February 22, 2024

Serving in Senegal

As the hot sun begins to descend in Kedougou, Senegal, women leave their huts for a late afternoon stroll to the village well. The sound of swaying buckets and rushing water is heard as each woman waits her turn for the pump. In a sea of chatty girls, UMW alumna Maura Slocum listens carefully to their enunciations as she works to perfect the native language of Pulaar.

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Maura Slocum works on an agriforestry project.

Slocum is living in this rural West African country as a Peace Corps volunteer. Arriving in mid-December, she’s still adjusting to the dramatic cultural shift from the familiar Fredericksburg campus where she graduated last May with a degree in environmental science.

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Maura Slocum ’16 with some of her Senegalese family.

She’s following a rich tradition of Mary Washington alumni who have been chosen to serve with the volunteer global outreach established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961. In fact, UMW has been included among the top 20 of the Peace Corps’ list of top-producing small schools since 2005. In all, more than 230 UMW alumni have served the 27-month commitment around the world since the Peace Corps’ inception.

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Maura Slocum ’16 with some of her Peace Corps siblings.

At home in her host family’s compound, Slocum spends much of her time with her young siblings, Sadie, Maimudu and Abdoulaiye, who love introducing her to new places. Ranging in ages from 3 to 9, they aren’t the youngest of the bunch. Not long after she arrived, her young host mother gave birth to twins.

“My family and neighbors were very welcoming,” Slocum said. “They even got me to dance in the drum circle at the [babies’] naming ceremonies.”

When she’s not practicing Pulaar or spending time with her host siblings, Slocum tends to her personal compost and tree nursery.

“I arrived to the village at the end of the harvest season, so there is not a lot of agriculture work right now,” Slocum said. “The main focus right now is garden preparation, since the farming season will not begin until the rains come in March or April.”

As an agroforestry volunteer, she aims to help bolster food security and sustainability by integrating trees into agriculture.

Just under a year ago, Slocum beamed with excitement over her acceptance into the Peace Corps as she stood with a UMW environmental sciences team in the polluted water of Contrary Creek in Louisa County. A senior at the time, Slocum researched soil contamination and worked to improve it, a skill that will serve her well in helping the villagers of Kedougou..

Preparation was key for Slocum in December of 2016, when she arrived in the village with a population of 250.

Melanie Szulczewski, Slocum’s advisor and former agroforestry volunteer for the Peace Corps, encouraged her to apply to the Peace Corps and offered her support.

“I talked with Maura extensively about the application process,” said Szulczewski, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences. “She could clearly outline her goals and was well prepared with abundant volunteer experience.”

Slocum has been preparing for her Peace Corps service since high school. On a mission’s trip to Guatemala she discovered her passion to serve, and when it came time to choose a university, she had her eyes on the prize.

“The University of Mary Washington was fundamental in my journey to the Peace Corps,” Slocum said. “I actually chose UMW over James Madison University because I read that UMW had such a high number of alumni who go on to serve.”

With a team of friends, family and professors to support and advise her, Slocum seamlessly transitioned from a UMW student to a Peace Corps volunteer.

“I believe Maura will truly embody the goals of the Peace Corps,” said Szulczewski. “She will be helping others while growing as a global citizen.”