ORONO, Maine — There were moments, Alexandra Winter now admits, that she wondered why she volunteered for a two-year stint in the Peace Corps.
The heat in the desert village of Dawalel, Mauritania, where the Orono native was posted, was stifling at times. There was no running water. And Winter had to resort to instant coffee for her daily fix.
There also were moments she appreciated her Peace Corps commitment. The best of those came when Winter was able to raise more than $3,000 to fund the construction of new classrooms for a 200-student school in Dawalel.
“It was hard while I was there, and there were times I would have gone home if I could have,” said Winter, who returned to Orono in early July, reflecting on her trip Tuesday morning. “But I’m really glad I did it.”
Winter, a 2003 Orono High School graduate, signed up for the Peace Corps during her senior year at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. She was seeking an experience that would integrate her into a culture.
“I had studied abroad and traveled in Europe, but you always feel like an outsider,” she said. “In the Peace Corps, I could live among the people, and at the same time help them.”
In January 2007 Winter learned of her assignment to Mauritania, a country in western Africa. The Peace Corps put her there because she spoke French, which is Mauritania’s official language.
French, it turned out, wouldn’t help her much in Dawalel. The people there speak a dialect called pulaar, in which Winter said she became fluent.
“To a degree, it’s a fight for survival,” she said. “If you don’t learn the language, you can’t get by. And it’s so frustrating when you want to be able to say something to someone and have that connection.”
As she hoped, Winter became as integrated as she could, living with a family in the village, eating daily meals of fish and rice, and having some of her clothes made in the local style.
Winter went to the region as an agroforestry volunteer, helping the women’s garden cooperative organize, increase the crop yield, and mediate any problems or issues.
A year after she arrived, however, she added another project. Winter found out the village hoped to repair and rebuild its school, which had just two usable classrooms.
Winter worked though the Peace Corps Partnership Program, a fundraising engine that allows a volunteer to write an appeal for a worthy project. The appeal goes online where people make donations, and after the target sum is reached, the village must come up with a 20 percent contribution in monetary form or labor.
Winter began her appeal last winter, e-mailing friends and family for donations. Four months later, the project was fully funded. Dawalel donated some money and all of the labor. When construction was complete, the school had six usable classrooms.
“The people there were really happy and really excited,” Winter said. “I was just so relieved. To be honest, I was worried it was not going to get funded before I was ready to go. But it was funded quickly.”
Now back in Orono and enjoying the cooler Maine summer weather, hot showers and brewed coffee, Winter is preparing to go to the City University of New York School of Law. She likely will carry her Peace Corps experience with her.
“One thing about living in a different culture is it shapes your decision-making process,” she said. “When you’re confronted with an insurmountable problem, you learn to take different steps that you might not otherwise, to figure out how to live. I think that will have a surprising impact on me.”
For information about Peace Corps projects, go to www.peacecorps.gov/contribute.