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Brian sutton

Forestry Extension Agent, Volunteer for the Peace Corps, Zambia, Africa

 

How did you come to find the Peace Corps, and what drove you to apply?

I’ve wanted to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer since I was 16. Peace Corps was introduced to me in history class amidst the rhetoric of the Civil Rights Movement and JFK’s inaugural sentiment, “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” The opportunity to do necessary, good work as well as a chance at true adventure drove me to apply. A few months after graduating from Stony Brook I wrote my application, checked the “I will serve anywhere” box, and I was accepted and sent to Zambia.

What is your job?

As an environmental sector volunteer in Zambia, I have been partnered with the Zambian Forestry Department and am working with them as a Forestry Extension Agent. Our goal is to make the connection between environmental and economic sustainability here in the village.

What does a typical day at work look like?

As a Volunteer, you are on the clock 24/7. The typical day begins with an exchange in the local language, KiKaonde, as I collect coals from my host-mother to start a fire and prepare breakfast. After coffee I work for several hours in my garden, which serves as a demonstration for farmers interested in honing their craft and improving their household’s dietary diversity. Following lunch, I will usually hold a meeting with one of several active community groups — the local women’s group, beekeeping cooperative, or neighborhood health committee. These groups are working together on projects that empower women, improve incomes, protect the forest, and address issues of health and malnutrition. Finally, after dinner the evenings are reserved for reading.

How has your experience at Stony Brook generally and in the English Department in particular (a) helped you find your first job after graduation, and (b) helped you in your current work?

I had the vision of serving with the Peace Corps before I entered university, but my experience at Stony Brook cultivated me into the volunteer I am today. My time as a student in the English Department was especially impactful. English classes were always where I felt most free in my learning. While of course we discussed texts as a class, I found it required a great deal of self-

determination to truly engage a work of literature. It’s a very personal experience, as you must also allow yourself to become vulnerable to a work in order to properly empathize with it. Serving in a village hundreds of miles away from the nearest grocery store certainly requires a healthy dose of independence, and the process of becoming totally present in a work of literature has translated to the work of becoming totally present in my village. My story and the story of Yamakwakwa are forever entangled. I recognize there’s a bit of a paradox there, and that is another thing the English Department helped prepare me for—the coexistence of differing ideas and interpretations.

What is the best / most frustrating / most challenging / most satisfying part of your job?

The best: Simply living here in Zambia. I sleep beneath a roof held by four walls made from the same earth that feeds me. I am surrounded by forest with few distractions. I cook my meals on a fire. There are more stars in the sky than a NYC kid like me could ever have imagined. It’s every poets dream.

Most frustrating: The most frustrating, yet most rewarding part of my job initially was learning a new language. To make it in Yamakwakwa, my village, I had to learn KiKaonde, one of 72 local Bantu languages spoken here in Zambia. However, after nearly two years now of struggling to get my point across I have become a confident KiKaonde speaker.

Most challenging: The most challenging aspect of my job has been living away from my family for nearly two years. I miss them terribly, but our ability to keep in touch has been crucial to my well-being.

For Stony Brook students interested in your line of work, what is your advice for what they should study or do at this point in their education?

First and foremost, study abroad. Studying abroad gave me the opportunity to consider life away from home and how I might fare in the Peace Corps in a real and practical way.

Perhaps you don’t have the resources or time to study abroad—that’s okay. As far as one’s studies in the English Department, studying the language, and especially the literature, of a different culture provides an enriching context for cultural integration.

Finally, internships or otherwise opportunities to teach or serve your community would give you a clearer picture of what you’re interests are and best prepare you for the 27 months (or more) of service that await you in Peace Corps.

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