Knox Graduate Discusses Her Peace Corps Work in Africa
January 16, 2013
by Veronica Gockenbach '14
Elyse Callahan has the spirit of a pioneer. Soon after graduating from Knox College in 2010, she joined the Peace Corps and began working to improve the health of people in Mali and Zambia.
Callahan took a short break from her current assignment in Zambia to return to the Knox campus to share her experiences and present a lecture titled, "Stomping Out Malaria: My Peace Corps Service in Zambia." The January 7 presentation covered her time so far in Mali and Zambia and provided insight into the Peace Corps.
Callahan, who completed the Knox Peace Corps Preparatory Program when she was a student majoring in psychology, has been working alongside the Peace Corps' Stomp Out Malaria program and the Malaria Control and Evaluation Partnership in Africa.
She works with the district health office to monitor the clinics' progress and assists in training programs that teach health workers to properly use malaria tests. As a "community health specialist," much of her job involves discussing disease prevention with local community health workers.
Communication is crucial, Callahan stressed. Clinicians and workers from rural health centers have been using cloud computing to share information about malaria with local health offices, as well as the Ministry of Health, the National Malaria Control Center (NMCC), and partnering non-governmental organizations. Because the data is immediately available and can be updated regularly, Callahan and others are able to communicate better with the NMCC.
An unexpected twist led to Callahan's current line of work. Originally assigned to Mali as a "health education extension agent," she and other Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated from that country after a political coup d'état in March 2012.
Before the evacuation, Callahan spent nearly two years in Mali learning the local language (Bambara), working with schoolchildren, and educating women about basic disease prevention and nutrition. At first, she was unsure of exactly what she'd be doing, as a Peace Corps title doesn't always determine one's assigned job. Instead, the community often asks volunteers to help with whatever project needs the most attention.
Toward the end of her time in Mali, Callahan gathered a group of women together in her compound and began giving them lessons on vitamin depletion.
"It's something that I'm really proud of because it wasn't a lecture. Instead, this was a conversation between us." Callahan said. "And it's what I thought made the most difference."
The evacuation from Mali came as a shock to Callahan. Though she had completed almost two years of Peace Corps service, she had a nagging sensation that there was more to be done.
After returning to the United States, Callahan immediately applied for more Peace Corps positions in Africa. Something about the generosity, intelligence, and pride of the Malians, as well as the feeling of being a part of something beyond anything she had experienced, had ignited a spark within her. This inspired her to begin working in Zambia.
Callahan said the experience has forced her from her comfort zone many times but also led to invaluable benefits. She said she has gained patience and confidence, while becoming more skilled at evaluating difficult situations and solving problems.
After completing her Peace Corps service, Callahan hopes to pursue a career in public health. She is writing about her experiences in a personal blog, Living Abroad.
Allister Byrd, a Knox senior from St. Louis, Missouri, was impressed with Callahan's lecture. (Photo above right: Elyse Callahan speaks with Knox students after her presentation.)
"Recounting her experience was helpful in creating a bigger picture of the Peace Corps and what it's all about," she said. "I like that she participated in what the community really needed."
"She was very open and honest about her experiences, talking about some of the difficulty involved in her service but being able to overcome those difficulties," added Byrd, who is majoring in international relations. "That's vital to anyone who wants to study international relations."
"She seems very knowledgeable and confident," he said. "You can tell that she's really passionate about what she's doing."