Peters grad to share knowledge in Peace Corps
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When Barbara Bertrand visited her mother's native home near Sao Paulo, Brazil, as a child, she marveled at the many volunteers who were helping the villagers and knew she wanted to be one of them someday.
Ms. Bertrand, 22, a Peters Township High School graduate, recently was accepted into the Peace Corps. And while not heading for work in Brazil, she will be departing for Niger on Jan. 9.Robin Rombach, Post-Gazette
Barbara Bertrand is heading off to Niger to teach environmental conservation.
Click photo for larger image.
During her 27-month stay, Ms. Bertrand, who received a bachelor's degree in August from the University of Pittsburgh in biology and chemistry, will spend the first three months in training, learning the culture and language while living with a host family, probably near the capital city of Niamey.
Afterward, she will be assigned to a village, where she is expected to teach environmental conservation and, according to the Peace Corps, help people manage their resources by demonstrating tree planting and soil conservation techniques, and raising ecological and environmental awareness.
Deforestation, brush burning and recurring drought are problems in the west African nation, which has few fuel options or renewable crop resources.
"No one has ever taught them," said Ms. Bertrand, who plans to attend graduate school when she returns. She hopes the experience will help her decide whether to pursue a teaching career or enter medical or veterinary school.
Born near New York City to a French father, Gerard, and a Brazilian mother, Sonia, she moved with her family, including two brothers and a sister, to Peters about nine years ago.
She's hoping to bridge the language barrier with the years of French she picked up from her father, but though French is the primary Nigerien language, there are local dialects that vary widely.
"I am looking forward to meeting the people and learning the culture most of all, but learning the language will be the hardest," she said.
Aside from reading about the area, Ms. Bertrand has contacted some of the other 127 volunteers who are serving in Niger, where the Peace Corps has been since 1962.
She said she had been warned about sexual violence, especially in urban areas, and some of the more arduous chores, such as hauling water. One volunteer, she said, spends her modest Peace Corps allowance to pay someone else to carry water to her quarters because it is so heavy.
Peace Corps volunteers go only to countries where they have been invited by the government, said Molly Jennings, Peace Corps public affairs specialist. To Ms. Bertrand's chagrin, Brazil was not one of those countries. The organization works closely with the U.S. State Department to ensure the safety of its volunteers, Ms. Jennings said.
"I worry so much," said Sonia Bertrand, who said that, although she was nervous for her daughter, she was excited for her as well. "I will pray for her."
"It is going to be a life-changing experience," said Ms. Bertrand, who said she's considered the options and the dangers. "I know what I'm getting myself into."
Although disease and violence seem to be at their worst worldwide, the Peace Corps is enjoying a 30-year high for volunteers in the field.
Since 1961, more than 182,000 volunteers have helped promote a better understanding between Americans and the people of the 138 countries where volunteers have served, according to the Peace Corps.
And, getting through the rigorous application process isn't easy, Ms. Bertrand said. Applicants must be at least 18 years old, have a bachelor's degree or four years' related experience in the field they will be teaching, and must submit an application, resume, dental and medical clearances, criminal background information and fingerprints. It takes about nine months, she said.
Although Peace Corps volunteers get frequent vacation time, trips to Africa can cost between $2,000 and $3,000. If volunteers wish to travel home, they must pay their own way.
Ms. Bertrand said she was looking forward to the adventure and that the timing couldn't be better.
"I didn't exactly know what I wanted to do yet," she said. "I knew I wanted to do this, and if I didn't do it now, I would never do it."
First Published December 3, 2006 12:00 am