hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

August 30, 2007

Haverhill woman serves Peace Corps in Kyrgyz Republic

Cara Spilsbury

Haverhill and a former province of the Soviet Union have little in common except Rebecca Johnson.

Johnson, 22, is serving in the Kyrgyz Republic as a member of the Peace Corps.

The Republic is nestled in a mountainous region with Kazakhstan to the north, China to the east and southeast, Tajikstan to the southwest and Uzbekistan to the west. Roughly the size of Nebraska with about four times the population, the country’s main economic focus is agriculture.

Johnson’s role is to transfer the technical skills she has, like grant writing, managing, organizing, writing and editing, web design, monitoring, evaluation, marketing and public relations.

For the first three months, Johnson is living with a host family who has been introducing her to the country’s language and culture. After she is more confident in the language and way-of-life, she’ll move out and live in a manner similar to the Kyrgyz people.

She is in the Peace Corps as part of the Master’s International Program, which offers Peace Corps volunteers the opportunity to compliment master’s course work with overseas service. The program, started in 1987 and collaborates with over 40 academic institutions, and it is a perfect fit for Johnson, who wanted to pursue a master’s degree right after college.

“I am working with, not for a community. My facilitator-like role, if effective, will empower my community to make positive, sustainable adjustments for improved living and working conditions,” said Johnson. “I knew immediately that this was what I would do. I was extremely nervous the night before my departure—repacking the bags I had packed a week prior and checking off my to-do list. On the drive to the airport the morning of departure I was nauseous with compounded emotions and heightened anxiety, but the moment I was on the plane I felt okay.”

Since opening it’s program in the Kyrgyz Republic in 1993, two years after it gained it’s independence from the USSR, 647 Peace Corps volunteers have served there. Currently, there are 142 volunteers donating their time there. The Peace Corps, formed in 1961, has shipped more than 187,000 volunteers all over the world to promote a better understanding between Americans and the 139 different countries they have served.

Johnson is one of 224 Massachusetts residents currently serving in the Peace Corps and with every passing day, she realizes that life is vastly different within the former Soviet Bloc. But despite the frustrations of not knowing the language just yet, scorching heat, a stint of flu and strep throat, living in a home with no running water, and limited contact with the outside world, Johnson is loving her new life and the memories she’s making.

“Years from now, this experience will help define who I am and what I am capable of,” Johnson wrote. “And when I’m old and grey, I will call up my old Peace Corps friends and we will reminisce about...the beautiful mountainous country for two years we called home.”

Johnson earned a Bachelor’s degree in English and women’s studies from the University of Rhode Island in 2005 and decided to pursue her dream of serving in the Peace Corps. She departed on July 5 and the Kyrgyz Republic will be her home for 27 months.

After a “grueling” two-year application process that also included interviews and medical clearance, Johnson was finally awarded a spot in the program. Calling it a day she will never forget, she arrived home on a rainy day in March 2007 to find a package waiting for her at her doorstep. She tore into the paperboard and packing tape and read the words “Congratulations, you’re invited to serve the Peace Corps in the Kyrgyz Republic.” Johnson, the daughter of Mike and Denise Johnson of Haverhill, had no doubt that this was her destiny.

To get updates on Rebecca Johnson’s travels, check out her online blog at www.switzerlandofthestans.blogspot.com.