As an 8-year-old growing up in Seymour, Emily Engelking was intrigued with Ukraine.

She saw the eastern European country on a map at her grandmother’s house and thought it would be an interesting place, so she checked out a book at the library to learn about its culture and history.

She also was interested in the Peace Corps, a volunteer program run by the U.S. government in which people provide technical assistance, help those outside the United States understand American culture and help Americans understand the cultures of other countries.

Later on when she was a student at Seymour High School, she had a peace sign put on her class ring and told her mother she was going to join the Peace Corps.

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In September 2016, three months after graduating from Hanover College, both of her longtime dreams came true, as she headed to Ukraine to serve with the Peace Corps.

She will continue to serve until December 2018 teaching English as a foreign language to students in grades 3 through 11 at a school.

“Now, I realize the reason I wanted to go there was because this was like my fate, this was my destiny,” the 23-year-old said. “I’m supposed to be there, and I know that it’s what I’m supposed to be doing, even though sometimes, it’s hard to be away (from home).”

During a recent short visit to Seymour, she spoke to students at her alma mater as part of a Purdue Extension Jackson County career path program. She educated them on the Peace Corps and shared her experience in Ukraine.

“I’m really excited to be back here to talk to you guys because whenever I was in high school, I wanted to be a Peace Corps volunteer, and I got to do that,” she told the students gathered in the library. “I think it’s really important that you guys realize that whatever dreams you have, it’s completely possible because this was what I wanted, and I’m here today.”

After graduating from Seymour High School in 2012, Engelking double-majored in English and political science with a minor in Latin at Hanover College.

She spent two spring terms abroad — one in England and the other in Italy — and was in Belgium for a semester.

“I think that was a big reason why I got into Peace Corps because I’ve been to a lot of places, and when you travel and you see the world differently, you think a little different,” Engelking said.

Once she had her bachelor’s degrees, Engelking met one of the requirements for applying for the Peace Corps. A bachelor’s degree in any field or five years of life experience are required for most positions, she said.

Applicants also have to be a U.S. citizen 18 or older.

“You have to have some interest in the world around you. I don’t think you want to go to another country where you don’t know anything if you’re not really, really interested in it,” Engelking said.

“And you have to be committed to helping others because your service is about helping other people, teaching them, being a person that they look to,” she said. “You’re always representing your country, people are always looking at you, so you have to be really OK with being kind of like a beacon for people.”

Engelking said depending on the country you serve in, it may be required to know the language. She didn’t learn Ukrainian until she arrived there.

She said you also have to find your passion because the Peace Corps offers several sectors, including education, health, environment, youth development, community development and agriculture.

A résumé is another part of the application process. Engelking said it’s good to be involved in clubs and volunteer in high school and college, and studying abroad also is recommended.

“They really want well-rounded people who volunteer, who participate, who have some experience,” she said. “Maybe if you study abroad during college, that’s very helpful because they want you to have a sense of what the rest of the world is and to see that you’re interested in the world.”

Engelking also had to fill out an application with a variety of questions and pick the country she wanted to serve in, and then she had a Skype interview with even more questions.

The scariest part of it all, she said, was waiting to hear if she was selected to serve.

Some of her friends had to wait for a couple of months, but she learned in less than 24 hours that she was accepted.

“For me, applying to Peace Corps was the most stressful thing I’ve ever done because I really, really wanted it,” Engelking said.

President John F. Kennedy started the Peace Corps in 1961 because he saw a need in young people to go out into the world and help others, Engelking said.

Since then, there have been more than 225,000 volunteers serve. Currently, there are more than 7,000 people serving in different countries around the world, including nearly 330 in Ukraine, she said.

“Volunteers serve in developing countries, so you’re not going to get put in like Paris, France, but you can get put in places that are incredible and wonderful, and you learn so much about them,” she said.

She said there are three goals of the Peace Corps. The first is to help people of interested countries meet their need for trained men and women.

“Maybe you are really good at farming, and you know a lot about farming, then you can go to a country that maybe needs some help with that and teach them different farming practices in a way that maybe they never thought of before,” she said.

The second goal is to promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served.

“I live in my country (Ukraine), and for most people, I am the first native English speaker they’ve ever met, the first American they’ve ever met, so what they think of America, they just see in movies or read about or watch on the news,” Engelking said.

“I’m there to show American values and what I think that means,” she said. “I will go through my town, and I meet people and I talk to people about my experience at home. I teach my kids about American traditions, and it helps them to understand who we are.”

The third goal is to promote a better understanding of other people on the part of Americans.

“My host country is Ukraine, and I talk about it and why I love it and tell about culture,” she said.

The Peace Corps involves 27 months of service. The first three months consist of training, which for Engelking was spending four hours a day learning to speak Ukrainian and also practicing teaching in Ukrainian schools. Living with a host family, she practiced the language and learned culture and history.

After a volunteer is fluent in the language and has all of the skills they need, they attend a swearing-in ceremony. Engelking was in a group of 50 people set to serve in Ukraine. They all wore traditional Ukrainian shirts called vyshyvanka.

“It’s the same oath that the president takes, that the military takes, because you’re serving your country,” she said. “It’s a very nice feeling when you have your swearing-in and you feel very proud of your host country.”

Engelking then was placed with another host family for her two years of service. Their home is in Kivertsi.

She teaches 18 hours a week, four classes a day. She has a Ukrainian teacher as a counterpart, and they co-plan and co-teach lessons.

She gets paid the same amount as a Ukrainian teacher. During her service, she also receives medical and dental benefits, and it’s possible she could have some of her college student loans forgiven.

Peace Corps volunteers also are encouraged to have a secondary project based on the needs of the community in which they are serving. Engelking and her counterpart implemented a discipline system in their school.

When she’s not teaching, Engelking said she participates in English clubs, reads and travels around Ukraine, which she said is about the size of Texas. She also spends time doing things with her host family.

Once her Peace Corps service ends, Engelking said she would like to work for the government or a nonprofit.

“I’m really interested in environmental issues, so I would like to use my experience and use it for something that’s worthwhile,” she said. “The longer I’m there, the more I’m interested in refugees and immigration.”

Another option is the Paul D. Coverdell Fellows Program, where she could go to graduate school and have expenses covered by the Peace Corps.

“Right now, I just want to finish my service, be done with it and learn more from it, come home and see what I can do to make here better,” she said.

Engelking said joining the Peace Corps is the best decision she has made, and she encourages others to consider it.

“We live in a small town (Seymour), and I love it here, I loved growing up here, I loved everything about it, but there’s so much more to the world,” she said. “I think that for us, especially for young people, to think about the world differently, they’ve got to get out and they’ve got to see it for themselves. I can sit up here all day and tell you something, but you’re not going to believe it until you see it.”

On the Web

For information about the Peace Corps, visit peacecorps.gov.

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Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.