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Volunteer reflects on El Salvador, excited to recruit during Peace Corps Week

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Arizona Daily Wildcat

Leah Iverson, a Peace Corps volunteer, teaches English to high school students in El Salvador Iverson spent 27 months in a rural village on the Salvadoran coast.(Photo courtesy of Leah Iverson)

When she was 22, Leah Iverson found herself living alone in a small, rural village on the coast of El Salvador. This village was what she called home for the next 27 months of her life; Iverson had joined the Peace Corps.

Iverson said she had always known this was something that she wanted to do.

“I knew that I did not want to go directly into the workforce full time,” Iverson said, “I wanted an opportunity to go abroad, to learn another language, to be able to travel a little bit more while getting paid but also doing something significant.”

She applied for the Peace Corps in the fall of her senior year of college in 2005 and after graduating with a degree in anthropology and waiting almost a year to receive the paperwork and training, Iverson was finally given her assignment as a youth development volunteer.

“I actually had to Google where El Salvador was because I wasn’t sure where it was,” Iverson said. “I knew it was in Latin America but that was about it.”

Upon Iverson’s arrival to the small village of San Carlos Lempa, she quickly realized that she was the only Peace Corps volunteer for miles and her Spanish was not as solid as she had thought.

“I went down there pretty confidently. ‘Oh yeah, I’ll be able to speak the language, I’ll be able to understand what people say to me.’ Oh, no. It was totally a shock,” Iverson said. “My accent was so horrible. It was so Americanized that I was speaking Spanish, like correct conjugations and verbs, but nobody understood a word that I said.”

After becoming more confident in her speaking abilities, Iverson started to focus on her goals for youth development. She began working in three different schools in the town and aided them in learning English and computer skills. In her free time, Iverson created a female soccer team for the young girls of the town as an opportunity for them to do something other than their routine of cooking and cleaning.

“I thought it would be a good way to reduce the cattiness of these females in town because at that age, girls are fighting about boys, especially because the selection is kind of limited,” Iverson said.

With this goal in mind, Iverson went door-to-door asking girls’ parents if they could join the team. After receiving overwhelming support from the community, Iverson recruited a solid number of girls and immediately started practicing six days a week with games every Sunday.

Success, however, did not come easy to the team. The players did not play well together and many of the girls could not afford cleats or shin guards. Nevertheless, within a couple of months, the team began to mesh and started winning local tournaments, earning them free equipment and cash prizes. Iverson’s team lasted long after her Peace Corps tour ended and is still successfully playing to this day.

“That was a really fun thing where you don’t even feel like you’re working,” Iverson said. “Yes, you’re making a difference. You’re helping out but truly it was just an opportunity for something to happen in the community.”

While playing with her soccer team, Iverson also became involved in the local women’s group. The group consisted of almost 75 women and Iverson helped them create sustainable fundraising activities.
She helped organize a garage sale in the town, in which raised an estimated $115 and created a plastic bottle recycling program that earned the women’s group $110.

“I grew a lot. I left being really patient, really mature and really worldly. I completely feel like I’m a part of Salvadoran culture,” Iverson said.

Upon returning to the U.S. after her tour in the Peace Corps, Iverson decided to go back to school and seek her graduate degree.
She is currently in the public health graduate department at the UA and is a member of the UA’s Peace Corps Coverdell Fellows program.

The UA’s Peace Corps fellowship program is one of the top in the nation and offers returning Peace Corps volunteers a full tuition scholarship in return for a commitment to serve the local community through service projects and internships.

“It gives the students the opportunity to take what they’re learning in the classroom and apply that in the community setting,” said Georgia Ehlers, director of Fellowships and Community Engagement in the Coverdell program.

Iverson will join the rest of her fellows this week in celebrating national Peace Corps Week, which started Feb. 24 and will end March 2.

There will be several events occurring around campus, including the Peace Corps Fair today from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the Student Union Memorial Center, the International Development Mixer on Wednesday from 9:30 a.m. to 11 a.m., also in the student union and finally two back-to-back lectures Thursday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. in the student union, featuring Peace Corps Chief of Staff Stacy Rhodes.

“I’m very excited about returning to Tucson to help recruit Peace Corps volunteers at the University of Arizona,” said Rhodes. ”I have a strong emotional attachment to the school and to the town. It is my home and where I grew up. I am very anxious to encourage young people from Tucson and students at the university to do this kind of service.”


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