Sara Kincaid // Spring 2015
A month after graduating from UMKC, Isabella Fassi landed in Chikwawa, Malawi, known as “the Warm Heart of Africa,” to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer. Fassi agreed to spend two years volunteering at St. Michael’s Community Day Secondary School (CDSS), an institution in Malawi, which receives little government funding and is known for being overcrowded.
In May, she will complete her service.
Fassi’s main project at the CDSS involves teaching English and mathematics at the secondary level. She helps to facilitate a number of after-school clubs including debate, English and a girls club. She also leads computer and Internet literacy workshops.
CDSS is very different from any school found in the United States, she says.
“Facilities and materials are scarce. My school lacks doors, windows, electricity, books, desks, chairs, hand-washing facilities and more. Our school with four usable ‘classrooms,’ has more than 430 students and only 10 teachers. My freshman mathematics class has 112 students.”
Joining the Peace Corps is a huge commitment and when Fassi applied, potential volunteers did not get to choose their country of service.
“I actually had my heart set on serving in Central or South America. But when the Peace Corps invited me to serve in Malawi, I kind of felt like it was fate because, when I was in the fourth grade, I got to participate in a class that examined the dynamics of the “developing world.” At the end of the course, each student picked a country to explore in depth. I chose Malawi.”
In anticipation of her trip, Fassi felt a whirlwind of emotions. “I felt excitement at the opportunity, curiosity about what the day-to-day would be like, and anxiousness about developing competency in the language and culture,” she says.
“Having majored in sociology and Spanish at UMKC, I gained theoretical knowledge and practical skills that helped me to integrate into my community and have continuously informed my work. I must also credit the UMKC Athletic Department for preparing me in a different yet equally important way. Being a Peace Corps volunteer demands a pretty high degree of grit. The mental and physical endurance I developed as a women’s soccer player at UMKC has certainly helped me get through some tough times,” she adds.
“My favorite moments at school are when I leave class and a student comes running after me to seek clarification on a concept that he or she doesn’t understand, usually totally unrelated to the lesson but totally fascinating,” she says.
Fassi may be the teacher in the classroom, but she has also learned a lot about herself and about life in general from her experiences in Malawi.
“First and foremost, I’ve learned how weird I am–how most Americans are–how unnatural and exceptional the American way of life is. In some ways, living in Malawi is like going back in time, back to an existence where people were more directly connected to the earth and to each other,” she says.
This fall, after returning to the states, Fassi will be headed to Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work to pursue her graduate degree. She plans to focus on social and economic development and will specialize in system dynamics or social entrepreneurship.
“My time in the Peace Corps has been liberating. I used to have a pretty concrete plan for myself and I think, like most young people, I felt pressure to stick to that plan as linearly as possible. Now I feel open to go in different directions. And most importantly, I feel open to failure. I’ve literally gone down so many wrong dirt paths in Malawi. And even when I get lost, I still gain something–a new sense of direction, a new friend, a new view. I’m a lot less fearful of making mistakes.”