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Cattle ranch to mud hut ...

August 12, 2011

For most young college graduates, the idea of cutting off your hair and living in a mud hut might not be very appealing. But for Whitney Jenkins, it is exactly what she wants.
Jenkins graduated in May from Creighton University with a major in English creative writing with an emphasis in international relations. For the next two years she will have the opportunity to utilize both of those fields as a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa.
A 2007 graduate of Callaway High School, Whitney is the daughter of Jim and Julianna Jenkins of Callaway. She credits her small-town roots and upraising on a cattle ranch for getting her where she is today.
During the second semester of her sophomore year of college, Jenkins went abroad to England, and was able to do a lot of traveling throughout Europe. That experience opened the door, she says, for what she knew she wanted to do.
“When I went to Europe, I kind of left behind my American friends and completely immersed myself in that culture,” Jenkins explains. She says she knew that was the only way to truly experience what life was like in another culture.
When she returned to college in Nebraska, Jenkins says she couldn’t stop thinking about how much she enjoyed her trip to Europe.
“I wanted to find something I could do to experience those different kinds of culture.”
That is when she saw an ad for the Peace Corps, “and that was exactly what I was looking for.”
“What really attracted me to Peace Corps is that it is very cross-cultural - they are learning as much from you as you are from them,” she says.
Jenkins also likes the idea of having an opportunity to change the perception the people in these countries have of Americans. By the beginning of her junior year of college, she began the process of applying as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Applying is a very arduous process. “Even though it is volunteer, it is one of the most competitive programs in the country,” Jenkins says. She says there are an average of about 30,000 applicants for about 3,000 positions.
It took a full year to complete the application process, and she just found out June 8 that she had been accepted.
Jenkins says she has always done a lot of service work, and when she began the application process she just amped that up a little. She went to Washington, D.C. and did an internship for half the summer last year with Senator Nelson, then went to Chicago for the other half of the summer where she did an internship with Heartland Alliance working with the homeless.
She explains that every step of the application process is used to determine just how committed you truly are to going into a third world country to live. And applicants don’t have a lot of say in where that will be.
Jenkins says that during the first step of the application process you can rank those areas where the Peace Corps goes in the order of places you would like to go. There is also a selection for “go anywhere and do anything,” That is the one she chose, hoping it would better her chances of being selected.
Once she got further into the process, she was asked to indicate where her preference would be. She chose sub-Saharan Africa.
Jenkins explains that the application was very intense, and very grueling. She says just the medical part of the application was about 30 pages to fill out, and just the slightest mistake or missed entry could force your application to be sent back, and delay the process.
“Being from a small town really gave me an advantage here,” Jenkins explains. She says she got lots of help from the medical staff in Callaway, with one nurse in particular carefully going over the application line by line to make sure nothing got missed.
Jenkins says she has heard that 82 percent of applicants do not get their medical application right the first time, but she did - thanks she says to all the help.
When she was informed in June that she had been nominated as a volunteer, Jenkins was told she would be working as an English teacher. However, she just recently received word that that has changed. She now knows she will be heading to Senegal, Africa, as an agri-forestry extension agent.
“They told me because I had lived on a ranch that put me at the top of the list for agri-forestry. I explained to them that we raise cattle, not crops, and that I have never planted anything in my life! They said just my rural background put me at the top of the list as a candidate for this program.”
Jenkins says the more research she has done on the agri-forestry program, the more excited she is about the opportunity to work in that area. “This is more of a developed program - it has been around for a long time,” she explains. “This program has more of a structure and aim, and you see more results.”
She says every volunteer is expected to form a secondary project aside from the one they are assigned. She will likely do English as her secondary project.
The program is 27 months. She will be in the city of Thies in Senegal for the first three months for training in three core areas - language, culture and technical. While she is there she will stay with a host family, who will help her learn the language and culture of that region.
French is the national language of Senegal, and each village also has its own tribal language. Jenkins says she will more than likely return home at the end of her two years knowing two foreign languages.
She leaves Aug. 29 for Washington, D.C. There she will get all of her shots, and depart for Senegal the next day. She does not know yet what village, or even what area of the country she will be sent to.
She anticipates that when she arrives at her final destination, she will live in her own mud hut. All living quarters must meet Peace Corps guidelines, which includes doors and windows with locks, a bathroom facility, and access to fresh water within walking distance.
Jenkins says she believes her biggest challenge in her role in Africa will be her gender. Senegal is 90 percent Muslim, and women there are still viewed as second-class citizens. As an agri-forestry extension agent, her job will entail working with farmers - a male dominated field. She says trying to get them to trust her and take the advice of a woman for their farms will likely be her most difficult challenge.
This part of the world has been hit hard by deforestation, she says, and her job in Senegal will be to convince farmers of the importance of giving up some of their cropland for planting trees. Not just any trees, but fruit trees - which will not only bring forestry back to the land but will also provide much needed nutritious food for the people.
In preparation for her trip, Jenkins has done lots of research and talked to many other volunteers, some of whom have done what she will be doing. She says that has really helped her to have a better idea of how to prepare.
By the time you read this article, Jenkins’ physical appearance will already have changed. She is trading in her long curls for a very short, easy to care for hairstyle. Water is a precious commodity where she is going, and she says trying to take care of her long hair would not be practical. She says her long hair would also make her less trustworthy to the male farmers she will be working with.
Jenkins says she knows her best means of security in the village where she will be living is to have the trust of the people. She plans to work very hard to learn their language as quickly as possible, and to make herself fit in with both the women and the men.
While she will be the only Peace Corps volunteer actually working in that village, Peace Corps medical staff are located in every country where volunteers are placed. One of the requirements is that she have a health check-up with this staff once a month.
During her two years in Senegal, Jenkins will have 48 days off work. She plans to use that time to travel around the country and neighboring countries as well. She will not be home during that time.
She says she is not worried about that time frame, however.
“College just flew by, and I think these two years will too. It will be gone before I know it!”
Jenkins will have an opportunity to see her parents, who will be making a mission trip to that part of the world next year. As for the rest of her family and friends, she plans to keep them updated via the internet - at least as much as possible. She says she may be able to post only once a month, but will keep everyone informed of her experience on her blog.
Jenkins says applicants are weeded out every step of the way to make sure only the most committed go. She has known for two years now how committed she is, and soon everyone else will know too.
To follow Jenkins on her adventure, check out her blog at

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