service and communities abroad?

During my service, I shared monthly recaps with an extensive list of family and friends. I still hear from them about how much joy these stories brought to them. Additionally, I hosted a large number of family and friends in my village during my service so they could have a glimpse into Peace Corps life. In my present day, I do a fair amount of public speaking and am often asked about my personal journey. I regularly highlight the role that Peace Corps has played in my life. Finally, I also do quite a bit of mentoring and regularly encourage others to consider Peace Corps service.

4. What Peace Corps benefits have been useful to you?

The Peace Corps readjustment allowance and loan forgiveness helped me reduce the amount of debt I had going into law school. I didn’t use the other benefits.

5. How have your remained involved with the Peace Corps community following service?

I have remained involved with my Peace Corps community in a variety of ways. Most importantly for me is that I remain closely connected with a large number of Returned Volunteers (RPCVs) from my cohort and other cohorts that overlapped with my years in Morocco. In my closest circle of friends are several Morocco RPCVs. I am also connected through social media to a few individuals from the community that I served. They were youth then but are now adults and it is wonderful that we are still connected and can share updates and photos. In the first 5-10 years after service, I participated in some National Peace Corps Association activities but as my career and family obligations ramped up, I haven’t had as much time for those activities. Finally, I donate to a few organizations to support charitable work in Morocco.

Sumona walking with a local in Morocco
Sumona takes a walk with her host brother in Morocco.

6. What advice/tips do you have for Volunteers just returning from their service?

  • Try to remain connected with as many of your fellow RPCVs as possible, and reach out to them when you need support (even if you have lost contact!).
  • Do not hesitate to reach out to any RPCV for help in your post-Peace Corps journey. You should consider all RPCVs as part of your professional network. I, for one, am always happy to hear from RPCVs and help in whatever ways I can.
  • Give yourself grace. It is okay if you feel overwhelmed/disoriented/confused by the sudden cultural shift back to life in the U.S. It is also perfectly okay if you don’t have a plan for what is next! Lean on your family and friends, including those RPCVs!