UCF alumna Paris Nunn hasn’t had reliable electricity, water or cell service for 18 months.
Nunn, 24, has spent the past 18 months in Ethiopia as a Peace Corps health volunteer. She works to teach the local primary and secondary schools as well as the local health center about hygiene, sanitation, water management, malaria, HIV and gender empowerment.
The number of people volunteering with the Peace Corps is currently on the rise, according to the organization’s Annual Volunteer Survey, increasing from 5,344 in 2014 to 5,754 in 2015.
"There are currently 21 UCF graduates serving as Peace Corps Volunteers in Cambodia, China, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kosovo, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Senegal, Swaziland, Togo and Tonga," said Emily Webb, a public affairs specialist for the Peace Corps. "They are serving in the sectors of agriculture, education, environment, health and youth development. Since the Peace Corps was founded in 1961, 255 UCF graduates have served overseas in the Peace Corps."
A 2014 graduate, Nunn left UCF with a bachelor’s degree in sport and exercise science, and a desire to help others. A year prior to graduation, Nunn said she had a discussion with a Peace Corps recruiter that changed her life.
“At the chapter of life we are in college, it’s a huge responsibility for us to decide where we will take our lives,” Nunn said. “I’ve always had a passion in health but was not sure what track to take. I was not ready to head into the workforce without a set passion. However, I knew for sure that I loved to give service to others, and I wanted to travel the world.”
Nunn isn’t the only UCF student feeling pulled toward the Peace Corps.
Emily Sladicka, 21, first learned about the Peace Corps when she was 17 but didn’t seriously consider it until this past March.
“I am one of those people who cannot stay in one place for a long period of time,” she said. “I get bored easily. I am looking for more out of life. I don’t want to work a 9 to 5 job at this moment in my life.”
Sladicka, a senior majoring in social work with a focus on holistic healthcare, has a history of volunteer work. She’s worked with YMCA, the Children’s Home Society in Jacksonville and the PACE Center for Girls.
“I feel like I have served my community and left my mark here in Florida,” Sladicka said. “I am looking for more — a unique experience, something drastically different than the United States. I wanted to be outside of my comfort zone. I wanted to be challenged.”
She said the Peace Corps is “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”
“That is the Peace Corps motto, and I stick by it because every single recruiter I have talked to said that this is the most rewarding, challenging, stressful job you will ever fall in love with,” she said. “The Peace Corps is serving abroad in a developing country … You will most likely be the only volunteer in your community, so you basically do everything on your own, and you learn everything as the days go by.”
Sladicka said the Peace Corps is about bringing your skillset to a community and making a difference. Nunn is currently trying to make a difference in a village of 2,500 people on a monthly salary of $150. A single birr, the currency of Ethiopia, is equivalent to half a cent in American currency.
“I live in a village and do not need or buy much, so this is enough,” she said. “To put it into perspective, my rent is 500 birr a month, which is $25, and my food that I buy from the local market for the month is 100 birr, which is $5. You can’t even find an avocado at Publix for $5. It’s a simple life.”
Though the work is hard, Nunn said she enjoys working with her village and has even learned the local language, Amharic. Her most memorable experience working with the Peace Corps was during Camp Girls Leading Our World, also known as Camp GLOW. The camp aims to empower women and teach attendees about women’s health, leadership and other life skills.
“Usually these girls haven't ever left their towns, so it’s an adventure,” Nunn said. “They start camp timid and shy and leave on the last day as new girls, with new friends, and ready and willing to teach their communities what they've learned and become great leaders and role models.”
Nunn will direct a Camp GLOW this summer from July 25 to July 30. She said the most important aspect of all her work is integration.
“[B]uilding the relationships in your town is the base of everything,” she said. “Integration is the most important part of your service to build the trust of your community so that they can open their minds to what you have to say and why you are there.
“I have a theory that they might not use any of the information I teach them after I leave. However, they will not forget the relationships we have built together, and how you make people feel is so much more important than data or reports. I am the first and only foreigner to live in my town, even that some of these people have seen in real life! I’m setting the tone for the volunteers that come after me and their view of Americans.”
In her free time, Nunn said she enjoys going on morning runs to relieve stress, venturing into the city for Wi-Fi and a hot shower, or meeting up with other volunteers.
“But my favorite thing to do is hang out with the people in my village,” she said. “We drink coffee, speak about life and just enjoy each other's company. Hanging out with the kids is always fun as well, playing sports and games.”
Nunn said she hopes to join the Peace Corps Response, a program for more experienced volunteers who have already completed at least one 2-year program, after she finishes her 27-month assignment in Ethiopia.
She also wants to attend medical school with the goal of joining Doctors Without Borders.
“No matter what the future holds, this is the toughest job I will ever love and will ever have,” Nunn said.
Sladicka said she is currently getting her medical information in place before she can be accepted to the Peace Corps and hopes to be placed in Moldova on a health program. She will be interviewing with the Peace Corps in August.
“From research I have done, I am aware that Peace Corps service presents severe day-to-day challenges: isolation, sickness, language barriers, oppression as a female, lack of anonymity and cultural differences,” Sladicka said. “… This experience will be like no other, and more times than not, I will be uncomfortable and homesick, but this is all a part of the journey.”
For more information on the Peace Corps, visit www.peacecorps.gov
Alissa Smith is the News Editor for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @thealissasmith or email her at AlissaS@centralfloridafuture.com.