An Alumna's Compassionate Care Abroad: Mary Grace Reich

By Na’Tasha Jones
Managing Editor, Georgetown Alumni

Mary Grace ReichAll members of the Georgetown community are familiar with and committed to the mission of being “women and men for others” within their daily lives. Often, Hoyas from the School of Foreign Service (SFS) have an additional opportunity to support this charge as part of their education as well as their ensuing careers.

In this interview, SFS alumna Mary Grace Reich (F’13) shares her experience and explains the rewards she gains from putting her Georgetown education and the principles she’s learned into her work with the U.S. Peace Corps in aid of young students at Model School in rural Nyondo, Kavango East, located in the Republic of Namibia.

Georgetown Alumni: How did you come to be involved with the U.S. Peace Corps?

Mary Grace Reich: At the start of my senior year I knew I wanted to look for an opportunity to return to Africa. I had spent quite a bit of time at Georgetown studying about Africa and enjoyed a semester abroad in Ghana. Peace Corps’ approach to development synced well with the cultural sensitivity I cultivated as a Culture and Politics major. I applied to Peace Corps in the fall of my senior year at Georgetown. I received support and encouragement from advisors and professors, especially those who had served in the Peace Corps themselves, such as Emily Zenick (MS’98), SFS associate dean; or those whose children had served, such as Katherine Marshall, SFS visiting professor and senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

GA: Please tell us about your assignment in Nyondo.

MGR: My primary assignment as a Peace Corps Volunteer is to teach English. I prepare lessons, teach, mark assignments and fill out report cards. In addition to the basics, I am expected to collaborate with my colleagues, exchanging different teaching methods, developing teaching resources and encouraging extracurricular involvement with learners.

I have also worked on building up the school’s library, including a solar-lit lending library for learners without electricity. I also started a Girl’s Club to discuss life skills, provided computer training for my staff and worked with learners to start an online news site called Nyondo News that features their writing on Facebook.

Beyond the school gate, I am working with the Village Development Committee to try to push forward their proposal for community water taps, a process that involves the Ministry of Rural Water Supply. Currently the village relies on polluted river water where crocodiles and hippos swim.

Peace Corps’ philosophy (and mine) is that in order to accomplish any of these professional objectives, volunteers first must become not only an observer, but also a trustworthy member of their community. While my life is considerably more comfortable than many of the people in my community, the local challenges that I have adopted (and the time they consume) are a foundational part of my role as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

GA: What part of your experience has had the biggest impact on you personally?

“I'm not here to give to poor people. I'm learning and exchanging and joining with the community.”

MGR: Developing relationships with other Peace Corps Volunteers and my students has had the biggest impact on me personally. The volunteers with whom I communicate and exchange ideas are a diverse and talented group with incredible resilience, motivation, frugality and a desire to give of themselves. They’re Americans who think that two years of their lives is an insignificant sacrifice, mud huts are desirable abodes, cheese is something to be celebrated and savored, and that effort through hardship ought to be endless.

My learners don’t all charm me every single day (they’re middle school and high school kids!), but many of them have shown remarkable strength and spirit to which I can only aspire. Their lives outside of school are difficult to say the least. I know they’re often tired and hungry and bored with classes, which are so limited by resources, but they manage to keep trying and smiling.

GA: What is your biggest challenge while teaching in Nyondo?

MGR: The problems are many and the impact I can make is small. It is overwhelming. I have to learn to walk the line of fostering personal compassion for the struggles I witness and to accept what I can’t change and what likely will not change for many years. I don’t want to become callous to suffering, but I could not continue on if I did not carefully manage how I digest the challenges I see. I have to take it one day at a time and hope that the effort I have extended may make some lasting improvement. I suspect the greatest impact of my work will be through the relationships I have with my learners. That might not look like success on paper or feel like transformative change in the face of so much hardship, but I have to believe that it is worthwhile.

GA: Did Georgetown influence your decision to participate in this project? If so, how?

MGR: I am here because of my time at Georgetown. My professors, classes and study abroad experience made me want to understand the complexities of Africa and culture amidst the international development agenda. Learning from and working with Shobana Shankar, former visiting professor in the Department of History, and serving as a research assistant for Professor Marshall’s Religion and Global Development Project transformed my classroom interests into personal passions. The clear next step at the close of my Georgetown education was to try to experience all that I had read and written about Africa.

Peace Corps’ plan of spending an extended period of time in a single community and attempting to integrate into it during that time jived well with the concept of respect for human dignity and nurturing the whole person, a Jesuit philosophy I learned through my Georgetown experience. I’m not here to give to poor people. I’m learning and exchanging and joining with the community. If I simply got here and went to work, I think my efforts would lack quality and my spirit for it would dry up. It’s the practice of contemplation in action that I was introduced to in Copley Crypt and practiced in Lauinger Library that sustains my spirit and hopefully will sustain some of the work I have done here.

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