“I am open to experience whatever God has for me to do. I feel that my life has a great purpose that I must fulfill,” says Asiha Grigsby, who is currently serving a 27-month commitment as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in El Salvador, and in January 2015 completed her master’s degree in public policy and administration with a concentration in international public service and development (IPSD). Originally from Washington state, Asiha earned her bachelor’s degree in international studies with a concentration in Latin America and Spanish at the University of Washington. Since then, Asiha caught the travel bug and has made her way to South Africa, Beijing, El Salvador, and Rutgers University–Camden.
Asiha says she was initially drawn to the prestigious name of Rutgers, and ended up falling in love with the small, intimate Camden campus and the collaborative style of the international public service and development program. “The transition from the west coast to the east coast was a welcome adventure for me…it marked a beautiful new phase in my life.” Asiha says she liked to be involved on campus and appreciated that the Rutgers–Camden faculty and staff were always accessible and dedicated to students. She adds, “Most of all, I felt that the education and experiences that I received [have] been very useful to me as a professional…my BA in International Studies: Latin America and Spanish served me as a guide to narrow down all of the interests that I had as an undergraduate.”
Asiha did not declare her undergraduate major until her junior year of school. Her interest in the Spanish language and Latino culture remained throughout her exploration of other subjects, and it soon became her specialty. She says, “The IPSD concentration was perfect for me because that particular program incorporated a two-year Peace Corps Service as part of the degree. That way I was able to apply the theory to practical field experience.” Asiha explains that she loves to help others, and that the IPSD program at Rutgers–Camden was the perfect mix of her passion and education. She says, “The fact that I am now serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in El Salvador is the perfect final piece to my undergraduate and graduate studies.” She continues, “Being a PCV in El Salvador is everything that I never knew I wanted.” She currently lives in Estanzuela, a very small community in the country, which is only ten minutes from the Honduran border. She describes her life there as simple and rural. There is no in-door plumbing or phone signals, and electricity is erratic.
Asiha specializes in the Community Organization and Economic Development sector of the Peace Corps, but her work in the Estanzuela community varies. Just a few of her projects include establishing a community bakery, launching a portable water project, and leading women’s savings groups. She also describes how often she is reminded that not only is she learning from their culture, but they are learning from her. “I always have the opportunity to share my culture with host country nationals because it is rare [for them] to see an African American, especially a woman.”
Asiha’s responsibilities as a PCV are not limited to her community. She is also a member of the Volunteer Advisory Council (VAC), which is a group comprised of one representative from each volunteer cohort in El Salvador. They work together with staff to solve any issues that affect volunteers. Asiha voices the volunteers’ concerns to staff, and she also plans activities that bond the volunteers and staff members.
Asiha says that when she initially applied to Peace Corps, the volunteers were excluded from the country-placement decisions, and were kept in the dark until only a few months before their departure. However, she adds that the recruitment process has evolved and that PCV candidates are much more involved. She mentions that El Salvador is a country with strict travel restrictions and special living arrangements for PCV’s because of past security concerns, but she always felt safe. She adds, “Peace Corps is the toughest job you will ever love.”
Before traveling to El Salvador, Asiha went to Beijing and taught English. “Living and teaching English in Beijing was an experience that I will never forget. The culture in China is truly spectacular. I taught English with a company called Disney English,” says Asiha. She describes the lesson plans as more innovative, focusing more on learning through fun, interactive activities, such as singing and dancing, rather than traditional lectures. “The moments that stand out the most were the interests of the parents in the education of their children. I worked with primarily elementary-aged children; however, my youngest student was nine months old. His parents spoke English perfectly but they wanted their baby to be exposed to a natural American accent. I thought that was very extreme but the parents wanted English perfection, including the accent.”
Asiha’s big heart and love of helping others was always evident; while attending the University of Washington, Asiha served as the assistant position at the Early Scholar’s Outreach Program. The program connects middle school students from the inner-city to college tutors. The tutors focused on strengthening students’ skills in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). She supported the administration in organizing the tutors and providing materials necessary for the tutoring itself.
After three years in the assistant position, she was promoted as program coordinator. From there, in addition to supporting the tutors, she had to oversee administrative duties such as the budget, the payroll, and parent conferences. “It was a challenge to manage my academic schedule, work responsibilities, and athletic schedule [due to varsity crew], but I enjoyed being busy during every hour of the day. The experience helped me focus my talents to fulfill my obligations and remain on-task,” says Asiha.
She continues, “The largest reward of my work as a tutor, assistant, and coordinator of the Early Scholar’s Outreach Program was watching my former students graduate from high school and continue striving towards higher education…I feel that I had a small part in their success. For that I am grateful and very proud.”
When asked about her experience at Rutgers–Camden, Asiha admits, “I would describe my experience at Rutgers–Camden as a wild and crazy, beautiful, tear-filled, emotional rollercoaster. I honestly had no idea what to expect when I attended orientation during my first day.” The IPSD concentration is an accelerated graduate program that required the same amount of coursework as a regular graduate program, but only in nine months, which is about half the usual time. Asiha describes how stressful it was to handle a huge course load in a short amount of time, but that she believes it was worth it. “I feel that my academic senses were heightened because I was forced to rise to the occasion,” she says. Asiha mentions that the relationships she established with her peers significantly impacted her experience. “Without them going through the same challenges that I encountered, I probably would not have been as successful. Looking back, I am very grateful for the experience,” says Asiha.
As Asiha completes the last phase of her Peace Corps journey, her final project is focused on academic excellence for the youth in Estanzuela. She says, “Many youth in my community do not pursue education beyond the sixth grade due to extreme economic hardships.” She continues, “Although many dream of being professionals in the future, the harsh reality is that they will almost certainly work in the fields earning a non-livable wage.”
In order to combat the oppressive factors that inhibit Estanzuela youth from aspiring to finish high school, Asiha developed and facilitates a series of leadership, self-esteem, and homework help sessions. She is also collaborating with Aid El Salvador, a registered non-profit organization established by a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) who served in the country. Asiha is using this medium to meet her goal of $10,000.00 for ten scholarships through tax-deductible donations from abroad. She states, “My youth measure academic success by tiny achievements that may seem insignificant to the average American. The opportunity for these youth to finish high school and attend a university will literally change the trajectory of their lives and the lives of their families for the better. I cannot fail them.”
Asiha returned to the States to participate in the Rutgers–Camden graduation ceremony on May 21, 2015. After commencement, she’ll return to El Salvador and will complete her service in October 2015. Afterward, she plans to travel for six months to travel “in order to process the previous two years of my life.” She expects to visit Central and South America, and Southeast Asia. Once Asiha returns to the United States, she will prepare for the Foreign Service Officers’ test and explore professions where she can utilize her language skills in a professional setting. She says, “I have not settled on one particular plan; instead I will explore everything that interests me until my talents, purpose, and destiny are aligned. Each day is a new opportunity for me to serve humanity and enjoy this life that I have the privilege to live.”
If you are interested in donating to Aid El Salvador, go to: http://www.aidelsalvador.org/donate.php. Please include “PCV Asiha Grigsby, Estanzuela” in the “Add Special Instructions to Seller” box on the “Review your Donation” page to earmark donations specifically for the Estanzuela youth.
Written by Rebecca Grubb