JOPLIN, Mo. —
One backpack each is all Caitlan and Luke Smith are taking with them.
They’ve already packed garlic and other spices, a yoga mat for each of them, a cheese grater, a vegetable peeler — the things they think will serve them well in their new environment.
The Smiths, who both graduated last year from Missouri Southern State University, will leave on Sept. 12 for Rwanda, where they will complete a 27-month assignment with the Peace Corps teaching English as a second language.
“We’re really excited for the Peace Corps, to spend a two-year period in one place so we can actually learn the culture in depth,” Luke Smith said.
They were given a send-off party Wednesday night by a few of their former MSSU professors. Chad Stebbins, director of international studies at the university, organized the get-together at Blackthorn Pizza and Pub in Joplin.
“We have watched them grow over the years as students of the world, as citizens of the world,” Stebbins said of the Smiths. “We want to celebrate what they’ve accomplished at Missouri Southern and wish them well on their new adventures. This is really a culmination of everything they studied at Missouri Southern.”
Caitlan Smith said choosing to serve with the Peace Corps was an easy decision to make.
“I love traveling; I love helping people; I love the idea of encouraging development,” she said.
Their destination, Rwanda, is a landlocked country in central Africa, slightly smaller in area than the state of Maryland. Its 11.7 million inhabitants are predominantly rural, with about 90 percent of the population engaged in subsistence agriculture.
The Smiths said they expect to work in a school setting up to 20 hours per week and also participate in community-oriented events such as educational workshops or seminars for the locals.
Luke Smith said he expects the language barrier to be the couple’s primary problem. Although French and English are official languages, the principal language is Kinyarwanda, which they will try to learn. He said they expect to miss their friends and families, and to return from their assignment in two years significantly changed as individuals and as a couple.
“We’ll still be who we are, but it will be a life-changing (experience),” he said.
Despite moving to a country where revolution, civil war and genocide have taken place in the past half-century, the couple said they don’t worry about their safety, noting that the Peace Corps has procedures in place to protect its volunteers.
“Rwanda doesn’t have the best history,” Luke Smith said, “but they’ve really been trying to move away from that and move forward.”
Joy Dworkin, an English professor who taught both of the Smiths, called the couple “adventurous.”
“They’re just both such richly engaged and open intellects,” she said. “They’re intellects that are not just in their heads. They’re very lovable.”
Paul Teverow, the couple’s history professor, said he was “not at all” surprised to learn they had joined the Peace Corps.
“It’s not simply that they’re interested in international affairs and the world’s problems — they’re interested in doing what they can to solve them,” he said.
He said the Smiths participated in the Model United Nations Club, which he sponsors at the university, and that Caitlan Smith in particular was “clearly in her element” with international affairs. Members of the club research global issues pertinent to a designated United Nations country and present them at conferences.
“This is one moment when you realize that maybe what we’re doing at Missouri Southern makes a difference,” Teverow said. “Missouri Southern is there so we can help students fulfill their dream, and this is one example, I think, of how we played a role.”
Caitlan Smith, who originally is from the Lee’s Summit area, chose to attend MSSU because of its international mission. She graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in international studies and was named the university’s 2012 Outstanding Graduate in International Studies. Luke Smith, originally from Northwest Arkansas, graduated last year with a degree in English.
The couple, who married in 2009, already have a handful of international experiences under their belts. They both studied at the American University in Bulgaria in the fall of 2010. And last year, they received a $4,900 grant from MSSU’s McCaleb Initiative for Peace, a program for student journalists to visit sites of former wars or present conflicts, for a summertime study in Guatemala.
Recent history in Rwanda
THE MAJORITY ETHNIC GROUP, the Hutus, overthrew the ruling Tutsi king in 1959, three years before the country’s independence from Belgium. Thousands of Tutsis were killed and 150,000 were driven into exile over the next several years. The Rwandan Patriotic Front, made up of the refugees, began a civil war in 1990, culminating in 1994 in a state-orchestrated genocide in which up to 1 million Rwandans were killed. The country held its first local elections in 1999 and its first post-genocide presidential and legislative elections in 2003.
JOPLIN, Mo. —
One backpack each is all Caitlan and Luke Smith are taking with them.
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