Representing my Roots in the TJP

The Director of Communications at the elementary school I grew up attending recently asked me to write an article to fit with this photo of me with Mma Obama. The article is an introduction to my service, Peace Corps service in general, and my experiences during my first year. It was just picked up by the Texas Jewish Post. Hopefully it will serve to help some understand more of what Peace Corps is about, and also perhaps get those who are considering joining the Peace corps, or making huge life changes in general, to take that step and do it already 🙂

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Former Levine Academy student meets her future — and Michelle Obama — in the Peace Corps

Posted on 21 July 2011 by admin

By Alexis Kanter

Alexis Kanter (left) speaks with Michelle Obama at a recent event in Gaborone, Botswana. Kanter is serving a two-year term in the U.S. Peace Corps. | Photo: Caitlin Anzalone/U.S. Peace Corps

If you had asked me three years ago if I’d be interested in joining the Peace Corps, I would have chuckled and said, “no thanks.” Already three years out of college, the thought of running off to serve a two-year stint in the Peace Corps seemed like an escape from developing a stable career at home. But after realizing the opportunities Peace Corps service can provide, I look back on the past year and know it’s been the best decision I’ve ever made.

I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2005 having majored in history and anthropology. During my college career, I wrote for the university’s newspaper, then later worked in politics on a gubernatorial campaign and at a lobby firm, and had a private-sector job with an architecture firm. Through these activities I developed a passion for the way policy and culture influence the well-being of communities. The decision to finally apply was mostly based on the desire to challenge myself to live in a culturally new environment, and commit to a long-term goal that would enable me to grow personally and professionally. My uncle, who served in Peace Corps Peru during the early 1960s, became an inspiration to me when considering Peace Corps service. His enthusiasm for the program stoked my curiosity, and the more I looked into the benefits, the more I liked the idea of being able to work closely with locals on a local income level.

Following a year-long application process, I arrived in Botswana in April 2010, and was assigned to spend my service in Francistown, the second largest city in Botswana, and home to a vibrant population of over 100,000 people representing all levels of the wealth spectrum. It has a wonderful, distinct flavor that incorporates both traditional and modern Setswana culture. I work with smart, passionate men and women in the District AIDS Office, which is the government office that oversees all HIV/AIDS organizations and programming in the district. Part of my job entails introducing fresh ideas to help improve the way the office functions. I also help connect the District AIDS Office with the community at large, mostly through involvement in HIV/AIDS related campaigns and helping the HIV/AIDS organizations address challenges and improve their skills so they can better serve their community.

Volunteers and locals work together toward promoting positive behavior change, and as a Peace Corps volunteer, my primary focus always centers on making sure the change I bring will be sustainable after I leave. Peace Corps volunteers work not to save the world, but rather strive for incremental improvements that will last after service is complete.

Along with fulfilling my initial goals, new experiences I encounter daily continue to bring a wealth of knowledge I couldn’t acquire in any other setting. For instance, the cramped, long-hour bus rides between cities taught me an etiquette to maintaining order on a bus with almost zero personal space. I’ve seen elephants and lions roam their native habitat, attended a huge wedding celebration in the tiny village of Mapoka, been awakened to beautiful traditional dance and music, and feel as if I’ve become a part of real life here.

More significantly, I’ve worked on a campaign where teenage boys in Francistown signed up by the hundreds to voluntarily get circumcised in order to increase protection from contracting HIV. Never before had I seen such an immense sense of personal responsibility displayed at such a young age.

My work here is fulfilling, and I’m fortunate to have made lasting friendships with volunteers and locals. But service is not easy. I can’t say that I haven’t had some trying days, but that’s where personal growth comes in. Once out of your comfort zone you may begin to answer questions about yourself you never thought to ask before. And then out of the blue, things beyond your wildest expectations push you forward, and answering those questions becomes a little easier.

Recently, Botswana Peace Corps volunteers attended an event held at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence in the capital, Gaborone. We were given the rare opportunity to shake hands with First Lady Michelle Obama during her visit to Southern Africa.

It was a fleeting yet incredible experience that reminded me how great things can happen when risks are taken. It’s not every day one gets to shake hands with someone who is essentially living history, and it made me proud to be where I am and do what I’m doing. I try to take nothing here for granted, and so for the rest of my service (and beyond), I intend to live up to that handshake.

Ann & Nate Levine Academy alumna, Alexis Kanter (’96) is the daughter of Nancy and Jay Kanter. She is in the middle of a two-year term of duty with the U.S. Peace Corps. For more on her meeting with First Lady Michelle Obama and her life in Botswana, check out Alexis’ blog at http://www.alexiskanter.wordpress.com

Mid-Service Training and Mma Obama

The second year of my service is already well under way, and what better way to recognize it than with a week long training in Gaborone with all of the volunteers, ending with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet First Lady Michelle Obama.

Mid-Service Training

Getting a chance to reunite with the other ~45 volunteers was refreshing. Aside from all the catching up and partying, it was great to exchange experiences and be reassured that the problems or concerns I sometimes have at site are shared by most of us.  The actual training part was somewhat lacking, and the sessions I thought could use a little more planning and attention, but just getting out of the routine in Francistown was beneficial in itself.

Mid-Service Training
Me peering though friends during a Mid-Service Training reunion party

Other highlights included eating several different kinds of pizza, celebrating a birthday, sipping wine around a hotel mini-bonfire, and coming home with a lot less money in my Peace Corps bank account (still worth it).

During training, the acting Country Director made several announcements regarding the possibility of the volunteers attending an event where we would have the chance to meet the First Lady during her last stop to Gaborone. It became a week-long suspenseful fiasco, because we were told we could go but were repeatedly reminded that at any moment it could fall through.  Luckily it didn’t.

Meeting Mma Obama

The Beautiful and Freezing Cold Venue

That Saturday morning of the event,  US Embassy staff,  PCVs and PCV staff met outside the residence of the US Ambassador to Botswana, and we waited for a good hour in freezing temperatures before being allowed on the premises. We were never allowed into the house, but the spacious backyard garden provided hot tea and heaters. Walking through the gate to the backyard felt like entering an airport – we passed through metal detectors, and a team of secret service inspected our clothes, bags, cameras, phones, and especially passports. We all had to turn in our social security numbers ahead of time so security could run background checks.

After another forty-five minutes of chatting around heaters with our tea, all of the volunteers and staff gathered to a fence near the podium where the First Lady would speak. We all settled and readied ourselves for the speech,  strategically positioning our cameras between the heads of those in front of us. Like the sound check guy at a concert, the events coordinator walked up to the podium and received wild applause. She introduced herself, roused the crowd in preparation for Michelle Obama’s arrival, and then announced that Peace Corps was assigned to a separate roped off area and that we would have to move. So, somewhat begrudgingly,  our large herd of volunteers slowly peeled out from the tight cluster of Embassy staff, relocated to our newly designated area and repositioned our multitude of cameras. I guess our presence was a slight distraction from the event, because we were then publicly informed by the events coordinator that we’d be “more difficult to handle than the children.”

US Ambassador Michelle Gavin Introducing First Lady Michelle Obama

The First Lady spoke for about five minutes, then took the time to spend a moment with each of us. She shook everyone’s hand and really circulated around the event. I was excited to meet her but also felt relaxed. Whenever I have the opportunity to meet or see someone well known, I tend to appreciate the accomplishments of that person in relation to their physicality, and oddly enough I also think about the degrees of separation the person closes between myself and a world of distinguishable people and events. Someone like, say, Nelson Mandela, whom Michelle Obama met just days prior.  I also appreciate that she is essentially living history, and nonetheless history I’m proud of. So all in all meeting her was a pretty incredible experience.

Click on the photo below for an album of the event, and below that is a video of the short speech Mma Obama gave. Hope you all enjoy!

Meeting Michelle Obama Photo Album