Bonding over Bieber: Small connections create big impacts in the Peace Corps

Lenai Johnson

As a top producer of Peace Corps volunteers, many UW–Madison alums and Wisconsinites across the state hold the organization close to heart. UW–Madison will host a series of events on campus and in the community, March 1–7 as part of Peace Corps Week, a national celebration of the 59th anniversary of the Peace Corps. The week offers an array of events including films, a story slam, and informational sessions, wrapping up with the Annual Freeze for Food 5K/10K run/walk.

Preceding the celebrations, the UW–Madison International Division spoke with Lenai Johnson, one of more than 3,200 Badgers who have contributed to the legacy of Peace Corps. Johnson is a UW–Madison alum serving with Peace Corps in the Philippines, where she works with survivors of gender-based violence. Her Peace Corps journey began with a study abroad experience in South Africa. Now, she acts as a role model to girls across the globe.

UW–Madison International Division (UW ID): What sparked your interest in volunteering with Peace Corps?

Lenai Johnson: While I had heard about Peace Corps many times growing up, I never started to consider it a real possibility until my junior year when I was studying abroad in Cape Town, South Africa. Realizing my interest in international affairs, I began thinking about what I wanted to do after undergrad. I’ve known for quite a while that I want to attend law school in the future, but during my Study Abroad experience I realized that I wanted time between finishing college and pursuing law school.

I became interested in finding opportunities that could combine my passions for both international human rights and for serving others. Peace Corps stood out as an opportunity that would allow me to pursue both passions while broadening my language skills and cultural understanding and allowing me to travel abroad in the process.

“While we have done many successful (and quite a few unsuccessful — that just comes with being a Peace Corps Volunteer) activities, the moments that stick with me the most are truly the small ones.”

ID: Did you have the option to choose your location or field of study?

LJ: Yes, I did have the option to choose both my location and the sector that I work in! While Peace Corps still offers volunteers the option to be sent wherever they’re needed, and many volunteers still do select this option, I knew that for me to be successful in my service, I needed to be the one to make that decision for myself.

When beginning my search into what posts and positions Peace Corps offered, I came to find that the Youth in Development sector (known as the Children, Youth, and Family (CYF) services sector here in the Philippines) piqued my interest the most. This helped me narrow down the number of countries to consider, and eventually, I was deciding between Peru, Morocco, and the Philippines. Ultimately, I chose the Philippines because the work that the CYF sector does here (working with Children in Conflict with the Law (CICL), survivors of human trafficking, street youth, and many more populations) aligned with my career interests the best.

Johnson with her coworkers at a trauma-informed care training session. The group works with survivors of gender-based violence to improve their quality of life and empower them with skills.

ID: What type of work do you do as Youth Development Facilitator?

LJ: I work at a residential center for survivors of gender-based violence, with most of our clients having cases that involve sexual abuse and/or human trafficking. My role at the center is to help create activities and programs that improve the clients’ quality of life and capacitate them with skills they can use when they are discharged from the center. The projects that I’ve worked on so far include assisting the older girls at the center with facilitating monthly life skills sessions, starting monthly therapeutic activities, drafting and implementing the center’s behavioral management program, assisting in presenting advocacy sessions throughout my province to raise awareness about gender-based violence, and planning various camps and workshops for the girls.

My favorite time of year at the center is during the summer, despite the insane heat, because it means the girls are out of school and we’re able to do a lot more activities! An activity we did last summer that stuck with me, and the girls constantly bring up how much they enjoyed, was our GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Camp. GLOW Camps are implemented worldwide by Peace Corps Volunteers, and with the material relating so closely to the work that we do here, my counterpart and I thought it would be a great activity for the girls. The camp was three days long, and we covered topics ranging from women’s empowerment to women’s health, to overcoming trauma, and many more. Our final activity was a mural that we created together to allow the girls to reflect on the lessons that they had learned from the camp. Seeing how much the girls engaged with the material, became more confident in themselves and were more supportive of each other as a result of the camp was truly amazing to see.

Johnson with her counterpart during Peace Corps Project Design Management training. Johnson graduated from UW-Madison in 2018 with a B.A. in Psychology and Legal Studies, and a certificate in Criminal Justice.

While we have done many successful (and quite a few unsuccessful — that just comes with being a Peace Corps Volunteer) activities, the moments that stick with me the most are truly the small ones. Having one of my clients tell me that she passed a test that I had helped her prepare for all week, or seeing how much more confident the girls are in using their English around me, or just hanging out with the girls and bonding over our love of Justin Bieber—these moments are the ones that mean the most to me. Something I’ve come to realize in Peace Corps is that oftentimes volunteers don’t see the result of their service during the time they’re on site, and that learning to celebrate the small successes and being confident that our time with our communities is making a difference is what Peace Corps is all about.

ID: Who do you live with during your time in the Philippines?

LJ: For Peace Corps Philippines, we live with a host family during our 3 months of training at the beginning of our service and for the first 3 months at our sites. Volunteers have the option, after discussing with their host families of course, whether to move out after those first three months or to remain with their host families for the rest of their service. A big rule with independent housing is that volunteers aren’t allowed to live together so it doesn’t hinder their integration. So, living with a host family can be instrumental to making sure that you are integrated into your community.

I ultimately decided that it was best for me to move into independent housing so that I had more privacy and a place that was all my own on the days I needed to decompress. I currently live in a small boarding house that has four to five other boarders, depending on the time of year. The other girls who live at the boarding house are a little older than me and have all taken me under their wings. The boarding house is owned by a family that has become almost like a host family to me: inviting me to meals, taking me to events in the community, and coming into my room to clean it while I’m gone. I truly feel like I have the best of both worlds with my living situation, and I’m really glad I made the decision to move into independent housing.

ID: How have you responded to the change of lifestyle that comes with being part of the Peace Corps?

LJ: At the end of the day no matter how perfect your site placement, work, or host family is, living in a new country with a culture very different from your own is going to present challenges. There’s a reason Peace Corps is referred to as “The hardest job you’ll ever love.” I think a large part of the reason that I have been able to cope with and manage the challenges that arise at my site is that I came into Peace Corps expecting those challenges and ready to try to figure out how to work through them. Aside from that, I have found that the ability to listen and understand our communities is vital to a successful Peace Corps service.

Something our Program Manager told my sector at the beginning of our training is that the first three to six months of service we shouldn’t be focused on getting any projects started, we should just focus on listening. While that may seem a little strange, having taken the time to listen and learn about the center that I am working at, find out about what issues the clients and staff think are most pressing, and to really get to know everyone at my job, I’ve been able to lay the groundwork for the rest of my projects. I understand how the center operates and what needs to be prioritized when thinking about my projects, and I have taken the time to build trust with my community members, and that has made implementing projects so much easier.

Lastly, and I truly cannot stress this enough, patience may be the most important quality in helping me overcome the challenges that Peace Corps presents. As Peace Corps Volunteers, we encounter many situations that may be frustrating or that clash with the cultures that we come from — this is inevitable. There are days when these situations can be harder than others to manage, but remembering to go into each situation with patience and a willingness to try to understand has helped me navigate even the most difficult situations in my service.

ID: You were a PEOPLE scholar. Did that experience impact your time at UW–Madison or your interest in Peace Corps?

LJ: Being a PEOPLE scholar has truly impacted my life in so many ways and I am forever grateful for everything that they’ve done for me. Coming into UW–Madison, I was shocked by the lack of diversity on campus. Having lived in Madison my whole life, I was surprised to find that the number of multicultural students on campus in no way matched up with the diversity of the rest of Madison. The PEOPLE Program provided me a safe space with peers that had similar backgrounds to my own, and this community is something I relied on throughout my entire college career. Having that community at UW–Madison was vital to my success as a student, and while the PEOPLE Program may not have directly impacted my decision to pursue Peace Corps, it did provide me with opportunities that led me here. Learn more about Peace Corps and Peace Corps at UW–Madison.


Editor’s note: Learn more about opportunities to serve and celebrate UW-Madison’s legacy of service during Peace Corps Week, March 1-7!