Sons & Daughters - Peace Corps volunteer returns home

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Central graduate Caitlin Josten, who recently returned from two-plus years in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer, is shown with one of the young women from the village she lived in.

Caitlin Josten is surrounded by her African students as they celebrate the last day of school.

By Pam Reinig

Register Editor

Bitten by the travel bug in high school, Caitlin Josten satisfied her wanderlust—at least for the time being—in a big way; She spent 27 months in Mozambique, Africa as a Peace Corp volunteer.

Caitlin, daughter of Kathy and Ed Josten, Elkader, made it home for the holidays this year after living and working nearly two years as a teacher in an emerging nation that puts a premium on education and English language skills.

“I went to Costa Rica with the Spanish Club when I was student at Central,” said the 2007 graduate. “It was my first time out of the country and I just remembering thinking ‘I need to go out and explore the rest of the world!’”

Caitlin graduated from the University of Iowa with a degree in elementary education. She was a passionate member of the school’s Dance Marathon fund-raising effort dedicated to supporting pediatric cancer patients and their families. With an unflagging cheeriness and a strong work ethic, she rose to a leadership position in the group. The skills she learned there would be useful when she took over her first classroom more than 14,000 from home.

The decision to join the Peace Corps was not made lightly.

“When I finished school, I was no longer sure that teaching was really what I wanted to do,” she said. “I was looking for a job and working as an aide in a special education classroom, which I really loved. But the thought of living in a different culture was always in the back of my mind. The moment I applied to the Peace Corps I knew it was what I really wanted to do.”

Growing up in a close-knit, supportive family gave Caitlin the self-confidence to pursue her dream. She also drew encouragement from the knowledge that her community would rally around her parents, who were more than a little apprehensive about her adventure.

“Knowing that my mom, especially, would be supported (during my absence) was very comforting to me,” Caitlin said.

Caitlin left for Africa in September 2013. She spent 10 weeks in in-country training, living with a host family while she learned the country’s primary language (Portuguese) and culture. Her major responsibility for the remainder of her stay was teaching future English teachers at a government-support school to a class of 35-40 students who were roughly her same age. Her first year, she also had a “second job” teaching English to 11th grade students at a secondary school. She had two classes of 80 students each.

In an effort to practice their English-speaking skills, the students conversed with Caitlin on a variety of topics. For many, American-made action movies were their only exposure to American culture. 

“Many of my students want to come  here and they all had this image of everyone here being very rich,” Caitlin said. “When I tried to explain that that wasn’t the case, they usually made the point that people in the U.S. were still better off than they were.”

Caitlin’s students were dedicated to their studies, even though going to school meant long days for most of them. Most of the students were up by 4:30 a.m. to do work around the school compound. There was a daily assembly at 6:30 followed by classes from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. After a 90-minute lunch and relaxation break, students were back in class from 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. There was mandatory study time in the evening, as well. The day usually ended for the students by 9 p.m.

In her second year, Caitlin traded her high school teaching job for another, equally important project: She and her Peace Corps roommate started a library. Armed with 150 books, they walked 4.5 miles, one way, to the nearest village to share stories with youngsters there—and then they walked back.

Life in Africa was very different from the life Caitlin has here. Though she was ready to come home, she said leaving her students was difficult—more difficult than she imagined it would be.

“That was my life for two years,” she said, her signature wide smile dissolving for a moment. I made so many friends and learned so much from them. Thanks goodness for technology so I can stay in touch with them.

When her Peace Corps stint ended, Caitlin took a well-deserved vacation with her roommate to South Africa, Lisbon, London, Amsterdam and Paris.

 Living far from home and managing the challenges of daily life in another culture was challenging, at times. And while Caitlin admits that the Peace Corps is not for everyone, it was definitely a good choice for her.

“I feel like I can handle anything now,” she said. “I think I’ve developed this ‘go with the flow’ attitude. I attribute that to my parents, who let me explore opportunities, in a safe way, but also to growing up in this community, which supported the things I did and encouraged me.”

Caitlin is busy preparing for the next step in life. She’s been applying to non-profit organizations and NGOs in Washington D.C. It seems certain that she will leave Elkader again but for now, the community that watched her grow into a confident, happy and poised young woman is happy to have her back.

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