Finding Peace in the Peace Corps

A WBLAHS alum follows her passion to Kyrgyzstan.
Colleen Wood assists her host aunt in cleaning out the intestines of a newly-slaughtered sheep; every part of the sheep is used in some way, and the intestines will be braided and stuffed with rice.

On her 23rd birthday, April 26, 2015, Colleen Wood, a newly minted Peace Corps volunteer and 2010 graduate of White Bear Lake Area High School, stepped off an airplane in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, after 30 hours of travel. Other Peace Corps volunteers met Wood at the airport, along with her cohort of 60, and satiated grumbling stomachs by proffering borosk (deep-fried bread nuggets) and kuvut (dried yogurt balls).

Wood’s draw to Kyrgyzstan was, as most soul-stirring passions are, not easily defined, but deeply and powerfully felt. Her adventure began when she was a sophomore in high school and scientists whom her mom was working with visited from St. Petersburg, Russia. “They had books, and I wanted to be able to read them,” says Wood when we spoke via Skype at 6 a.m. her time, 7 p.m. here.

She pored over Russian grammar and vocabulary books, and attended Concordia Language Villages, a language immersion summer camp, from 2007-2009. “I spent a month in Bemidji studying Russian in the woods,” says Wood. “It was basically a summer camp, but it was all in Russian.”

Her camp counselor and language teacher at the camp, Rahat, along with her music teacher, Asel, were from Bishkek. “There was something powerful about meeting them,” she says, revealing this was only the beginning. At Georgetown University, she studied Turkish, as well as Kyrgyz history, politics and culture. “It just became a huge focus of my academic life,” she says.

After graduating (magna cum laude, no less), Wood applied to the Peace Corps and was invited to serve in Kyrgyzstan. She spent three months in training and then moved to Jalal-Abad—the third-largest city, in the southern part of the country—to instruct local teachers on how to teach English in the villages.

Last April, she moved to Cholpon-Ata, located on the picturesque Issyk-Kul, the second-largest mountain lake in the world. “It’s been interesting to see two very different parts of the country,” Wood says.

And in what has been her proudest accomplishment thus far, Wood, along with two students from Jalal-Abad University, wrote a grant so 22 teachers from remote areas could attend a four-day teacher methodology camp Wood created and organized. “I’m very thankful for how it all worked out," she says.

Wood will be wrapping up her 27-month term sometime this summer, and is thrilled with all she has learned in this place of her passion. “I’ve had to let go of my very American need to know what’s going to happen in advance; I now have a much more go-with-the-flow attitude,” she says. “It was pretty eye-opening to see that I can take it slow and still do good things.”

A Typical Day

• Walk 25 minutes from host family home in Cholpon-Ata to bus stop.

• Take marshrutka (bus) to the Osmonov School in Cholpon-Ata.

• Teach four to five classes with local Kyrgyz teachers, or conduct teacher training in the more rural areas.

• Take bus home, arriving anytime between 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m.

• Snack on tea, cookies and small sandwiches.

• Host family comes home.

• Prepare and eat dinner, typically around 9 p.m.

• Retire to bedroom and get some sleep.