“I can talk all day, really about anything, and especially about the weather,” says Micah Kloppenburg. “The weather can easily be an entry point to any other conversation, any discussion that you would want to have.”
“And I think that’s a great analogy to the Peace Corps as well, that the Peace Corps is an entry point,” adds Kloppenburg, who served as a Peace Corps agriculture volunteer in Nicaragua in 2009-11. “You know where you’ll be in those two years, but you don’t where it’s going to take you after. You just know that it’s going to be a defining experience.”
His own “defining experience” led him back to the city where he was born and raised, Madison, inspired to apply what he’d learned abroad. This fall, he begins working on his master’s degree in landscape architecture at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and talking about the Peace Corps as the new campus recruiter.
Growing up, Kloppenburg recalls, his family traveled around Wisconsin, visiting many of the state’s natural areas, particularly along Lakes Superior and Michigan. However, he says, “I don’t think I really understood how beautiful Wisconsin is and the opportunities that exist in Wisconsin until I actually left and then decided to return.”
But on his first trip to British Columbia in western Canada, he was so captivated by the natural beauty and decided to head to the Pacific Northwest for college.
“I’d been in the Vancouver area, I believe, when I was six with my family. And I had a memory of a beach in the temperate rain forest on Vancouver Island, and thought that would be a great place to return to.”
Kloppenburg enrolled at the University of British Columbia to study sustainable agriculture and international development.
“I took a year off during my undergraduate studies to go traveling through Central America,” he says. “I participated in a Spanish language school and got some international volunteer experience on a coffee cooperative.”
He returned to British Columbia, completed his bachelor’s degree in global resource systems in 2008, and then looked abroad again.
Seeking deeper involvement
“I wanted to find more international opportunities, but be engaged in the community, much more than just a tourist. I wanted a deeper engagement with the people and the place. That’s why I joined the Peace Corps.”
Joining the Peace Corps seemed like a natural step, he says. “My parents were in the Peace Corps and I’ve always been surrounded by their memories. They were in Botswana. They talk about it and they have a slide show.”
In Nicaragua, Kloppenburg focused on food security – designing, organizing, and implementing grassroots development initiatives in rural areas. The experience, he says, “really exposed me to the realities that people elsewhere face, the challenges and opportunities that they have.”
Along the way, he encountered important learning experiences. For instance, he talks about working with a group of men from the community on sustainable agricultural practices.
“We were busy plotting a property that we were going to plant in tomatoes, corn, and other crops, experimenting with alternative agricultural practices,” he says. “I was thinking about planting tomatoes and how to ensure that the tomatoes were spaced appropriately. And in my North American, educated way, I began thinking we had to measure out spacing with a ruler.”
As he went on about the need to find a ruler or tape measure, he saw that “the men in my group were looking at me, waiting for me to stop talking.”
So he sought their input. “After agonizing over spacing, they just looked at me and said ‘we just skip a row.’ And it never occurred to me the entire time I was talking that they had experience in this. They already knew how to plant these tomatoes and how to attain the correct spacing.”
That episode made him aware “that I really needed to understand the agricultural practices in that country, that there’s often a simple way to respond to a complex problem.”
Inspired to be engaged citizen
Kloppenburg says serving in the Peace Corps taught him a lot about cultural sensitivity, understanding, and empathy, and sparked his interest in being an active participant and citizen in his own community.
“Instead of pursuing further international experience, I wanted to come back to my own community, Madison, to be an engaged citizen,” he says. “That’s what I was doing overseas and that’s what I would love to do at home.”
Back in Madison, he continued working in food security with non-profit Community Action Coalition for South Central Wisconsin, Inc. as a garden specialist, supporting a network of more than 20 volunteer-staffed community gardens in Madison. He also worked as a restoration field technician for Good Oak Ecological Services, a local restoration ecology and landscape stewardship business that specializes in maintaining, restoring, and cultivating native plant communities.
And his interests continue to evolve, leading to his next adventure, graduate studies in ecological restoration at UW–Madison.
“Though I have enjoyed my work cultivating food and community, my interests have expanded and I now find myself fascinated by native plants and ecosystems,” he says. “Even so, I see my work in restoration ecology as analogous to my food security work inasmuch as both activities involve a commitment to human responsibility and stewardship.”
Kloppenburg also relishes the opportunities to share his Peace Corps experiences and help open the doors for others to follow.
“I had a wonderful experience in the Peace Corps,” he says.
“Recruiting provides a really creative way to expose people to the amount of experiences that are available to them. I’m excited to be able to think up new and different ways to engage people and just to talk. Everybody really likes to talk, to talk about their future, to talk about their past, and about their dreams.”
“I think Peace Corps really fits in in that regard. People want to know what those experiences are and get a wide understanding of what Peace Corps can provide them, and my experiences fits within that. And I’ll be excited to talk to people about those experiences and broaden their horizons.”
Contact information: Micah Kloppenburg, 256 Bascom Hall, 500 Lincoln Ave.; firstname.lastname@example.org; (608) 262-1121. Office hours: Tuesday, 3-5 p.m., and Friday, 2-4 p.m., location to be determined.
– by Kerry G. Hill