Shortly after donning a cap and gown at her college graduation, UO alum Susan Burton decided to ship out to sub-Saharan Africa and work in HIV outreach for the Peace Corps.
Burton, who now works as the Assistant Director for Student and Alumni Relations for the UO Alumni Association, knew she wanted to join the Peace Corps after college. She had done HIV outreach while at the UO, and was accepted into the Peace Corps to work for Community Health Outreach Program (CHOP) after she applied. The program combined both of her top choices for area of work as well as her choice of ideal location. Immediately, she expressed very little hesitation for her journey to begin.
“My parents were a little concerned, but being my parents, they never told me until I was there,” Burton says.
While she was volunteering for the Peace Corps, Burton was particularly inspired by the South African motto Ubuntu—which means that a person is a person through other people. Burton explains that the people she met truly live by that style of life, and that everyone that she met would always make time for the people that surrounded them.
Although she was originally hired to be an HIV outreach worker, she ended up mainly working with NGO (non-governmental organization) development because her organization didn’t yet have the capacity to be doing health promotion. As such, Burton spent much of her time working on building the organization to the point where they could begin their outreach program for the following year.
During her second year, however, she ended up doing similar fieldwork because the program let go of their entire management due to misappropriation of funds. Burton ended up training and hiring new staff for her second year before she moved to the capital city for her third year, focusing mostly on hiring a volunteer from the Peace Corps ready to do health promotion and training care.
Burton’s favorite work during her 38-month commitment was her job while working at schools. There, she focused on after school programs, youth camps and various day-to-day office tasks and assignments.
“A lot of Peace Corps volunteers feel that their main contribution was through changing the lives of the children that they worked with,” Burton says.
While much of the impact made by Peace Corps volunteers are not detectable until long after the volunteers have left, her favorite memories from the trip include daily visits from a group of about six to eight children. The group would come to her house to work on homework and watch movies; their favorites were X-Men and Transformers, and they were particularly obsessed with Wolverine.
The children, and all of the other villagers in Makhushane, called her Karabo—which translates to “The Answer” in their local dialect.
“When you name someone that, it’s because you’ve been praying for something for a long time and they’re the answer to your prayers,” Burton explains. “So, not much to live up to at all.”
After working with kids, Burton also realized that many of the children in South Africa have very similar interests to the children in America: they enjoy hanging out with friends, talking on the phone and playing video games.
While her service with the Peace Corps finished in April 2013, Burton and a friend spent three months traveling through ten countries in Southern and Eastern Africa. The purpose of the trip was to interview youth from each nation, and they now have eighty interviews archived. Her favorite interview that she conducted was with a young man that, upon graduating high school, opened and now successfully operates the first Internet Café in his village.
Today, Burton is in the process of pitching the compilation of stories to an e-book publisher in Scotland, with the hopes of marketing their product to schools across the world.
Burton explains that one of the most valuable lessons she learned on the trip also applies for much of the work she now does for the UO Alumni Association, where she works to help students create a lifelong connection to the UO. Working with students, she says, many are often be sidetracked with midterms or the various crises of being a college student.
“One of the things I really learned was flexibility,” says Burton. “You realize that you just have to go with the flow, because nothing is going to work out how you wanted it to.”