Thursday, August 28, 2014

New Peace Corp Fellow learned value of community while serving in Panama

Growing up in the suburbs of Detroit, Julie Cislo always had a burning desire to help underprivileged people.

After earning a B.S. in environmental conservation at Northern Michigan University in 2007, she worked for General Motors but found time to volunteer at an adult literacy center. Cislo couldn’t shake the notion of doing more for people in poverty so she joined the Peace Corps.

Julie Cislo celebrates the local holiday of San Isidro with students in Panama.

“They made it financially feasible and I felt I could make an impact,” she said. “There are so many volunteer programs but the Peace Corps is the best. They support the volunteers a lot.”

Panama was her assignment. “It was a nice choice,” Cislo said. “I wanted rural and Spanish-speaking.”

She served in a site in the province of Coclé four hours away from Panama City, teaching English to elementary school children from January 2012 to February 2014. Outside the classroom, Cislo started a recycling program, helped manage a seed bank and trained Peace Corps volunteers in the principles of organic gardening.

Cislo was the dedicated “Seeder” for her province, preserving and distributing seeds to volunteers and people in the community.
Julie Cislo, right, works with a Peace Corps volunteer to prepare plants to be sold at a community nursery.

The Peace Corps taught her to work with limited resources. She also learned the value of working with others. “If I didn’t have a pot or food I could ask my neighbors,” she said.

Some of her most vivid memories will be the “wildlife” she saw on visits to the outhouse. “There were snakes, tarantulas and loose cows. It was like camping for two years. It was great.”

Cislo was unique in that she avoided social media in preparation for her service. “I didn’t know anybody who had served; I wanted to avoid going in with any preconceived notions of what my Peace Corps experience would be like," she said. "I’m glad I did it my way.” She explained that most volunteers had gotten to know each other on Facebook and had read Peace Corps blogs prior to their assignments. “They had more of a culture shock when they would get to their site and see that even a volunteer in the same province could have a very different experience.”

Cislo, the UAF School of Natural Resources’ third Paul Coverdell Fellow, said Alaska was the natural choice for her graduate work. “It all seemed to fall into place,” she said. “I always wanted to come to Alaska.”

Her research will focus on forest soils and she plans to do environmental education volunteer work while at UAF. “I like Fairbanks. Everybody is so personable. Everybody wants to talk to you; there is friendliness and people have a happy demeanor.”

Cislo’s career goal is to work for the Natural Resources Conservation Service and to some day volunteer for the Peace Corps a second time.

In her spare time, she enjoys reading, crossword and jigsaw puzzles, camping, hiking and hanging out with her cat.

Associate Professor Susan Todd, SNRE Peace Corps Master's International and Coverdell advisor, said, “Julie has a great background in natural resources management. She’s also very adventurous; she’s a natural for our program.”

Julie Cislo celebrates a student's birthday under their "rancho."

Professor David Valentine and Associate Professor Susan Todd welcome Julie Cislo to the School of Natural Resources at UAF.

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