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Alumna builds cross-cultural bonds in Peace Corps

When Mills alumna Nicole Johnson, then 22, first stepped into the Camino A La Solidaridad orphanage in Peru four years ago, she was greeted with a line of blank stares and skepticism. As she walked from girl to girl, shaking hands, she couldn’t help but feel that she was just another foreigner to them. As a new volunteer for the Peace Corps, Johnson was going to be spending the next two years attempting to connect with these young women, all of whom had bore children after they had been raped. She decided she would have to change her way of thinking if she was going to help them.

The small town where Johnson was working. (Map design by Lisa Bergquist)
The small town where Johnson was working. (Map design by Lisa Bergquist)

“I realized while working with them that if I always looked at them as a victim then they would always look at themselves as a victim,” said Johnson, now 26.

Johnson is one of 33 Mills alumnae who have served in the Peace Corps since its beginning in March of 1961, according to Leah Woods, a senior at Mills and public affairs assistant for the Peace Corps. These 33 volunteers comprise a small percentage of the 195,000 plus people who have served in the governmental humanitarian organization.

The program — which has sent volunteers to 139 different countries since 1961 — works on such issues as AIDS education, information technology, and environmental preservation, according to the website. Another common thing that volunteers find themselves working on in these countries is youth development. This is exactly what Johnson did when she volunteered at the orphanage in Peru.

“I worked in an orphanage with teen mothers, the girls were all victims of rape, and so I worked with them on health issues and vocational skills,” said Johnson.

“The girls were strong. The youngest girl there was 11 and the oldest was 17 and they all had their babies. It wasn’t just about them, they had to survive because they had another person to care for.”

Johnson held various workshops. In order for these workshops to be successful, Johnson had to learn new life skills as well.

“I learned to be patient and to improvise. If I wanted to do an activity about goal setting, it wouldn’t work because they had no motivation to set goals. So instead of getting upset, I would break my activity plan down. In other words instead of starting with goal planning, we started with ‘What is a goal?’” said Johnson.

For Johnson, her host family became her home away from home. To this day, Johnson still talks to her host family on a weekly basis. She wishes that she could talk to the young women in the orphanage more often, but communication is difficult because the orphanage has no phone.

According to Johnson, the most rewarding part of the journey was building a relationship with these young women. Once they warmed up to her, Johnson realized that all they wanted was to be able to trust someone. She won this trust by telling them when and where she was going to do something and actually following through.

“The girls taught me that you have to overcome certain circumstances in your life,” said Johnson.”And that you can’t think of yourself as the victim or you will never be able to do what you have to do.”

A recruiter from the Peace Corps will be on campus at the Mills College Internship and Volunteer Fair in the Student Union, October 22 from 12 p.m. to 2p.m.