Peace Corps changes alumni lives

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Photo Courtesy of Nick Melrose

Nick Melrose teaches an adult English education class in Thailand. Melrose and other University of Illinois alumni discuss the life-changing experiences the Peace Corps awarded them.

By Kayla Mish, Staff Writer

Nicole Musumeci knew from a young age she wanted to become a Peace Corps volunteer. Her high school teacher’s stories of volunteering abroad, along with her mom’s emphasis on language, culture and travel, helped develop this interest.  

Musumeci graduated from the University in 2005. After this, she was selected to serve in Zambia from 2006 to 2008. She has been back twice to visit since due to the amazing friendships and connections she formed.

“I really wanted to have an adventure,” Musumeci said. “I wanted to have an experience that most people in America don’t have, and to me, that was a much bigger driving factor than trying to dive into that workforce right away.”

During her two years abroad, she worked with the community’s farmers, taught an English class to adults, educated people about HIV and even helped establish a public library. 

One of her favorite memories of Zambia was the sunset each day. Around dusk, people throughout the village returned from the farms, lit fires and prepared dinner while the kids danced and played.

“There was a serenity and a peace that I’ve never felt before that I felt every day at dusk. It was just a really beautiful, peaceful time,” Musumeci said.

Another thing Musumeci mentioned was the impact the Zambian people had on her.

University alumna Nicole Musumeci helps shelve textbooks at the Chadiza Basic Library near her host village, Robi, in Zambia. (Photo Courtesy of Nicole Musumeci)

“They welcomed me like I was family; they took care of me, and where I thought I was going to a place to educate and work alongside the Zambian people, they educated me in a technical way and also in terms of life,” Musumeci said. “That is something I feel I can never repay them for. It was a truly profound experience.”

Nick Melrose, graduate student in Labor and Employment Relations and a strategic campus recruiter, volunteered in the Peace Corps in Thailand from January 2018 to February 2020. 

His main duty was teaching, but in his free time, one of his favorite activities was helping with the bicycle club.  

“Once a week, I would meet up with the students, and I would teach them how to ride their bikes if they didn’t know,” Melrose said. “We would also teach them about ‘bike health,’ like taking care of your bike.” 

Julee Muro de Gerome’s experience with the Peace Corps came later in life. She decided to join mid-career, after a long-time dream to live abroad and really make a difference through volunteering. She served in the Dominican Republic from 2016 to 2018 in the education sector. Now she works as a recruiter for the Peace Corps, finding other individuals like her who have a passion for volunteerism.

In the Dominican Republic, she spent her days teaching and helping out in the classroom. When school wasn’t in session, she planned activities for the children in the community.

“We would get in the shade under a mango tree and maybe learn about environmental issues and then go around and pick up the plastic bottles around the community or maybe plant trees that produce food for the community,” she said.

Being integrated into the community was also something Muro de Gerome said she remembered fondly. Since so many people always stopped to talk to her in the morning, she had to make sure to leave extra early before school.

These interactions helped Muro de Gerome gain the perspective of a culture she was previously unfamiliar with.

“What I didn’t consider was how beneficial it was to me to step outside of my own culture for a while and to really understand that some of my reasoning and decisions were based on cultural values I was surrounded with,” she said.

Peace Corps volunteers come out of their service with an advantage when applying to federal work positions, graduate school benefits, the ability to defer student loans and opportunities for career advancement all at no cost to the volunteer besides their valuable time and work for these communities.

“It isn’t for everybody,” Musumeci said. “It is a unique, challenging experience. When I was in the Peace Corps, the tagline was ‘It’s the hardest job you’ll ever love,’ and that is really true. It is one of the hardest things you will do, but it is also one of the things you will love the most out of your life.”

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