A number of times during his college career, friends and acquaintances told Derek Owens he’d be a good fit for the Peace Corps. After researching the possibilities, he agreed, wanting to spend a significant period of time fully immersed in a culture, refining his Spanish skills and as he put it, “to put off life in the real world.” Plus, he says, “I love providing a service that I truly feel is needed and that I feel is fulfilling.”
He’s called Panamá home since February of 2014, and he’ll be there through May 2016. As a Teaching English volunteer, he’s living in a small indigenous community of about 400 people where he’s teaching English, but also working with 12th-grade students to encourage them to continue on to the university. “The idea and goal,” he says, “is that these students will return to their home after graduation to share more sustainable farming practices that produce more food for the subsistence farmers of the area.”
The community in which he lives may be very poor, but the people he says, “are incredibly warm and welcoming, always quick to brew some coffee over the stove or gift me a plate of their latest meal if I grace them with a visit.”
And while Owens is there to share his language and his culture, he has learned a great deal about the history of the people he lives among. “I have had the opportunity to interact with this still very persecuted minority group and have seen the direct effects of institutionalized racism, which has been difficult to stomach at times and has influenced me in more ways than I can measure.”
A political science major at Clemson with a Spanish minor, Owens says that he gained an incredible amount of self motivation and self direction in his political science classes and leadership skills through Tiger Band that have contributed to his success as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Wherever he heads next, Owens will leave as a different person than when he came, “deeply affected by the opportunity to get to know another country and everything about it in such a more intimate way than I would in any other circumstances.”