Katelyn Cusack '08 was looking for something different. That is how she ended up stationed in Niger as a Peace Corps community youth education volunteer, sleeping outside of a mudbrick house, living without running water, and adopting a cat, even though she proclaims she is not a cat person. At a young age, Cusack's parents instilled in her the importance of giving back. As an Emmanuel student, she continued to maintain a strong personal commitment to service, becoming a staple of the Campus Ministry Office's programs around town, participating in Alternative Spring Break to Phoenix, Ariz., and volunteering at hospitals during her summers. When graduation began to near, she recognized the Peace Corps as a chance to contribute on a global scale while offering the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to venture to another part of the world she otherwise might not consider. Referred to as "The Hard Post" within Peace Corps circles due to its challenging climate and poor economic conditions, Niger lived up to its moniker when Cusack arrived in the summer of 2009. During the midday peak, temperatures easily reached 120 degrees with the lowest rarely ever dipping into double digits. The village, located just outside the Nigerien capital of Niamey, was surrounded by a sea of brown - mostly dust or decayed vegetation suffering from the exhaustive heat. There were only a handful of schools to support the 30,000 villagers there, and one of the first things Cusack noticed upon her arrival was the library, its doors closed and children unable to enter. In addition to her teaching responsibilities and overseeing the English club she established for children (villagers speak French and Zarma, the latter a language native to the region), Cusack took on the dilapidated library building as her project. She led the effort in renovating the library, cleaning and repainting its interior and exterior and restoring the bookshelves. The daughter of a librarian, she took a page from her mother's book and hosted an open house to celebrate the reopening of the building upon completing the restoration.
For someone who quickly admits she was born with the gift of gab, the inability to communicate as freely as she'd like proved perhaps her greatest challenge. At one point during her stay, Cusack slipped and broke her arm, the barriers of language and culture resulting in an array of confusion on both ends. As she sat crying, her host mother knew not what to do. She handed Cusack a cup of water with the expectation it would quench her thirst and despair, then returned to business as usual.
Observation and reflection became the resulting byproducts of her stay, outcomes Cusack fully embraced. She discovered, much to her surprise, that in many ways her initial perception of Niger as a place so different from any she had known was mistaken. She recalled shared elements of human nature shining through as she quietly watched an older sibling pester a younger one at the kitchen table, forcing parental intervention.
"Seeing how the world works, that everyone is the same, it was soothing," she said.
Cusack's service with the Peace Corps ended in the winter of 2011, after which she returned to the U.S. She currently works in the admissions office of Northeastern University and has aspirations of pursuing a master's degree in education to become a teacher. When she thinks of her time in Niger, she does so fondly. Often, she recalls an elderly couple she met while there. Fellow volunteers, the septuagenarians sold their house and joined the Peace Corps with the simple explanation that they just always wanted to do it. Cusack has it in her mind that someday she too will do the same. Even if she doesn't, she says her time with the Peace Corps will always remain with her.
"This was a positive experience and I feel blessed to have had it," she said.
Katelyn Cusack '08 spent a year and a half in Niger as a Peace Corps community youth education volunteer. Known as "The Hard Post" within Peace Corps circles due to its challenging climate and poor economic conditions, Cusack says the location lived up to its moniker. For someone born with the gift of gab, the inability to communicate was Cusack's greatest challenge, however, it did not stop her from becoming an active member of the village community. One of Cusack's major projects involved renovating the village's library.