From Transy to Myanmar: Grad fulfills dream of service in Peace Corps

Travel opportunities were limited for Rachel Johnson ’16 as a young girl growing up in southeastern Kentucky. She remembers first learning about the world through reading. But then came Transy and all of the experiences that led to her travel abroad and, ultimately, to her Peace Corps service in Myanmar. Johnson shares parts of her journey in this Q&A.

Johnson (front row right) as a teacher in Myanmar

You grew up in Corbin, Kentucky. What brought you to Transy?

I decided to look at smaller universities in order to ground myself in the kind of tight-knit community I craved. Transy fit the bill for challenging academics, wonderful professors and an opportunity to immerse myself in both campus activities and the greater Lexington community.

What did you major in and why?

I majored in English with no other intention than to pursue and sharpen a lifelong passion for reading and writing. Along the way, however, I realized just how much I loved collecting stories. I believe stories connect people on an emotional level, and through reading and writing I have been given the opportunity to learn about parts of the world I otherwise never would have fallen in love with. As a result, I have pursued blogging while abroad and plan to continue following that path after Peace Corps as well.

What kind of travel abroad did you do while at Transy?

During May term of my sophomore year, I was fortunate enough to travel abroad for the first time and explore Greece with professors Frank Russell (history) and John Svarlien (classics) – as well as a group of students who included a few friends. We traveled around the perimeter of the country visiting historical sites such as Athens, Delphi, Sparta, etc., and then visited some of the islands south of the mainland. It was a well-rounded experience that highlighted historical, cultural, artistic and literary elements of ancient Greece.

Transy presents wonderful and unique opportunities to study abroad that open doors for students and professors to share a truly profound and adventurous yet intellectual experience that isn’t available anywhere else.

Johnson sets out on a boat ride in Inle

How did you become interested in travel and service abroad, and in the Peace Corps, in particular? 

I have been interested in Peace Corps since I was young. I knew in high school that it was something I wanted to pursue because it celebrated my love of volunteering on an international scale and provided opportunities to travel. I focused on Peace Corps as opposed to other international volunteering opportunities because of its grassroots message: It aims to connect people to people even in a developmental context. It was important to me not only to gain a new set of personal skills but also to work alongside people so that we would be able to mutually empower and support each other.

How did Transy prepare you to be a competitive applicant and to get the most out of the Peace Corps experience?

The resources and connections that Transy offers within the Lexington community were integral in my preparation for a meaningful Peace Corps experience. Transy provided me with opportunities to work with the international community. For example, I was able to work as an intern at Kentucky Refugee Ministries through suggestions made to me by the Transy community. In addition, I found volunteering opportunities in the downtown Lexington area in close proximity to Transy’s campus, including assisting ESL classes at the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning, working as an officer with T.U.T.O.R.S., and volunteering with students from schools in and around Lexington.

Attending the wedding of a counterpart teacher

What has been the most meaningful part of your experience so far?

The most meaningful part of my experience in Myanmar has easily been the relationships I have formed with my counterpart teachers and school community. They have become my coworkers, friends and family. I recognize the intensity of these relationships are truly unique (even within the Peace Corps), and I am extremely grateful for their friendship and encouragement. They have helped me survive the huge adjustment that it takes to succeed in the Peace Corps and provided me with the kind of community that is necessary to lean on while living abroad.

What sparked your sense of adventure? And how did Transy help you to realize that part of you?

I think what sparked my sense of adventure was actually the lack of traveling opportunities I had growing up in southeastern Kentucky. It’s a place of contradictions, just like anywhere else, and one of those seems to be that people are set on leaving but so few are presented with the opportunity to do so. In small communities where education is not prioritized, the fear of travel lingers. People still often ask me why I would want to join the Peace Corps or why I would choose to live in Myanmar.

Transy simply gave me so many of the opportunities that most members of my family never had. I’m forever grateful for professors and friends who pushed me to look outside my comfort zone, whether it be a new genre of literature or a travel opportunity.

Read about Johnson’s experiences in Myanmar on her blog.