As an environmental education Peace Corps volunteer in the province of Panama Oeste, Panama, Anna Seifert ’16 has learned the importance of community and environmental policy.
Before joining the Peace Corps, Seifert considered several different career paths.
Her time in Panama, however, has helped her think deeply about her goals, she says. “We live in a very unique time for creating environmental policy, and my experience here in on-the-ground community organizing, though very rewarding, has demonstrated to me exactly how much policy can affect day-to-day choices.”
Because her community in Panama lacks access to trash and recycling services, Seifert has focused on waste management and eco-stoves.
“Eco-stoves are brick and cement structures that allow families to cook over traditional wood-burning fires while reducing the amount of firewood they use and smoke they inhale,” she says. “Another big part of my work here is recycled handicrafts — crocheting with plastic shopping bags, making headbands out of can tabs, making planters out of old tires. Though it can feel very small in scope, it does limit the water and air pollution in my community.”
At Earlham, Seifert was an Environmental Studies major and Economics minor with an Outdoor Education concentration. She led August Wilderness courses twice, was a member of the compost crew, and worked at Rose City Coffee Cooperative, which was one of her favorite places on campus.
“I believe that my time at Earlham not only taught me to think critically about the world around me and the systems and structures of that world but to balance those critiques with the messy reality of solutions,” she says. “At Earlham I was able to read and discuss theory and hear from many different perspectives, but we always tried to connect it back to the communities — which is a lot of what my Peace Corp experience is.
“My ability to think critically about my experience here, lets me take a step back, especially when I’m facing challenges, and analyze what’s happening and why. Yet, I’m still called upon to find solutions for my community, which are oftentimes imperfect, but can still yield results.”
She has grown to love the community and the relationships she has developed in Panama.
“Something that I will miss so much about Panamanian culture is the community,” she says. “I didn’t realize how isolated our lives can be in the United States. In Panama, it doesn’t matter if you’re on a local bus with all of your neighbors, or halfway across the country, you greet everyone with a ‘bueeeeeenos días.’ It’s absolutely socially acceptable to visit your family, friends and neighbors uninvited at any point of the day, and chances are they’ll feed you as well.”
For others who are considering Peace Corps, Seifert suggests thinking deeply about why you want to join.
“The most important part of this experience is connecting with the people around you, learning about them, trusting them, and offering them whatever it is you have to give,” she says. “And to do that, sometimes you have to give yourself over to the process. A term I use a lot to describe my Peace Corps experience is ‘grassroots diplomacy’ — the idea that no matter what is happening on an international political level, my relationships are important and can change others’ ideas of what United States or Panamanian culture is.
“As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I take my job very seriously, which includes not only my community development projects, but the sharing of cultures and again this idea of grassroots diplomacy.”
When she sees tourists quickly coming and going from Panama, she is reminded how fortunate she is to be there for an extended time — to learn about the culture and to make lasting relationships. “Those relationships are one of the big reasons that I applied, and they continue to be the most important part of my time here.”