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Read Erin's account of life as a Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador

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Tony Gasbarro, a returned Peace Corps Volunteer and the campus coordinator of the UAF Peace Corps masters international program, visited Kelly in El Salvador.

Erin Kelly is turning a high school dream into reality and earning a graduate degree at the same time.

Kelly is the first student to complete a year of classes and go on to the second stage in UAF's fledgling Peace Corps master's international program -- two years of service in the Peace Corps.

Kelly, 27, said she has wanted to join the Peace Corps ever since a returned volunteer visited her high school.

"From that day on I knew that someday I would be a volunteer," she said in an e-mail interview.

Her Peace Corps site is in El Salvador, in El Imposible National Park. She lives in a small community just inside the park boundaries.

"I have running water, my own latrine (outhouse), and a window, yet the people I'm supposed to be spending most of my time with have none of that," she said.

One of Kelly's combined Peace Corps and UAF projects is writing a manual of typical questions about the park in English and Spanish for the park guides, none of whom speak English. The manual is part of developing a marketing plan for the park.

"The Salvadorans want to develop ecotourism in the park but the people aren't arriving to take part in those activities," Kelly said. If she can help the park attract tourists, the guides can use the manual and the English skills she's teaching them to enhance the experience for visitors.

Kelly has also found worthwhile projects in the local elementary and high schools. She started an environmental club, and the mayor's office donated prizes for the children who brought in the most plastic bottles to recycle. Kelly also takes the students on hikes in the park.

"There are kids who live in the pueblo right next to the forest who have never even been in there," she said in a telephone interview.

Her most satisfying project so far has been encouraging the neighborhood children to read. It started when a friend from Fairbanks visited and brought her a couple of children's books in Spanish. Now the neighborhood children come over to her place every day and ask to borrow a book or for her to read to them.

"I'll tell the kids ‘It's reading time, we're all going to read,' and they'll actually sit there silently while I read to them," she said.

After completing a bachelor's degree in environmental science in New Hampshire, followed by some time in AmeriCorps, Kelly decided to go after a master's degree. But she wanted more than the typical graduate student experience, and she wanted to experience a part of the country different from her hometown of Boston. After she learned about programs offered through the Peace Corps, it didn't take her long to zero in on UAF's new master's international program.

"I´m glad things worked out the way they did because I am very happy with my UAF experience so far," she said.

After finishing the year of studies in UAF's School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences, Kelly is now nearing the halfway point of her two-year Peace Corps service in El Salvador, which is roughly 4,600 miles from Fairbanks.

Susan Todd, associate professor of resource management planning, advises Peace Corps master's international program students in the School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences.

"The students gain a lot but UAF gains a lot, too, because we can't think in isolation. The world is so much smaller now, everything affects everything else."

Todd said that the master's international program helps to connect UAF and Alaska to the rest of the world.

"We have something in common with the developing parts of the world because of rural Alaska's lack of roads, sanitation issues in villages and so forth.

"I think this program is broadening our horizons as a program and as a school."

"I think this program is broadening our horizons as a program and as a school," Todd said. "It enriches our whole university just to have that connection to other parts of the world."

Though Kelly still has a year of Peace Corps service ahead of her, as well as completion of the UAF master's degree requirements, she is starting to think of the future. The challenges of trying to get things done while dealing with the sometimes disparate priorities of community members, non-governmental agencies like SalvaNatura and government bureaucracies have been enlightening, and she says those skills will stand her in good stead.

"I would love to find a job at an NGO based out of the States that would allow me to travel and work in developing nations, ideally Latin America," Kelly said. She hopes to work on ecotourism and adventure travel as development tools.

The most profound aspects of Kelly's experience so far have to do with culture and relationships. She has become completely immersed in Salvadoran culture, and has gained respect and trust ("confianza") among the people she encounters.

Her liason in the community is Ana Adilia Rivas, a 44-year-old widow who lives with four of her seven children in a one-room adobe house in the park.

"Niña Ana -- you always use Niña when referring to a woman who is older than you -- is the most patient person I have ever met," Kelly said. "I can't imagine how sad I am going to be when I have to say goodbye to her."

Following her high school dream has taken Erin Kelly down some unexpected paths, but it seems likely the experience will smooth her way to even more adventures.

All photos by Tony Gasbarro.

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