Living Life in the Peace Corps

April 8, 2019

Rebecca Clay, agronomy alumna (2016) swore-in as a Peace Corps Volunteer in June 2017 and has been living and working in a rural community in the foothills of the Himalayans in Lamjung, Nepal since. At site she works with community members to identity and pursue agricultural practices which address issues of malnutrition, soil degradation, and labor outmigration. Here is an account of her experience so far.

“I’m lucky to have been placed at a site where I can see the Himalayan mountains from my bedroom window—breathtaking, and the geologic giants keep my work and life in perspective.

“Now that I’ve been at site over a year and a half, I’ve made many friends in my community and can speak Nepali fluently and can have basic conversations in the local ethnic minority language, Gurung. Along with learning the language, I’ve loved getting to experience cultural events such as Hindu holidays Tihar and Dashain and celebrations around rice cultivation and full moons.

“Delving into projects at site has been rewarding, even if progress is slow and seem to only have a small impact. My projects have ranged from mycological-- cultivating oyster and shiitake mushrooms—to horticultural—vegetable nursery development, fruit cultivation—to agronomic – utilizing green manures and trialing underutilized crop species such as buckwheat—to natural resource centered—planting perennial fodder plants on highly erodible land.

“Most recently I have been focusing efforts on a grant-funded fruit cultivation and fodder cultivation project. Community members were trained in many aspects of fruit cultivation: from nursery development and grafting to planting, pruning, fertilization, and pest management techniques. To date, we’ve planted over 200 fruit and nut trees using improved planting techniques, and we’ve established a diverse fruit and nut nursery. We are currently starting a fodder nursery using mostly native, perennial species. Before I leave site, I will train community members on contour planting, and trainees will create plans to transfer fodder plants to erosion-prone areas. My hope is that, by establishing these nurseries, community members will continue to plant perennials—reducing labor requirements and soil erosion—even after my service.”

When asked what impact she is making in the community, Rebecca replied, “I hope that my work is inspiring community members to think beyond the current growing season: whether that be by planting fruit trees which won’t fruit for several years or feeding infants a more nutrient-rich diet which will help them prosper in the future.”

Rebecca is thankful for how the agronomy program provided a foundation for her work as a Peace Corps Volunteer, stating, “In addition to providing me with a basic understanding of cropping systems and soil, the agronomy program, especially classes like World Food Issues and Issues in Sustainable Agriculture with Gretchen Zdorkowski encouraged me to perceive agronomics not in just the biophysical realm, but also in social, economic, and political context. Additionally, getting to be a peer mentor and teaching assistant provided me with skills and confidence to facilitate trainings.”

“In a more applied sense, I’ve even used some lessons and activities from my agronomy education such as a nutrient cycling activity similar to that which I did for some in Dr. Wiedenhoeft’s Systems Analysis in Crop and Soil Management coursework to explain the importance of erosion control and green manuring.”

“As a fellow volunteer said, it is nice to be living life at the pace of nature: nothing in a rush (so different from my college experience) and everything in its own time. I have quite a bit of free time here, which I enjoy by reading, walking in our local forest, spending time with community members, trekking, and working in my small garden.”