Peace Corps Fellow brings lessons from Ethiopia to graduate work | News

by Zelalem

Alesha Klein and others wear purple shirts on the steps of a building in Ethiopia.

Alesha Klein served in Ethiopia, where she was part of many gender equality initiatives.

Fueled by her desire to serve, Alesha Klein became a Peace Corps volunteer in Ethiopia. Now in the second year of her master’s degree with the Stevenson Center for Community and Economic Development, Klein is completing her professional practice in Washington, D.C., with a focus on financial empowerment.

Originally from Minnesota, Klein went to the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and graduated with a bachelor’s in archaeological studies in 2013. She also double minored in anthropology and women, gender, and sexuality studies. Klein liked the broad nature of archaeology and anthropology, which encompassed history and culture.

“I’ve always been interested in cultures, so that was the anthropology side,” Klein said. “But mainly it was, of course, I wanted to be like Indiana Jones, like all archaeologists. In reality everyone knows as an archaeologist that will never happen.”

Klein always planned on going into the Peace Corps and took steps to ensure her dream would become reality. As a sophomore, she met with a recruiter, and later she applied and interviewed.

Klein served from 2014 to 2016, teaching ninth-grade English at Sagure Secondary High School in Ethiopia.

“My first few days, I didn’t know anyone. I was going in blind, so to speak. I was excited, but also confused at the same time because I didn’t know what was going on,” Klein said.

Klein developed a routine. She woke up around 6:30 a.m. in order to be ready for the nearly 500 students, who needed to be in the school compound by 7:45 a.m.. After a flag ceremony, students would listen to the Ethiopian national anthem and the Oromia state anthem.

Klein taught three classes everyday of 60–90 students. She instructed them in reading, writing, and speaking English. Klein made up educational games, which were entirely new to her students.

“They thought I was completely crazy,” Klein said. “‘Teacher Alesha, why? Why do we do this?’”

Her students were used to copying words down from the blackboard—not speaking, which Klein thought was integral to their education. Klein “broadened their horizons about different teaching styles compared to what they were used to.”

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After she finished teaching for the day, Klein went to the same restaurant and ordered food. She would sit, often for hours, working on lesson plans or reading.

“I tried my hardest to always be, I guess ‘out’ is the way I can explain it. So that people in my community could see me,” Klein said.

Klein came home and did chores, before spending time with her “compound family” in the evening. Her landlady had three kids, and as Klein cooked and cleaned with them she learned more of their language. Eventually, Klein began cooking traditional Ethiopian food on her own.

Peace Corps volunteers like Klein trained women to be gender ambassadors, to raise awareness of women’s rights. Klein helped plan and manage the Women First 5K in Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa. The event drew 10,000 women. Klein helped from behind the scenes to make the run a success. Only women ran in the 5K while men cheered on from the sidelines.

“They ran for freedom, for empowerment,” Klein said. “It was such a great experience that I will never forget.”

Klein formed lasting relationships with the people she met in Ethiopia, but she was ready for the next chapter of her life.

“The last few days, it was sad because I had to say goodbye to people, but it was also exciting to come home. It was time,” said Klein.

Klein portrait photo.

Klein is a Peace Corps Paul D. Coverdell Fellow at the Stevenson Center.

Klein always intended to pursue graduate studies. Her Peace Corps service made her eligible for the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program, which includes financial support and the chance to assist U.S. communities. Through the Peace Corps website, Klein came across the Stevenson Center at Illinois State University. She applied to different anthropology programs around the country but prioritized the Stevenson Center’s interdisciplinary curriculum and service emphasis.

“I’ve always been a volunteer,” Klein said.

As the Stevenson Center has developed new partnerships on campus, Klein is the first Peace Corps Fellow to pursue a master’s degree in anthropology. During her first year, she bonded with other graduate students while taking classes and managing assistantship duties. Klein found the center’s support system to be valuable, and she found many opportunities to share and reflect on her experiences in Ethiopia with students, faculty, and staff.

In her second year, Klein began her professional practice at the Center for Financial Services Innovation (CFSI) and Credit Builders Alliance (CBA) in Washington, D.C. Both are nonprofit organizations. At the CBA, she is working primarily on education projects, and at the CFSI she mostly conducts research. CBA’s services help families and individuals build their credit scores and histories.  The CSFI is a consulting organization that has a solutions lab with the goal of finding answers to common problems in order to improve consumer financial health. Klein was drawn to the ways both organizations fill systemic gaps, and she has had a powerful learning experience so far. She also enjoys the wide-ranging cultural events in her new city.

Undergraduate Illinois State students interested in career development can join Peace Corps Prep, while individuals with at least a year of relevant experience can apply to be a Fellow. 

Sarah Aten is the Stevenson Center’s public relations intern.

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