“I follow my heart when I take jobs,” said Beth Cleary, whose
résumé gives credit to her claim. For the past year, Cleary has
served as president of the board for the Santa Barbara Peace Corps
Association, and, when I met her, she was a week into her other
job, doing community relations for Girls Inc.-which is not the
first local nonprofit to benefit from her services. Cleary has also
worked for the Citizens’ Planning Association and SEE

Hailing from Madison, Wisconsin, Cleary came to Santa Barbara
for college in 1992, majoring in aquatic biology at UCSB. She
joined the Peace Corps upon her graduation in 1995, and completed
her three years of service in Cameroon, teaching agriculture and
fish farming in a small village with no running water or
electricity, “using my degree from UCSB,” she said jokingly. Before
leaving for Cameroon, Cleary said she was worried that she wasn’t
prepared for the massive cultural shock she knew she was about to
endure. “They live by the weather and the sun, not the clock,” she

Since her return, she’s remained actively involved with the
Santa Barbara Peace Corps Association, helping with membership,
special events, and organizing volunteer opportunities within the
community. Additionally, she supports local Peace Corps volunteers
before, during, and after their service: hosting send-off dinners
for new initiates and open-to-the-public panel interviews with
former volunteers; supporting volunteers while they’re abroad with
a mini-grant program, which funds such initiatives as building
wells, libraries, and the like; and helping returning volunteers
reestablish their lives in the U.S.

Cleary’s advice to those considering joining? Think long and
hard before you do it; talk to as many former volunteers as you
can; and ask them every question you can think of. Most
importantly, “Go with a completely open mind,” she said. “It’s a
whole different culture, so you can’t go with too many
expectations.” Also, be aware that, although you can request a
certain area of the world, there are no guarantees. Cleary
requested South America, so she could utilize her knowledge of
Spanish, but there wasn’t a need for additional volunteers in that
region at the time, so she found herself packing for Africa and
French-speaking Cameroon instead.

One of the toughest aspects of Peace Corps service may be that
volunteers-with the exception of married couples-must go it alone.
“They want you to be part of the community, not just hang out with
other Americans,” Cleary explained. Also, the Peace Corps favors
hard work rather than handouts. “Their philosophy is to teach
people to work with what they have-not to go with money or
supplies.” Though both ideas make good sense, the solitary,
oftentimes rough, conditions cause some volunteers to call it quits
early. But Cleary thinks those who stick it out have much to

“You come back with a certain awareness, this life-enriching
experience, this insight into a whole other world,” she said,
smiling, “It was amazing-the most interesting, rewarding thing I’ve
ever done.”


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