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TARA SULLIVAN

(Oregon)

The Peace Corps Volunteer

"I define success by the positive impact you have in the world."

Tara fell in love with East African culture when she studied abroad in Tanzania. Ultimately, she wanted to get back to East Africa and study a language, so she applied to the Peace Corps. In the spring of 2014, Tara accepted her assignment as an English-teaching volunteer in Rwanda.


For 26 months she lived in a village teaching English, changing the lives of those around her and seeing her own life change. “I learned that I am stronger than I ever imagined,” she shared. “I learned to live with a lot of homesickness and loneliness during my service, and yet I knew that it was worth it to stay and embrace my time there.”


And she truly did embrace her time in Rwanda. Tara secured a $5,000 grant to expand the computer lab in the school she worked at, received an additional grant to create a community library and literacy training and created a program called Let Girls Work.


Tara and three other Peace Corps volunteers designed this program to combat the challenge young women face when trying to enter the workforce in Rwanda. They recruited volunteers who were already teaching career-building classes at their schools and asked them to select three female students to bring to a regional town to job shadow Rwandan women. They also had a weekend filled with mentorship opportunities, college visits and workshops for each volunteer to bring one student to in the capital city, Kigali.


In addition to her work with Let Girls Work, Tara served on the Peace Corps’ Gender and Development committee. She worked on projects to empower young women and educate young men on gender equality issues. She created a new curriculum for school clubs, planned healthy living workshops and trained new Peace Corps volunteers on gender equality issues in Rwanda.


Tara formed lasting friendships with the teachers, students, neighbors and other community members in Rwanda and is still involved with her village. “I am helping to facilitate another small grant there,” she shared. “The library committee is busy doing trainings and other educational programs for that grant. I also still talk with people from my village daily.”

Extended Interview

Why did you choose to join the Peace Corps?

I decided to join the Peace Corps while I was in Tanzania studying Swahili. My junior year of college, I studied abroad there for a semester and fell in love with the culture, language and landscape of East Africa. The director of my program completed her Peace Corps service in Tanzania and gave me first-hand knowledge of her experience. Also, I wanted to find a way to get back to East Africa, study a language and learn about international development from the ground level, so my senior year of college I applied. The spring of 2014, I excitedly accepted my assignment as an English-teaching volunteer in Rwanda.

How do you define success?

I define success by the positive impact you have in the world. I believe this can be measured in small ways, like by treating a stranger with kindness, or larger ways, like working in programs and social services (while also somehow managing to pay your bills!).

What motivates you?

People and my faith. When you have a genuine connection with someone you are serving, I find it to be an incredibly enriching experience for both individuals. I also belong to the United Methodist Church, and find great strength in my faith practice to love and serve everyone.

How long did you live in Rwanda?

26 months.

What was the best part of your experience in Rwanda?

My village. I made so many rich and lasting friendships there with teachers, students, neighbors and other community members. I spent a lot of time sitting through some long church services and meetings, but in the end the community accepted me and loved me. I’ve been back to visit and I still walk through the street and a see a dozen people I know within a 10 minute walk. We don’t have community quite like that here in the United States, and I feel pretty lucky that I was able to experience it.

Can you tell me more about Let Girls Work?

That was my favorite program! I loved being a part of designing and getting the program started. I was in a committee with three other Peace Corps volunteers and we designed a three-phase program. We decided to focus on girls because in Rwanda there are still many challenges for young women to enter the workforce. The first phase involved volunteers from all over the country teaching career-building classes at their schools. During the second phase, the volunteers selected three female students to bring to a regional town for a job shadowing with a local Rwandan woman. For the final phase, each volunteer brought one female student to the capital city, Kigali, for the weekend for mentorship, a college visit and workshops. I found the program really impactful for the students because they were being exposed to other Rwandan women who they could look up to as role models.

Where did you grow up?

Whitefish, Montana.

Where do you live now?

Seattle, Washington.

Who is your role model?

Mindy Kaling, Beyonce and Malala.

What are four things you can't live without?

Chocolate, coffee, wine and music.

The person who nominated you mentioned that you secured a $5,000 grant to expand a computer lab in the school you were working at. How did you go about that?

During my first year of service, my counterpart, Isaac, asked about getting more computers for the school computer lab. We worked together to write a Peace Corps Small Project Assistance Grant, which was approved. He really did a lot of the work to buy all the computers, get them installed and then do teacher trainings so all of the teachers could learn how to use them.

How did you get the additional grant to create a community library?

The community library grant was a little bit longer of a process. There was a small library at the local government office, but it was always locked. I started meeting with some community members who wanted to help get it open for more people and we created a committee. Once we had the committee going, we realized we needed more books and supplies and someone to run the library. I created a Memorandum of Understanding with the local government that if I wrote a Peace Corps Grant, they would supply the library with a part-time librarian. After several meetings they agreed. Peace Corps gave us a small project grant to purchase more books and do a community training on literacy, and the local government provided all of the space and paid the librarian. The community library project took almost my full two years of service to complete, but I think because of the time I took on it, it’s become a model for a sustainable community library.

Why were these two projects important to you?

These projects were so important to me because of the amount of community support they had and the amount of passion the local leaders felt about increasing education in their community. I believe that by empowering people with the tools they need to learn, you can empower the entire community to grow economically.

What were your duties while serving on the Peace Corps’ gender and development committee?

As a committee member for the gender and development committee, I worked on a variety of projects for the Peace Corps Rwanda community that focused on gender equality. We worked to empower young women and educate young men about issues related to gender equality. I did an assortment of activities such as create a new curriculum for the GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) and BE (Boys Empowered) school clubs for the volunteers to use, plan healthy living workshops for students, train new Peace Corps volunteers on gender equality issues in Rwanda and a variety of others.

Did you learn anything about yourself during your time in Rwanda?

I learned that I am stronger than I ever imagined. I learned to live with a lot of homesickness and loneliness during my service, and yet I knew that it was worth it to stay and embrace my time there.

Can you give me a summary of your college thesis?

I wrote about the experience of childhood cancer in Tanzania from an anthropological perspective. When I studied abroad in Tanzania, I did an internship at the only pediatric oncology ward in the entire country. I kept journal entries while I was there and used these observations as the basis of my research. I discussed how pain, international aid and disease all intersected in the hospital along with the culture for the children and their families.

What did it mean to you to receive the International Thesis Award?

All of the students at the University of Oregon’s honor college write a thesis and they award about 10 of those students each year for their work on their thesis. The International Thesis award is given to a student whose thesis is equal to graduate level work and has an international focus.

Are you still involved with the Peace Corps in any way?

I am still involved with my village, but not the Peace Corps directly. I am helping to facilitate another small grant there, awarded by an organization called World Connect.  The library committee is busy doing trainings and other educational programs for that grant. I also still talk with people from my village on WhatsApp on a daily basis.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

When I returned from Peace Corps, I worked for several months for a homeless shelter in Seattle, Washington. I was struck by this experience because the issues involving poverty are so universal. Both in Rwanda and the United States, issues surrounding domestic violence, disabilities and lack of access to education continue to be barriers for individuals and families to break out of the cycle of poverty. I think this is important for readers to know because you don’t have to go all the way around the world to do service. There are plenty of issues here right at home.

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