After 11 months with AmeriCorps teaching algebra at a public high school in Dallas, Edgecomb native Ryan Peters is departing for his next adventure serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in a village in southern Africa.
Peters, a 2012 graduate of Lincoln Academy, was initially drawn to the Peace Corps due to the opportunities it provides to experience different cultures. In addition, he has a strong desire to serve others, inspired by the work of his mother, Dorothy Peters, at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Newcastle.
Peters’ decision to join the Peace Corps solidified when he was a sophomore at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., where he studied economics and finance. As graduation approached, he submitted his application for the Peace Corps and specified a desire to work in economic development. However, due to a lack of community service experience on his application and resume, he was not accepted into the Peace Corps.
Undeterred, Peters decided to apply for City Year, an education-focused organization partnering with AmeriCorps to provide support for students, classrooms, and schools in poor urban communities.
“I had such a fixed mindset on going into the Peace Corps, that when I didn’t get in the first time, I decided to use AmeriCorps as a stepping stone to make sure I was accepted the second time I applied,” Peters said.
Shortly after his graduation from Bentley University, Peters was accepted to City Year to work alongside a math teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School in Northwest Dallas, Texas. The majority of Peters’ students had been in the country less than two years and were still learning English.
During the 11-month program, Peters worked with a classroom teacher to teach algebra to students who had moved to the U.S. from Central America. The first half of each class period was devoted to the day’s lesson, while the rest of the time Peters worked with students one-on-one to teach them fundamental skills and fill gaps in their knowledge. Many of the students had been in the country for less than a year and had math skills that were “all over the map,” Peters said.
“The students we worked with had very diverse backgrounds and had grown up without the expectations we have here for education,” Peters said.
While the experience proved frustrating at times, the “small victories” when a student grasped a concept or improved a test score helped make the challenging times worthwhile, Peters said.
The language barrier between the teachers and the students presented another obstacle to overcome, Peters said. Neither he nor the classroom teacher were fluent in Spanish, while a majority of the students did not have strong comprehension of English.
However, the challenge of communication soon became a learning experience for both Peters and the students. While Peters challenged himself to strengthen his Spanish vocabulary, the students played a vital role in helping him become conversational, he said. In return, he helped them improve their English.
“We were able to find a lot of middle ground with each other, and I think it helped them grow to trust me because they saw that I was failing and struggling at learning a new language too,” Peters said. “They knew I didn’t have unrealistic expectations for them because I was going through the same thing they were.”
Peters said living in Dallas provided perspective about life below the poverty line.
“I think it’s something we take for granted here, because it’s not something we see every day like in the bigger cities, like Dallas,” Peters said. “Things like applying for food stamps so I could buy food and seeing my students wearing the same clothes three days in a row were really eye-opening for me because it was so unlike what I spent my whole life seeing in Damariscotta.”
Beyond broadening his worldview, Peters’ time with City Year also sparked an interest in teaching, something he had not considered before. When filling out his application for the Peace Corps a second time in November 2016, Peters listed teaching as a top priority.
On Jan. 9, his 23rd birthday, Peters received an invitation to serve in the Peace Corps for two years as a teacher in Lesotho, a landlocked country surrounded by the much larger nation of South Africa.
Peters left the U.S. on Sept. 26 bound for Maseru, the country’s capital. He will spend about 2 1/2 months living with a host family, learning the culture and language of the country, and going through training. Once he completes his training, he will be assigned to a school in one of the nearby villages.
In the time between completing his work in Dallas and departing for Lesotho, Peters has worked at Schooner Landing, in Damariscotta, and Que Rico, in Newcastle, to save money for any unexpected expenses, while also making time for friends and family.
“That’s something that’s been really helpful, having that support system of my friends, my brother, and my mom and dad,” Peters said. “Everybody’s been so accepting and supportive, and that’s something I’m going to miss a lot.”