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Local woman returns from two-year Peace Corps assignment

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Anisha Suri, third from left, says the gender and development camps, as well as the English camps, were a special part of her Ethiopia experience. (Submitted Photo)

Not many New Mexicans have ventured to the remote area of the world where Anisha Suri has lived.

A 2013 Goddard High School graduate and a 2017 University of Texas graduate, Anisha Suri plans to attend law school soon. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

The 2013 Goddard High School graduate recently returned to her hometown of Roswell after a two-year assignment with the Peace Corps.

Most of that time was spent teaching English to youth in an agricultural village of about 600 people in south Ethiopia, a country with a gross national income per capita of $660.

“It is nice to be home, to be in one place for a little while,” she said. “I was traveling a lot, especially toward the end. I was traveling a lot in Ethiopia for work.”

Suri, who also earned a bachelor’s degree in international relations and global studies from the University of Texas at Austin in 2017, now plans to go to law school. She is studying for the LSAT, the law school exam, and looking for work until the fall of 2020, ideally with a political campaign or an endeavor that will help prepare her for a law career.

Teaching is not something she thinks at this point she will pursue.

“I did enjoy it,” she said, “but the culture there is very respectful of teachers. But I don’t think it is necessarily that way everywhere. I think teachers have a tough go of it.”

Suri said that she considers her experiences to be life-changing for a number of reasons.

She has made good friends with other Peace Corps volunteers, the term used for those who serve, although they receive a small living stipend matching the living standards of others in their communities of service and some financial compensation after finishing the assignment. Suri also was able to learn new languages, immerse herself in new cultures. And she was able to travel quite a bit, including to various areas of Africa and South Asia after her assignment ended. It also was a period of intense personal growth, she said.

“There is a saying in Peace Corps that you have the highest highs and the lowest lows. And that is definitely true,” she said. “You feel a lot of things more deeply, but overall I would say that I had a really good experience. And personally I think it is a good idea for young people to have some exposure to national service of some kind. I just think there is a lot of personal growth that happens that can’t happen when you are inside your comfort zone all the time.”

She acknowledges that the language barrier was challenging — especially since some of her students knew only the local dialect of their village and not the national language of Amharic that Suri had learned as part of her training. But she said that people bent over backwards to help her, and not only with language. She talked of how they would be sure to check on her or invite her to their houses for meals when the electricity was down, which was quite often.

“It was definitely challenging, but I also loved the people and loved the students and loved the culture,” she said.

In addition to facing the type of challenges most teachers face getting students to study and learn and dealing with the language barriers, Suri also had to deal with situations unique to the village. For example, she said, sometimes it was the students, not the school, that decided when the academic year began or vacations were over.

“Summers are very long. There are no set times when school starts,” she said. “Theoretically it was supposed to start Sept. 15, but it depends on your region. So we didn’t start until Oct. 15. You go to school. The teachers go, and no students come. They decide, like, OK, we are coming to school now. The same is true with holidays, too. You have a few days off for a holiday, but it will turn into a whole week or two weeks. It will just depend on what they want.”

She also dealt with exhausted students who walked hours to and from school each day and also worked long hours on family farms and in family businesses.

The point of her work was to teach English to students so that they could pass the National Exam, a requirement for continuing on to 11th grade. She also staffed two summer camps, one for English and one about gender and development, for top students in the area.

“I would say for my top students, it (language instruction) definitely made a difference, especially taking them to camps,” she said. “They have no exposure to any students outside their village, and to come together with students from all these different areas was very beneficial, and not just for English.”

Suri said she felt safe in her village and in the nearest city, Arba Minch, although there had been political protests in the country during her time there. Among the most noticeable effects in the southern region of the country was that all internet and Wi-Fi would be turned off.

Because Peace Corps service is available for adults of all ages, Suri recommends that people with an interest consider it, although she said even her relatives remarked at her coming-home party that she was the only one in their group who would have been willing to experience life as she did.

“It is not for everyone, for sure,” she said, “but I think it is a very good opportunity to have personal growth in ways that you wouldn’t even know.”

The Peace Corps was formed in 1961. Since then 235,000 volunteers have served in 141 countries working on projects or in fields related to health, education and youth development, agriculture, environment, business and community development. About 7,500 volunteers served in fiscal year 2019.

Senior writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 311, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.