Friday, April 18, 2014

Liben regales with stories of dancing across Peru

When Sarah Liben arrived in Peru as a Peace Corps Volunteer she barely spoke Spanish and was assigned to a town that hadn't previously had a Peace Corps presence.

Talk about being outside your comfort zone!

Sarah Liben, left, gets a hug from classmate Haley McIntyre after Liben's presentation April 17.
Liben, a current SNRE graduate student, persisted and survived. Talking to the Natural Resources Management 692 students April 17, she called those three years a unique experience.

Growing up in Connecticut, Liben studied for three months in Tanzania while in high school. On the way home from Africa, she made up her mind to serve in the Peace Corps. After earning a degree in natural resources management from the University of Connecticut, Liben applied to the Peace Corps and got her assignment to Peru, an "OMG moment" in her life.

"I've been an environmental bum my entire life," she said. "I wanted to understand how developing nations address environmental issues."

Liben lived with a host family for three months while going through training and learning Spanish. Then she was assigned to Yauyos, in a rural community of 300 called Alis, at 10,000 feet altitude. Just getting there was an adventure. Traveling in a rickety bus on twisting mountain roads brought some scary life moments.

While living in Peru, Liben trained to run a marathon and took up with a sweet black dog named Goofy.

Her work focused on reforestation, solid waste management and environmental education. She and the village children planted trees around the landfill. Later when she returned and saw how tall the trees had gotten, she shed a few tears.

Cultural immersion is important for Peace Corps Volunteers, Liben said. "You've got to get with the community so I danced a lot."

In her next place, Olmos, she helped with an environmental radio program, "The Ecological Hour," and worked with schools to integrate environmental, risk management and health curriculum. One of the big issues was HIV and AIDS prevention. Liben obtained a grant allowing her and two teachers to attend a training workshop.

She hosted a recycling competition for children and presented puppet shows with environmental themes. Spending time with children enriched her Spanish skills and six months in, she was fairly fluent. Liben said it was hard for people to view her as a professional when she had second grade language skills. "Once people see that you are here to stay and your language advances you form relationships and earn respect," she said.

It also took time to adjust to the high altitude and not to get sick all the time from the food and water.

"You realize quickly this is reality," she said.

To be a good Peace Corps Volunteer it takes flexibility. "You've got to learn to be resilient," Liben said. "You are not in your comfort zone and you've got to be OK with that. You need to be adaptable, chill, have fun and be there for the right reasons."

The Peace Corps turned out to be a wonderful experience for Liben. "It was the best thing for me," she said. "I wouldn't have done anything differently. It refocuses you and your whole life is different after the fact. It does have lasting impacts whether they are visible or not.

"It was an adventure every day."

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