Sarah Calhoun

Year of Graduation: 2014

Major(s): Environmental Studies

Current Position: Project Coordinator, Ecova


Please give a brief description of the position in South Africa. As a project manager I oversaw the school partnership program we had at two primary schools in the New Brighton township of Port Elizabeth. This included the English literacy programmed for our kindergarten-3rd grade students, as well as our extracurricular projects.

What path did you follow to arrive at the job in South Africa? When I was a senior in college, I struggled to decide what I was going to do after graduation. I got an email one day from a Bennie who had graduated the year before me who was looking for someone to replace her as a volunteer in South Africa. I reached out to her and followed the application process and ended up moving to South Africa in August of 2014. I started out helping with computer lessons, and tutoring kids in English in kindergarten and third grade. I was only supposed to be there for one year, but realized after 6 months that I was not going to be ready to leave after only one year. I started to take on more projects and responsibilities and stayed for an additional year.

What advice/suggestions would you have for students who might be interested in your career? Volunteer work is very difficult at times but is immensely rewarding. There are many amazing programs like the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps, but there are also smaller organizations that don't necessary advertise volunteer positions, but are more than willing to work with you to figure out how you can help the cause. Find an organization, local or international, that you find interesting or whose values you share and reach out to them! Don't be afraid to take a different route after college. You can defer your loans for a bit and experience things that most people will never get to experience in their lifetime.

What skills are important in your field? Adaptability, flexibility, passion, and dedication. Working in another country can be challenging, especially when it's a developing nation. You have to be flexible and willing to handle whatever bumps and obstacles you come across. For me, being passionate about what I was doing made it that much more enjoyable. I never minded working crazy hours, or having spur of the moment meetings at 9 pm. To me, it was incredible to be around a group of people who had the same values and same end goals as I did, and simply wanted to do all they could to help change even just one life.

What was the most satisfying/rewarding part of your position? Seeing the kids every day and watching their progress over time was the most rewarding for me. Our literacy programs have helped kids learn English, and not only that, it has also helped them become more confident individuals and is an incentive for them to come to school. Working with a child and watching them learn how to write their name is amazing and it's so rewarding to know you played a little part in their development. 

Most challenging? I think the most challenging thing was knowing that you can't fix everything or you can't help everyone. It's incredibly difficult to go to work every day and work with kids who literally live in shacks. They might not have parents, or food to eat at home, or shoes to wear to school. You see them at school and can give them all the love you have, but you have no control over the situations they face when they walk out of that school. I definitely was met with guilt as I drove out of the township each day and back to my comfortable home, while I knew some of my kids were going back to their shacks that they shared with various family members. 

What activities/experiences were helpful at CSB/SJU (and elsewhere) in preparation for this career? I did a three-week May term to South Africa after my sophomore year, as well as a semester in Australia during my junior year. These experiences definitely helped prepare me for living in a different country. I also think the ABE trips I took to New Mexico and the Dominican Republic were helpful in preparing me for volunteer work in new places. I also think the community aspect of St. Ben's in general helped me out so much; it taught me about the importance of   community. I was able to be a part of other communities while I was in South Africa and it has become such a huge part of my life. The whole experience wouldn't have happened if it weren't for CSB!

(September 2016)