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Medaille Alum Pursues Peace Corps in Ghana
By Megan Fitzgerald ’10
Family can come in all shapes and sizes. Lauren Neubauer ’09 could tell you that.
When Neubauer decided that she needed a change, she wasn’t talking about a new haircut. “I felt like I had to do something more with my life,” she said. And that something more was joining the Peace Corps.
Despite the fact that this undertaking would relocate Neubauer across the globe, to the West-African country of Ghana, she received complete support from her parents, two older brothers, and other members of their close-knit family.
So in June 2011, Neubauer traveled to Kete-Krachi, and began the adventure of a lifetime, teaching high school students science and computer technology, while being completely immersed in an unfamiliar culture.
“I was terrified,” said Neubauer. “Everything was brand new. I didn’t know how to dress, what to say, how to act. I knew American culture, but I didn’t know Ghanaian culture at all.” Since her arrival, she has learned much about the people of her community and their customs, for example, that she can’t use her left hand, as it is considered impure. She has also adjusted to the attention she receives from individuals who may have never seen a white person. It’s not uncommon for them to touch her hair, or her skin.
However, one of the greatest challenges has been adapting to the education system. “The work ethic is nothing like it is in America,” said Neubauer. “If the teacher isn’t there, there’s no class. I’m there to set an example for the Ghanaian teachers, as well.” And even that can be difficult at times, as very few resources are available to teach with.
Making the decision to join the Peace Corps was not simple; she knew that the experience would not be easy. But her Medaille family – professors like Dr. Brenda Fredette and Dr. Robert Johnson, along with classmates and alumni of the veterinary technology and biology programs – enabled her to embark on a truly unforgettable experience. In fact, it was Fredette who connected Neubauer to Jessica Kelly ’06, an alum who joined the Peace Corps four years before her. “She solidified things for me,” said Neubauer. “I was nervous about language barriers and homesickness, but talking to her helped a lot.”
Fredette and Johnson would also write letters of recommendation that would assist Neubauer’s acceptance into the program. “They were behind me one hundred percent,” said Neubauer. And that hasn’t changed. “They’re constantly checking up on me, e-mailing me, asking how my experience is going. They’re so excited about the entire experience. They’re just as excited as my family members.”
As it would turn out, it was not just the personal connection with Fredette and Johnson that would benefit Neubauer in this undertaking. The coursework she completed as a student has also helped immensely. “Being in their classes, and especially doing research projects, has helped me because I’m doing research a lot now,” said Neubauer. “I’m teaching things that I’ve never learned. I have to figure it out for myself.”
Considering the impact that Fredette and Johnson have had in Neubauer’s life, it should come as no surprise that if you asked her, she would tell you that the professors at Medaille are the college’s greatest asset. And the difference that they have made in her life, has allowed her to make a difference in the lives of the Ghanaian students and community members that she now resides with.
And though now she is 5,000 miles away from her biological and educational families, she found when she arrived in Ghana that she had simply become part of another.
According to Neubauer, the people in Ghana are “very hospitable, kind, and welcoming. They are so genuine. They want to help me.” And the connection was immediate.
When she arrived in Old Tafo, a small town in the eastern region of Ghana, she went through a three-month long training process, during which she stayed with a host family. “The fourteen year old girl became my little sister,” said Neubauer. After training, she travelled to Kete-Krachi, where she currently lives. When she returned to Old Tafo three months later, the girl ran to her and burst into tears. “Seeing her reaction showed me how much I impacted her life, and she’s done the same for me.”
It was not just her host family that welcomed her with open arms. The people in her community take care of her as if she is a family member. They cook for her, wash clothes for her, and visit her when she is not teaching. “Everyone is seen as a sister, or a mother or father figure,” said Neubauer. “They took me under their wing.”
The relationships that she has made have been one of the high points of her time in Ghana. “I’m meeting so many awesome people,” said Neubauer. “I’m getting to spread my wings and learn more about myself.”
Despite there being 200 Peace Corps volunteers in Ghana, she is currently nine hours away from the nearest volunteer. “Everyone’s experiences are different,” said Neubauer. “It’s what you make of it. A lot of it is the attitude you have. Everything is a challenge – communicating, the culture – it’s a lot to get used to. There aren’t many opportunities you get like this, to immerse yourself in another culture and learn about another group of people. But you don’t do it any other way.”
And though it’s inevitable to feel homesick at times, Neubauer has no regrets in her decision to take on this adventure. “It’s difficult being away from family and friends, but the connections that you’re making, the difference that you’re making – it’s so worth it to me.”
“I didn’t expect it to be easy. It’s definitely had its challenges. But the good outweighs the bad, for sure.”
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