Interviews with Returned Peace Corps Volunteers
Today on Say Your Peace we’ll be talking to Eric Otto, a graduate student in University of Minnesota’s Department of Plant Pathology, and a returned Peace Corps Volunteer from Ghana. Read on to learn more about Eric’s work in Ghana and how he got involved with Peace Corps.
Where did you serve in the Peace Corps, and which sector did you work in?
I served in Ghana as an agriculture volunteer from 2012 to 2014.
Why did you decide to work with Peace Corps?
I took a somewhat circuitous path towards serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I graduated from the University of Minnesota with a B.S. in forestry and then worked seasonal forestry jobs in Wyoming, Minnesota, and Maine. I decided to join the Peace Corps to perform international work in forestry and open my eyes to a whole new world.
Did you have a mission upon entering the Peace Corps? Do you feel that you completed that mission?
My mission initially was to gain experience in international forestry and help a community in this facet. In addition to that, I wanted to experience a lifestyle different than to what I had grown accustomed in the United States. I ultimately didn’t work too much in forestry. I mainly assisted maize farmers and taught science at the junior high school in my village. I did, however, help plant a vast amount of mango and moringa trees that I hope are still thriving. In regards to the latter, I completed that mission by immersing myself in a new culture and trying new things as often as I could. I lived in a very small rural village and near the end of my service felt like a true part of the community.
How did the experience compare to your expectations?
I believe that prior to the Peace Corps you shouldn’t have strong expectations of what you vision your service will be. You should be ready for any type of situation that is thrown your way. I wanted to go to a small village and had some expectations prior to my arriving there. However, I didn’t realize how small and remote that location would be until I arrived. Also, as stated before, I wanted to work in forestry, but mostly worked at the school and with maize farmers. So, you can have expectations, but don’t expect them to necessarily be met.
What was the biggest challenge you faced? How did you overcome it?
Even though I wanted to serve in a small village, the romantic view I had envisioned did not quite measure up. Initially, I felt somewhat isolated and found it difficult to establish different projects. The community, though, welcomed me with open arms and was helpful in making me feel at home. This helped me overcome my initial isolation and integrate into the community. Eventually, I provided as much help as I could in the different sectors of agriculture, education, and health.
What was the most valuable part of your experience? What did this teach you?
The most valuable part of my experience was traveling from rural Minnesota to rural Ghana and still arriving to the point where it felt like home. It took some time to reach that point. But by the end of my service, I felt a part of my community by teaching at the school, working on the farm, and going to the local market with my village friends. This taught me that the world is a small place and people can live and work together by establishing a strong bond with each other.
Do you have a favorite/most influential story from your time serving?
The story that comes to mind is when I started a few small demonstration gardens in my village. In one of my gardens, I planted a vast amount of moringa trees that thrived. The moringa tree produces leaves that are very nutritious and full of vitamins, minerals, proteins, among other essential nutrients. This tree was not widely cultivated in my area, but after the village saw how successful my trees were doing they wanted me to help them get moringa seeds and establish their gardens. I wrote a seed grant to obtain moringa seeds and distributed them to farmers who were serious in planting them and taking proper care of their trees. The trees are a favorite snack of many animals, so it was important that the trees were protected from its predators. Some of the trees were growing before I left, but I hope that some of these gardens are still thriving now. The moringa tree grows very easily and can help combat malnutrition, so I was glad to see the enthusiasm for growing this tree and incorporating it into different meals.
Would you recommend working with Peace Corps? Who do you think is well suited for the Peace Corps?
I would recommend working with the Peace Corps. I believe a qualified candidate for the Peace Corps would have a good educational background, be adaptable, and have the right attitude. I feel most people that have a skill to offer and are willing to serve for two years should apply because it can be a life changing experience.
Do you have any advice for prospective Peace Corps volunteers?
My advice for prospective Peace Corps volunteers is to apply if you are wholeheartedly interested in serving and will be flexible as to where you are placed. I think you need to be fully invested in what you are about to embark upon. Twenty-seven months is a big commitment and you should be prepared to serve the full term. You also need to be flexible about where you could be placed. You might have a prior mindset as to what your site might look like and then have it be totally different upon your arrival. Also, it might take some time to settle into your site and start a working relationship in your community. That should be expected, but you need to be patient sometimes before good things start to happen.
What are you up to now?
I am currently a graduate student at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Plant Pathology. My research focuses on Heterobasidion root rot of pines. This pathogen is one of the most important in conifer forests in North America because of the root rot and tree mortality it causes. Although this root rot disease is present in other parts of the United States, Heterobasidion irregulare is a new invasive disease in Minnesota. My research focuses on determining the distribution of this pathogen in Minnesota, studies in its biology, and evaluating new biological control methods. Outside of graduate school I enjoy trail running, biking, fly fishing, and searching for different forest fungi.