Alex Lewis and the Peace Corps

When Alex Lewis entered UMKC as a freshman, he had dreams of studying in the Conservatory. But a switch to history opened up new horizons, as did a work study assignment at International Academic Programs. At IAP, Alex was exposed to the idea of study abroad and decided to spend a summer in Lyon, France on a program run by the UMKC Department of Foreign Languages and Literature. He honed his language and culture skills and decided to make the next leap: an application to the Peace Corps to work in francophone Africa after graduation. Alex leaves for 27 months in Togo, West Africa, in Fall 2012. Read about his journey at UMKC, his upcoming Peace Corps assignment, and how study abroad changed his life.

1) Why did you decide to make the switch away from study in the Conservatory?

Things just weren’t going as well as I’d hoped they would be at that point. I was losing interest and slowly starting to realize that I would feel somewhat unsatisfied as a musician. And - not that I consider myself practical, because I don’t – music and the other fine arts are only sensible options for those who have the motivation and passion to stick with them. I could feel my own motivation waning, so I decided to switch it up. I had always enjoyed history in high school, and once I became truly involved in the discipline, I knew I had made the right choice.

2) Tell us about your time working at IAP. What did you learn and/or experience?

My experience at IAP was wonderful. The staff (who I miss terribly) were wonderful and I learned so much about international education and experiences abroad in general. Mostly, I saw how much of a positive impact that studying abroad had on fellow students. I pined for my own experience, but I thought that my rather late change of majors would preclude me from ever having one. However, I knew that I wouldn’t feel complete with some kind of meaningful experience abroad, and I credit IAP for igniting that desire within me – for making it an urgency rather than simply a “Oh, that would be nice,” or something more fleeting like that.

3) How did you become interested in international things?

I think I’ve always had an appreciation for international things. I am fortunate to have grandparents who reside in London, and so my experiences abroad began at a fairly young age with the occasional visits to them over the summer. I also lived in El Paso, Texas for several years when I was younger, and I can remember taking day trips across the border into Juarez, Mexico where it did at times seem like a totally different world. I began studying French in high school and was lucky enough to have a teacher who really stressed the cultural aspects of the language and all of the people who speak it. We spent entire terms on the various Francophone regions of the world. I remember being particularly engrossed by North and West Africa and how what I thought was this hoity-toity European language was being spoken in places I’d never heard of before. It kind of made the world come together in a way that I’d never really seen before. Multiculturalism is sometimes lost on us suburban American kids.

4) Tell us about your study abroad experience in Lyon. What did you learn?

My study abroad experience was unforgettable. In addition to dramatically increasing my French language abilities, I experienced independence like I’d never experienced it before. It felt amazingly liberating – and gratifying – to be successfully (at least by my small measure) navigating my way through a country with a different language and culture. My host family was incredibly awesome, too, and I don’t think the experience would have been nearly as meaningful without them. I don’t even think I could even begin to tell you all that I learned and gained from my study abroad, but to try to sum it up as succinctly as possible, I will just say that studying abroad is as amazing as it’s made out to be.

5) Why did you decide to apply to the Peace Corps?

Sometime during my junior year at UMKC, it dawned on me that I would be graduating in a year and that I would have to – GASP – figure out what to do with my life. I went through the spectrum of obligatory options for liberal arts majors – law school, graduate study in the liberal arts, almost certain unemployment – before deciding that I didn’t feel comfortable making such a decision without having a meaningful experience abroad. Through much help from a wonderful friend and excellent mentor, the incomparable Melissa Thomas, I finally decided on the Peace Corps. It seemed like the best way to combine all that I really wanted in an international experience into one big adventure: exotic locales, (really!) foreign languages, entirely different cultures, and the ability to do something truly meaningful at the same time.

6) Tell us about your upcoming Peace Corps assignment. Where will you be? What will you do? What will training be like?

I will be in Togo, West Africa. My official job title will be “Community Health Educator/ Public Health Advisor.” More than likely, I’ll live in a small, rural village and work with a number of local counterparts, such as a midwife, a nurse, social worker, or sanitation agent to better the health of the community to which I’m assigned. This will include health service management improvement, community health promotion, health education, youth education on population issues and HIV/AIDS, and community mobilization. This is all coming from the booklet they sent me! I think it’s somewhat vague because I will probably be doing any number of things. From the snooping around I’ve done on some current volunteers’ blogs, I’ve quickly realized that there is little their work has in common, except perhaps on a really general level. As far as training, I’ll spend the first two months living in a town called Tsévié (near the capital, Lomé) with a host family attending daily workshops/courses designed to better integrate me into the community in which I’ll be living. This will certainly include French study, as Togo is in Francophone West Africa (!), possibly in addition to the study of a native language spoken in the region I’ll be sent to. There will also be a lot of professional training, which I know will be invaluable. After training, I’ll be on my own, so to speak. The word is still out on whether or not I’ll have electricity or running water, so I may be wondering come July what I’ve really gotten myself into! I’m really looking forward to it, and I have no doubt that it will be a truly unforgettable experience.