A MONTH AFTER I GRADUATED
from Clarkson I left for Africa, by far the best
decision I have ever made. I went there to make a positive impact, not for my
own personal gain, but none the less I learned a lot about life, gained some
perspective on how a large portion of the world lives, met some amazing
individuals, and reconsidered my career plans. As you can imagine, describing
the three most intense years of my life in a few hundred words is difficult.
In June 2008, I left for Mauritania, the country just south of Morocco on
the West Coast of Africa. For the better part of a year, I taught environmental
education in two primary schools in the town of Bababé. Around that time,
Al Qaeda of the Islamic Maghreb became increasingly active and the decision
was made to permanently close the Peace Corps program in Mauritania.
Not feeling like I had accomplished my goal, I stayed with the Peace Corps
but transferred to the small village of Ségou in Senegal. I spent two years
there, planning and building an ecotourism lodge, while giving some local
entrepreneurs some training in financial management. Those are the facts;
but it doesn’t really give you the story.
The main difficulty in talking about my Peace Corps experience is that
there is just so much that needs to be described. When your Tuesday is
getting up to go to work or school here in the States, there is a lot of shared
experiences for readers to draw upon to understand what that is like. However,
when your Tuesday is getting up out of your hut to go to work in a foreign
country with completely different socioeconomic conditions, when you’re
immersed in a foreign culture, communicating in your second and third
languages, and trying to fit in, then just describing the daily trip to get a
bean sandwich for breakfast would fill this essay space.
Instead, I would like to share a lesson that was really driven home over
the course of those three years — that the experience of life is relative and
entirely subjective. Put another way: Your life is what you choose to make it. I
found that the way people experience their current situation has less to do with
the situation itself and more to do with how they interpret it. Despite vastly
different social, economic and environmental conditions, the daily mental
A lesson I learned in the Peace Corps.
Make America a Better Place.
Leave the Country.
By Zach Swank, Class of ’08
preoccupations of people in Mauritania and Senegal were very much the same
as they are here. Kids ran around and played like always, guys my age mostly
thought about girls and folks my parents’ age mostly thought about family.
You’re going to have good days and bad days, whether you live in a hut or a
penthouse and you are not really going to be preoccupied with either building
on a daily basis. Beyond food, shelter, family and friends, the only things that
seem to matter are the opportunity to
advance your situation in life and the
mental disposition you choose to have.
I say “choose“ because I know many
people in both Mauritania and Senegal
who are in pretty tough situations
by our standards and yet are much
happier than a lot of well-off Americans.
Some of us choose to treat minor “first
world problems” like serious ordeals,
while some of us focus more on an
appreciation of what we have, which
you can do even without visiting a
comparatively worse off place.
We are not bound to react to external events like ping pong balls.
How we choose to interpret what happens to us makes all the
I wish I could share more of the lessons I learned in West
Africa, there were plenty. Instead, I encourage you to travel and
live abroad. My life is permanently better for the experience. I was
able to make a positive impact, and I had quite a bit of fun along
the way. It is fairly typical that Peace Corps volunteers come back
more patriotic than when they left; I am no exception.
Given that, I’ll close with my favorite ad for the Peace
Corps, “Make America a Better Place. Leave the Country.”
To learn more
Ségou Ecolodge project, visit
To read more about Zach’s experiences
in the Peace Corps, visit his blog at
We are not bound
to react to external
events like ping pong
balls. How we choose
to interpret what
happens to us makes
all the difference.”
For Swank, working as a consultant on the
ecotourism lodge and focusing on issues
of sustainability were among the best parts
of his experience. It has also influenced
his career path. Today, he is working at
Natural Capitalism Solutions, a business
sustainability consulting group. Future
plans also include working for a lobbying
organization to represent businesses
pushing for sustainability legislation.