"I just can't imagine not having had the experiences that I've had. They've just done so much to shape me, open my perspective on life and people, and see beyond myself and beyond my own country." (Devonna, Episode 60)
Today we've hit a new milestone! 60 episodes! Normally this would be an occasion for me to put out a new "Ten Cents" episode next week to reflect on the show and what I'm hoping for going forward. But the 2nd anniversary of Young, Gifted and Abroad is coming up on June 19th (Juneteenth), which is less than a month away! So I'll just save my reflections for the anniversary episode! In the meantime, there will be another regular episode out in two weeks. And for now, we're focusing on this week's guest: Devonna McCarthy. She's the second guest on this podcast (after Flor Montero from episode 50) to discuss their time in the Peace Corps.
Devonna and I both went to Michigan State University for undergrad, and we met through being members of the MSU Gospel Choir. She stayed in the choir longer than I did, and over the years we would see each other in passing on campus, and later kept in touch online. She's very active on social media, and I watched and read in real-time as she posted about her life while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Jamaica—I also saw when it didn't end on good terms. It wasn't until recently that I realized I'd somehow missed the fact that she'd studied in Tanzania as well. So, after I came back from my podcasting hiatus in January of this year, I approached Devonna about discussing both her Tanzania and Jamaica experiences on the show. I'm so glad that she accepted and was willing to speak openly about the good and the not-so-good of it all.
Growing up in Sturgis, Michigan with Jamaican parents and a means to travel, Devonna got an early start when it came to venturing outside of the States. When she was younger, she had traveled to visit family in Jamaica and Canada, and had also been to Mexico. As "the adventurous one", Devonna was the only one among her four sisters to participate in her hometown's sister city student exchange trip to Wiesloch, Germany. Traveling became an even greater passion of Devonna's as she began deciding what she wanted to do in life. With aspirations of becoming a humanitarian of some sort, she sought to carve out a career focused on helping people around the world.
At Michigan State, Devonna started out in psychology, was almost swayed toward sociology, and ultimately landed on interdisciplinary studies with a focus on international studies and political science. In our conversation, she couldn't recall exactly what made her want to study abroad. Perhaps it was the fact that one of her sisters had studied in the UK and had a great time? Or perhaps she simply wanted to take advantage of the abundant study abroad opportunities that MSU is known for? Whatever the reason for studying abroad, Devonna is happy that she did it. She found an MSU program that aligned with her interests, and during the summer of 2014 (her final semester in undergrad), she went to spend six or seven weeks studying community development in Tanzania.
Along with her small group of fellow MSU students, over the course of the program Devonna spent time in Arusha, Mto wa Mbu, Naitolia, Makuyuni, and Usa River. Her group spent the first few weeks in training, which included language and cultural immersion classes, touring the local community they were staying in, learning about the local market, and being sent on assignment to test their communication and bargaining skills. After training, Devonna's group went to stay amongst a Maasai village, teaming up with local Tanzanian university students and professors to assist said village with what the people needed at the time. Projects included teaching classes at an elementary school, and helping to plan activities and obtain supplies that the school expressed a desire for.
Another project that Devonna wasn't directly involved in but witnessed while in Tanzania, was a water project that MSU was sponsoring. MSU had a partnership with the village and had agreed to pay for the installation of water pipes so that the village could have a consistently available water source, but local leaders were holding up the money for one reason or another. One of Devonna's Tanzanian professors told a few Muslim leaders about the issue while they were staying at the same lodge during Ramadan... and those pipes were installed within a week after that conversation! In addition to being elated that the village could get the water it deserved, Devonna realized that community development isn't as simple as just landing in a place where people need help, and then helping them. No matter how many resources or how much knowledge one has, there's always that political aspect that can impact everything. Rather than being demoralized by this, Devonna saw it as an unavoidable truth of development work that she was glad to be exposed to early.
Besides her studies and the service projects she contributed to, Devonna also stayed with a host family for a week. This not only forced her to speak Swahili as much as possible, but also helped her get more accustomed to Tanzanian food such as ugali and chapati. On the weekends, she and her fellow students did tourtisty things like visiting the national parks and going on multiple safaris. She raved about the awe-inspiring natural beauty and wildlife she saw in places like Ngorongoro Crater but also in unexpected places too. Once, she was among numerous cars that had to back up out of an elephant's way so that it could pass through without getting too close or feeling threatened. Another time, she was in a car whose driver abruptly put on the breaks so as not to hit a giraffe—because if you hit or kill one, you go to jail. And outside of the parks, one night while Devonna was video-chatting her family, her sisters were shocked to see and hear monkeys in the background. Seeing so many kinds of animals that she'd never imaged she'd get the opportunity to see made Devonna feel like she was living through National Geographic in real life.
After returning to the States, graduating, working her first "big girl job" for a while, and getting a master's degree in international relations from Webster University, Devonna started considering the Peace Corps. Funnily enough, in undergrad she had interviewed a former Peace Corps volunteer for a writing assignment, and after hearing that person's story she was certain that, "There is no way ever in life that the Peace Corps is for me." At the time, Devonna wasn't willing to give up certain things or live the lifestyle that the program might entail. Now she was reconsidering it because she wanted to move up in her development career, and many of the positions she applied for required a certain language proficiency and/or experience living abroad. Between getting a PhD and gaining more real-life experience, she figured that the latter would help guide her to where she wanted to be. So she applied for the Peace Corps.
Devonna wanted to return to Tanzania or somewhere else in East Africa, and she put Jamaica down as her third and last location preference because leaving it blank might have sent the message that she was willing to go absolutely anywhere (which she wasn't). She'd been told, and had believed, that no one ever gets their third choice. And since she's Jamaican-American and had been to Jamaica numerous times already, she didn't think she could learn or gain anything new from being placed there. So color her shocked and disappointed when she got her invitation to join the Peace Corps... in Jamaica! Devonna was tempted to decline the invitation, but instead she decided to go with it and see what would happen, and in 2017 she moved to her placement in the eastern tip of St. Thomas Parish, Jamaica.
Devonna's main responsibility was teaching with a focus on literacy, working with students in small groups or one-on-one. As a sort of assistant teacher or tutor, she collaborated with classroom teachers who would send students that needed extra help with reading to her. Devonna was committed to the work and most of the students loved having her around, but the job was not without difficulty. She disliked lesson planning, and managing student behavior was incredibly challenging at times. She wanted students to learn because that was the entire point of her being there. However, she couldn't force students who wouldn't focus or were uninterested, and it frustrated her to feel like her efforts were ineffective. Outside of school, though she was in contact with other Peace Corps volunteers on the island, she became lonely because the people she crossed paths with on the day-to-day seldom wanted to communicate or interact with her in a substantial way.
And while she'd been able to go to Tanzania with no expectations, with her background and familiarity it was impossible for her not to expect certain things from her Jamaica experience. She saw a side of Jamaica and Jamaican people that she'd never known before, and sometimes the negative aspects of that overshadowed the positive for her. In a nutshell, various facets of Devonna's particular experience made it so that her motivation was repeatedly chipped away, and it was hard to be happy and hold onto a reason to stay. Eventually, she decided she needed to go home, and she left Jamaica having served 18 months out of her two-year service with the Peace Corps. It was an incredibly difficult decision, and it took her quite some time to recover from the bitterness and disappointment about how certain things were handled. But by the time she spoke about it with me, she was able to look back on it with greater perspective. Though she personally would not recommend the Peace Corps, she can appreciate her own experience for what it was.
"Life comes at you, and you just have to come at it. There's no other choice."
The challenges and life changes have not stopped for Devonna, and she's been maneuvering them with determination and lots of support from loved ones. When I commended her for her ability to adapt to so much and overcome hard times, she replied, "Life comes at you and you just have to come at it. There's no other choice." After returning to the U.S. from Jamaica, she found a new job, and moved across the country from Michigan to the Southwest while pregnant. Now a working mom, she continues to build the life she wants for her family while also preparing to marry her fiancé (who she met while living in Jamaica).
Today, Devonna works to serve refugee communities in the Southwest, and she hasn't lost her connection with Tanzania and Jamaica. She's maintained contact with people she met in Tanzania, including her host family and some of her former professors and classmates. Along with a few other MSU students, she also continues to help sponsor the education of one of her former elementary students from the village. As for Jamaica, obviously it will always be a part of Devonna due to her heritage, and she's been back there since leaving the Peace Corps. Recently, she's taken things a step further and started a tourism business with her fiancé, aiming to get people off the resorts so they can instead support smaller local business in rural areas of Jamaica.
When traveling is possible and advisable again, Devonna looks forward to traveling more with her fiance and showing her son even more of the world (she's a pro at traveling with a baby!). The Maldives, Bali, Thailand, and her clients' home countries are high on her list, but she's open to going nearly anywhere. Devonna can be reached through her personal accounts on Facebook (Devonna McCarthy), Instagram (@dumbonem), and YouTube (Dumbonem). Her tourism business can be found on Facebook (Jam Life Tours) or on Instagram (@jamlifetours).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Ugali & Expectations (TANZANIA/JAMAICA)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Refugee Development Center (Lansing, Michigan)
Ngorongoro Conservation Area (UNESCO World Heritage info)
(Extra Tanzania tips from Devonna: Moshi Coffee farm tour, Kilimanjaro caves and park, Ngorongoro National Park is my a MUST SEE! and Tarangire National Park. I also highly recommend braving an outdoor market and seeing a larger city like Arusha so that you can see Africa in a more modern/urban setting than what's usually pictured.)