Jeremy M. Gernand, PhD, CRE, CSP
Assistant Professor | Environmental Health and Safety Engineering
John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering
The Pennsylvania State University
121 Hosler Building | University Park, PA 16802 | jmgernand
[at] psu [dot] edu | 814.865.5861

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Peace Corps Experience

As I was nearing the end of my undergraduate degree–as I recall it was winter break of my junior year, I made a list of things that I wanted to accomplish or experience in my life including things related to family, career, travel, and learning new skills. On that list, among other things, were items such as living in another country, learning another language, and contributing in a meaningful way to those less fortunate than I was.

One day that Fall semester, as I was relaxing from engineering studies in my International Business class, a recruiter from the U.S. Peace Corps came to give a presentation. He happened to be a Mechanical Engineer with a degree from Oklahoma State University, who spent two years in the Peace Corps teaching Math in Kenya (I knew very little about the Peace Corps at the time and probably was not even certain that it was a still functioning government agency). I found out that there was a recruiter on my campus (FYI, there is one here on campus at Penn State, too), and soon was learning all I could about this potential opportunity.

By that summer, in spite of my increasingly worried parents, I submitted my application to be a Math Education Volunteer in some Francophone (French-speaking) country in Africa (in those days, one only knew the overall region one was applying to… things are different now). In the following Spring, shortly on the heels of my first job offer, I received my invitation from the Peace Corps to serve in Guinea. I considered my options for a few weeks, and then told M.W. Kellogg that I would not be accepting their job offer. After graduation, and a few weeks to relax, I packed my life into two large duffel bags and left for 3 months of training in Senegal.

During training, while living with a local host family, I spent nearly 6 hours a day, 6 days a week working on language skills (French or Wolof or Pulaar) and another hour or two learning other necessary bits of information (how to teach effectively, how do calculate a square root by hand, how to disassemble and repair a bicycle, how to make a malaria slide with my blood, if I thought I was infected, etc.).

Near the end of training, I found out that I was assigned to a lycée (secondary school) in a town of about 5,000 people called Kankalabé. I had still never seen Guinea at this point in my life. After leaving the beautiful but arid and sandy Senegal, arriving in the the wet, tropical, and very green coast of Guinea was incredible.

I taught Mathematics in the 9th and 11th grades. My first few months on the job, I was so nervous about teaching in French, that I scripted nearly every word of every class. Thankfully, since the French invented much of our modern mathematics, the nouns were largely the same with a different accent.  By the Spring semester of my first year, I was much more comfortable and could start to joke with my students and answer other non-math-related questions that they had for me. I added 12th grade Math and Physics classes to my teaching load my second year.

In addition to teaching, I also helped my school administration write and submit a grant application to get money to renovate the school. Our school consisted of 10 classrooms and an office in 4 short brick and metal roofed buildings, when I arrived 3 of those rooms were unusable. By the time I left, we had reclaimed all of the needed classroom space.

I lived alone in a house with brick walls and a corrugated metal roof. There was no electricity or running water. In fact, the closest water came from a hand pump located about 100 yards from my front door. I rode my bike the one kilometer to school down a rocky road in the mornings, uphill into town after class for a meal of rice and sauce for lunch, and then back home. Preparing lessons, grading papers, having tea with friends, reading books, and listening to the BBC World Service on the radio filled the rest of my time at my site when I wasn’t traveling to the city to shop, pickup my allowance, or visit with Peace Corps staff or other volunteers.

Cell phones had not penetrated beyond the capital in those years, and only one café in the capital city had internet access, so communication with home consisted of a phone call or email once every couple months, and actual physical letters with stamps.

I left Guinea in June 2000 at the end of my service. I returned home and began to look for work. After a few months of searching I eventually landed a job with a NASA contractor as a Safety Engineer, which set me on my current career path. I returned to visit Guinea in 2007 and reconnected with many of my former colleagues and friends. I still think about my service nearly every day, and never before or since have I ever learned so much so quickly as I did there.