Tri-State native headed to Africa with Peace Corps

Published 12:30 am Sunday, June 9, 2013

Maureen Klein talks about living with only the basics, possibly no electricity or running water and limited contact with family and friends for two years with as much worry as if she were describing taking a trip across the bridge to West Virginia.

The Tri-State native leaves home Tuesday for Philadelphia, Pa., to complete the first leg of her Peace Corps training before eventually landing in Lusaka, Zambia, where she will spend three months training before being placed in a rural village.

Listening to her describe how she envisions the next two years, and the path she took to get to this point, it is difficult to remember she is only 22 years old and just completed her bachelors last month.

“I’ve volunteered most of my life in some way,” Klein said. “This will definitely be a completely different experience than volunteering in the states. It’ll be very basic and I’ll be living a very similar lifestyle to that of my host family.”

One of the main reasons Klein said she joined the Peace Corps was to live in a developing country. She said she looks forward to being an English teacher in Zambia, but also looks forward to interacting with people who do fine every day despite limited access to electricity, running water and other such conveniences.

Klein began Agnes Scott College in 2009 as an undecided student with no real thoughts on her future past graduation. She said her interest in international travel and helping others truly began after her freshman year when she traveled to the West African nation of Benin with an anthropology professor and 14 other students.

During her time at Agnes Scott, Klein studied abroad in Senegal for six months, where she also volunteered to teach English as a second language in a local primary school, volunteered as an ESL teacher on campus and double majored in anthropology and sociology and French. She said she believes it was drive and experiences that helped her secure a spot as an English teacher in the Peace Corps.

“I will go with an open mind and without expectations of the students,” Klein said. “One thing someone told me that stuck is, as a teacher, I’ll have an advantage. As a teacher, kids automatically take an interest in you, which helps build a relationship with the community faster than someone doing a different project, such as agroforestry.”

While she has lived in and visited other African nations, Klein said one cannot view all the countries together simply as “Africa.” She said each nation has different cultures and she looks forward to learning from her students and host family in Zambia. Fortunately, she said she has already received quite a bit of insider knowledge on Zambia through a native living in Atlanta, Ga., that she met through a colleague.

Klein said the man told her the culture was very relaxed, which she found to be the case in Senegal as well. She said she was also excited to hear the food was good and music is a big part of Zambian culture. And with safety and security being one of the top priorities for the Peace Corps, she said she really had no fear going to a rural area as a woman, but did feel reassured when he told her there was nothing to fear.

“I’ve had a lot of people question me, asking if I’m worried to go there being a white woman,” Klein said. “And no, I’m not. Not one bit.”

Her experience in Senegal taught her that rural village respect teachers, Klein said. She said there is no worry about leaving home and taking this next step in her life, just anticipation. She said the thing she worries the most about is learning the culture as to not accidentally offend anyone.

While she will be far from a large city, Klein said she will not be out of touch. She said she will have a cellphone capable of sending and receiving text messages and phone calls and purchased a solar charger in case there is no electricity readily available.

Klein said she was surprised in Senegal to find out cellphone service is incredibly good in rural areas. She will also have access to a Peace Corps house in the region. She said the house is dedicated to providing volunteers with electricity for charging electronics and Internet connect to email and Skype those back home.

Peace Corps volunteers can request where they would like to go, but at the end of the day it is up to the Peace Corps to put the people they need where they need them. Klein said she wanted to return to Africa from the beginning and is thankful she was placed in Zambia. She said she’ll miss those back home, and honestly does not know exactly what she will do when she gets back other than begin graduate education. But for now, she said is staying flexible, focusing on the present and ready to give this next chapter her all.