By Rachel Nova, Refugee Women's Empowerment Coordinator and master's student at ASU.
In 2013, with my newly printed bachelor’s degree in hand, I got the letter I’d been anxiously hoping for: an invitation to serve in the Peace Corps in Benin, West Africa. Six months later, I headed to the small francophone country for Pre-Service Training (PST). Over the course of three months, I trained to be an English Teacher at a middle school in rural northern Benin. While I had some teaching experience from an internship in college where I taught English to newly arrived refugees, I didn’t have formal training in education. I knew this was going to be a huge challenge (and it was). In PST, we were immersed in training on classroom management, French, Beninese culture, lesson planning, and so much more. Then, we were off to our sites. In the two years I spent teaching and tackling secondary projects, I grew more than I could have ever imagined – professionally and personally. Teaching became second nature, I became fluent in French and conversational in the local language, and I honed my intercultural skills. I didn’t know it at the time, but these skills and experiences would be the foundation of my future professional and academic trajectory.
When I got back to the US, I knew I wanted to work in refugee resettlement, as I had in college. I started applying for jobs, but there weren’t a lot of opportunities in Denver, where I was living. A fellow RPCV sent me a link to an AmeriCorps VISTA position in Phoenix, Arizona. The position was to be a VISTA Leader for AmeriCorps members working at refugee-serving nonprofits across Arizona. To qualify for a VISTA Leader position, you have to successfully complete some form of national service, so my RPCV status qualified me for the position. I knew this would be a great opportunity to network and develop more professional skills (this time, in an office setting). In 2016, I moved to Phoenix and began my AmeriCorps year. Once again, my life trajectory was forever changed by national service. In this role, I developed skills in public speaking, supervision, project coordination, and more. Most importantly, I developed a professional network in my field of interest: refugee resettlement. When my VISTA year was coming to a close, I started asking around to see who was hiring. A former VISTA at one of the refugee resettlement agencies sent me a job that hadn’t been publicly posted yet: Refugee Women's Empowerment Coordinator. The job was to coordinate supportive programming for refugee women who were recently resettled in Phoenix. It was my dream job. Thanks to the professional network I nurtured during my AmeriCorps service, I was able to land an interview with the Director of the refugee program before the position was ever made public. You've probably guessed by now, I got the job.
I told my friends, "if I could have invented a job for myself, this would be it." For more than three years, I worked with refugee women from all over the world: Somalia, Afghanistan, Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Eritrea, and more. The intercultural skills and communication skills I developed as a PCV were invaluable in nurturing a safe space for women from so many different cultural, religious, and linguistic backgrounds. The project coordination skills I developed in both Peace Corps and AmeriCorps empowered me to revise the existing programs and launch new ones, including an art therapy pilot, a women's leadership development program, and an online store for the women's handmade art. In these three years, I saw the impact of informal education, especially for those who were otherwise unable to access educational programs. I wanted to learn how to do better for underserved populations through informal education. With that in mind, I applied to ASU's masters of Learning Sciences program through the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and the Coverdell Fellowship for RPCVs. I was fortunate to be admitted to both, with the Coverdell Fellowship granting me a full ride scholarship. That brings us to today. I'm halfway through my master's program at ASU and already have big dreams for what's next. To say that national service changed my life is an understatement; it launched me into a career that I love and the truly humbling chance to pursue my academic goals at ASU.
To learn more about national service opportunities, click here.