Jimmy Shirley (’75) on safari with his son Kyle Shirley (’08) who was serving as a Peace Corps Education Volunteer in Tanzania ’12-’14
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.”
Passion for global health
My friends say that going to Clemson was one of the best decisions of their lives. For me, attending Clemson wasn’t much of a decision; the education and scholarships offered by Clemson made it an unbeatable option. I couldn’t sit still when I found out I’d been accepted; I’ve had a lifetime of love for Clemson and couldn’t wait to be a Tiger.
Though I studied math, Clemson helped me explore another passion of mine: global health. I took a discussion-based course on infectious disease and worked with faculty to complete a senior research paper on the prevention of influenza transmission.
Most importantly, though, Clemson’s Honor College allowed me to spend a summer building houses in an impoverished community in India. That experience exposed me to the material needs of developing nations as well as establishing my ability to assimilate in their cultures. It gave me the passion and confidence to join the Peace Corps after graduation.
My two years with the Peace Corps in Mozambique has been a challenge. I arrive to my community via canoe (mind the hippos!) and have a six-hour hitchhiking journey just to check my mail. I teach 11th grade math in Portuguese, a language that I saw for the first time only 10 weeks before classes started. Aside from teaching, I’ve helped coordinate a provincial science fair and a national women’s empowerment organization. I’m also finalizing plans to develop a sustainable school meal program at a nearby primary school.
The passion I developed for global health at Clemson has only grown as I’ve experienced the reality of health care access in rural Mozambique. It’s a reality that still shakes me every day. Though I work primarily as a teacher, I also volunteer at my community’s health center. HIV, tuberculosis and malaria are all very common, but nothing has affected me more than witnessing infants with severe malnutrition. If they weren’t cradled in my arms, it would be hard to imagine children whose parents are too poor to feed them.
My work at the health center has inspired me to return to medical school and study to become a pediatrician. I hope to split my time between working with America’s urban poor and the most health care-deprived populations in the world via Doctors Without Borders. It’s a future that I can’t wait to start and one that I owe, at least in part, to Clemson.
Though I studied math, Clemson helped me explore another passion of mine: global health. I took a discussion-based course on infectious disease and worked with faculty to complete a senior research paper on the prevention of influenza transmission. Most importantly, though, Clemson’s Honors College allowed me to spend a summer building houses in an impoverished community in India. That experience exposed me to the material needs of developing nations as well as establishing my ability to assimilate in their cultures. It gave me the passion and confidence to join the Peace Corps after graduation.
View a video about Mac’s experiences in Mozambique: