Maggie Vallejos, Class of 2005, Talks about Her Time in the Peace Corps

Maggie Vallejos, a 2005 graduate, spent 27 months as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mozambique. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in education at Columbia’s Teachers College.

After graduating from NJIT in 2005, Maggie Vallejos applied for the Peace Corps.  She liked to travel and to help people, so figured she could do both by joining the Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps accepted her and sent her to Mozambique, a developing country that until recently was one of the poorest in Africa. Maggie was frightened yet excited.  For her perceptions of Africa were fixed by two common images of the continent.

“All I knew about Africa was on the one hand the bad things – the crime, the disease, the poverty,” said Maggie. “And on the other hand I read about the high-end living -- the luxury resorts and safaris.  I was very confused.  So I decided to see for myself what African culture was really like.”

She wound up in the village of Sussundenga, where she taught 9th and 10th grades at a local high school.  Her time in that village left her with indelible impressions of the courage, kindness and drive of the Mozambique people. 

The village, for instance, had no running water.  The villagers lived in mud huts and the children slept on dirt floors.  The huts lacked electricity and the few spots in the village that had it could not rely on it.  In her village of 30,000 residents, she observed a total of three toilets. (Maggie, a biomedical engineering major, built a toilet for her house).

Her students also had hard lives. They didn’t have much to eat, though always offered to share their food with Maggie.  And many lived on their own, having lost one or both parents.  Given the country’s poverty, disease and famine, most adults die in their early forties -- leaving many orphans.

Nonetheless, they were determined to learn.  Many of them walked four hours to get to the village school.  They respected their teachers and worked hard. They took advanced science classes earlier on in high school. 

One night, after a long school day, Maggie was walking through the village on her way home.  The village had just installed light posts and the electricity, surprisingly, was working.  As she approached the light posts Maggie noticed three clusters of students sitting in pools of light.  Lacking electricity in their huts, the students had come outside to do their homework under the street lights.  Maggie was dumbfounded by their indomitable desire to learn.         

“As I walked along they greeted me with shouts of, ‘Hey Teacher, Hey Teacher,’” recalls Maggie. “I can't explain the emotions I felt then.  Helping people who want to help themselves gives you an amazing feeling -- an emotion that’s an honor to feel.”

In this interview, Maggie, who is now studying for her master’s degree in education at Columbia University's Teachers College, talks about her experiences in the Peace Corps.  She also discusses how her engineering education at NJIT and her problem solving skills helped her survive the Peace Corps.

Were the Mozambique villagers welcoming to you?
When people talk about Mozambicans, it’s always how friendly and kind and giving they are.  I used walked two and a half miles to my school, and not a day passed in all my time there when a villager did not say to me, “Servido,” which means you are served. They always offered me breakfast or lunch, standing outside of their houses as I passed.  They don’t have much, but what they do have they are more than willing to share. 

Did being a problem solver -- an NJIT grad -- help you acclimate to the Peace Corps.?
It did!  I built so many things while I was in the Peace Corps!  A roof being one of my coolest accomplishments; it was the best because I taught Mozambicans about triangular supports, this is a very long story, so I'll just keep it at that.  I also built furniture and my garden...lots of stuff. But I think it's the everyday problem-solving that I value the most, like with finances, shopping, fixing things, making wise decisions.  I like to think I take calculated risks. :)  I am not sure NJIT gave me those skills but it helped foster them.

Is Mozambique still desperately poor?
Well, it’s a third world country that is developing at an astonishing rate.  Mozambique, not so long ago, was the poorest country in the world.  The people were hungry and war was everywhere.  But the people decided they were tired of that.  They wanted to help themselves.

What was your house in Mozambique like?
I live in a three-room cement house (very fancy school housing). Most of my students lived in mud huts. I lived in one of, if not, the poorest districts in Mozambique.  I lived in the bread basket of Mozambique, where most people are subsistence farmers. All of my students worked on farms, which made teaching them all the more challenging.  Food takes precedence over an education -- how can one challenge that?

How did living there differ from America?
Um, well, you can not compare, I technically lived amongst absolute poverty.  So that’s difference number one. Electricity is scarce, comes and goes when it wants and there is nothing you can do about it because you will never find the person in charge.  There might be three toilets in my village of 30, 000.  I did not have one of them – technically (I built my own toilet; the plain hole in the ground just wasn’t cutting it).  There is no running water anywhere in my town, maybe the hospital and the mayor’s house have it, but that’s it.

What was your school there like?
The education system there was very different from ours.  Finishing the 10th grade in the rural part of Mozambique is a big deal, so the schools have the students take the hard sciences -- physics, chemistry, calculus -- in 8th through 10th grade.  I had students coming to me with organic chemistry and I thought I would have never been able to do that in 10th grade. And my life was much easier in high school.  My students studied these hard subjects while sleeping on floors of mud huts with poor nutrition and no parents. A majority of my students were on their own; either they were sent to live here because it’s cheap to attend school in Sussundenga, or one or both of their parents had died.

Sounds like the students were driven and courageous.
They were the most amazing people I have ever met.  I had students that walked more than four hours to get to and from their school, which started at 6:30 a.m. and ended at noon. Then to top it off, they studied there butts off to get good grades.

You are working on your master’s degree in education at Columbia? Can you talk about that? 
In the Peace Corps, I fell in love with teaching. At the end of my 27 month stay there, we volunteers were told by the Peace Corp staff that we could earn fellowships for graduate school, education and teaching were an option and I took it.  I’m getting my master’s in math education from Columbia’s Teachers College.  I am part of a Peace Corps Fellows program that accepts returned Peace Corps volunteers who want to teach in high-needs schools in NYC.  Thanks to the program, about half of my degree is paid for. And if I teach math for five years in a school district where there is a lack of qualified teachers, another grant will pay off the rest of my tuition costs.  

How does Columbia differ from NJIT?
Columbia and NJIT share many similarities. I can say that I have some amazing professors here, just as I did at NJIT.   It's funny how people are immediately impressed when I say I go to Columbia, but when they hear that I studied biomedical engineering at NJIT, they are also impressed.  The technical degrees that NJIT offers in fields such as engineering, science or architecture are very valuable, so current NJIT students should realize what a good school they are in and what valuable degrees they are pursuing.  I am so grateful that I was able to get my degree from NJIT, for a plethora of reasons, but one main reason is for value alone, we get a good deal, especially compared with Columbia where it costs about $1100 per credit. 

After you get your master’s degree, will you teach biology? And where will you teach? 
I already teach full time in NYC.  I teach mathematics, but I am pretty flexible and if I needed to teach a science, I would.  I'm just not sure how that works with certification.  As of now, I am a certified 7-12 math teacher.  I hope to teach some pre-engineering courses as electives in the future, so what I studied at NJIT could tie in quite nicely.  As far as where I will teach, well, I will teach anywhere.  After living and working in Mozambique and NYC, I'm not surprised by much.  I'll get married this summer to a wonderful man (and fellow science nerd) who I met in the Peace Corps.  I'll keep you posted on where I end up. 

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)