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
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