In 2015 Michelle Obama launched the ‘Let Girls Learn’ Campaign in order to bring light to and help over 62 million girls around the world who do not have access to an education.
Let Girls Learn is an initiative in partnership with the Peace Corps and organizations, such as the Department of State, to help educate and empower over 62 million girls around the world who currently do not have access to an education. The campaign is headed by Katie McSheffrey and we got the chance to talk to Katie about her journey, her job and why it’s so important that we get involved and help girls around the world.
Prior to joining Let Girls Learn Katie served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Azerbaijan for two years then went on to work for the Peace Corps in DC before heading the campaign.
Me: ‘Did you always know you wanted to do The Peace Corps?’
Katie: No, but you know, now that I think about it, I’ve always loved public service. I knew I wanted to be in public service in some way but I didn’t know how.
When I was younger I went to a Catholic school that required us to do at least 20 hours of community service, I ended up doing 800 hours. I really loved it. I was also a part of the Girl Scouts and that helped shaped my ambition to get involved and give back. But the Peace Corps was something I didn’t consider until college.
Me: What did you study in college?
Katie: I studied Food and Resource Economics which is essentially like agricultural business and was interested in international development.
Me: Is college what motivated you to get involved or was there something else that inspired you?
Katie: I heard about the Peace Corps in college and did not get involved until after a number of professors kept recommending it to me. One of my professors, in particular, actually did the Peace Corps in his earlier years and encouraged me to apply, so I did.
When Katie was in undergrad she had heard of the Peace Corps but was uncertain about joining because of the time commitment. ‘At 19, two years sounded like a lot of time to commit,’ Katie said, and it wasn’t until she was in graduate school did she decide to give it a try.
When I first got assigned Azerbaijan, I had to look it up on a map, but it was one of the most eye opening experiences I’ve had,’ Katie said. ‘The biggest thing I learned looking back is how similar we all are, at the end of the day we want the best for ourselves, our families and we all want to be able to contribute to our community in some way.’
On Being an American Woman in the Middle East
Katie touched a little bit on her experience, including how shocking it was at times, being an American woman in the Middle East. She was treated really nicely and was shocked at how differently some of the women, who were native to Azerbaijan, were treated in comparison to her. She recognized her privilege early on and felt a sense of guilt that at times she could do things more openly and freely than some of the other women ‘just because she was an American woman.’
One night while out at a Tea Bar, small venues located throughout the Middle East, where traditionally men go out to drink tea and play board games, Katie noticed there were no women around. When asked why she was allowed to be present and the other women weren’t they simply replied ‘it wouldn’t be okay.’
She admits she felt safe and protected by her coworkers who came along with her and after a while the men from the area would look out for her but she recalls ‘it didn’t make it any less fair that she was allowed ‘because she was American’ whereas her female counterparts in the area were restricted from certain areas.
‘I wish all women would be treated with the same level of respect and freedom,’ Katie stated. ‘I’m sort of a 3rd gender there, and it was an interesting experience and made for confusion as well as gratitude.’ Sometimes it can be easy to forget all the freedom that comes with being an American, we are so fortunate but there is so much work still to be done around the globe as well.’
The Challenges Being Abroad
When asked about her time with her host family she said, ‘to be honest, I was a bit worried about religious differences, I’m Catholic and I assumed this might be something that would be hard to navigate.’ When I first arrived my host sister asked me what’s your faith? I told her I was Catholic, and she replied, ‘oh so you believe in God’ and that was it. ‘It was a huge burden off of my shoulders and I was at ease the rest of my stay,’ Katie said.
Even though we may have religious differences or our incomes may vary, or even our cultures don’t compare, you just come to realize, at the end of the day, we all want the same thing, we all want good in our lives and we all want to do good in some way.
When asked what the most difficult part of the journey was she mentioned how difficult it was at times being away from her family, missing birthdays, baby showers, weddings and friends, but overall Katie doesn’t regret the experience. ‘I learned so much more about development and could not have learned in the same way anywhere else. If you’re interested in development, try the Peace Corps, visit countries, volunteer on the ground, actually doing the work will teach you so much more than just learning about it.’
Careers in Public Service
‘If you’re interested in development or public service, go work on the ground and start to understand how to enact change.’ On the topic of careers in public service Katie added the importance of working within the communities and how important it is to instill trust and to empower local communities to work together to help develop their own nations.
‘That’s why the Let Girls Learn campaign works on the ground with Peace Corps volunteers who are already doing the work and investing in these local communities, they know the area, they know the people and they understand what it takes to enact change and work with communities and people in the regions to bring about greater change.’
Volunteers from the Peace Corps are sent around the world to serve in countries for two, sometimes four, years at a time to volunteer and help build communities around the world that are in need of assistance. Since volunteers are already working on the ground, the Let Girls Learn campaign works in communities alongside Peace Corps volunteers to support and build programs and community- led workshops that educate girls around the world.
If you’re interested in public service, Katie recommends trying the Peace Corps. If you’re not sure at this point, volunteer, help out in your local community, do something from where you’re at, we can all help someone in some way. If you’re interested in a career in public service, there are so many jobs out there outside of volunteering.
Sometimes when we think of public service, we can think of a low paying job or a volunteer position that you aren’t sure will take you anywhere but there are so many opportunities to take on in public service, there are so many roles and jobs, and opportunities to get involved today, you can run a company’s CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) Program where you help big brands give back, you can work with a foundation, sit on the board of a non profit, invest in a young girl’s educational expenses, work for the government, there are so many different roles today, helping doesn’t just come in one form, be kind, be nice to people you see and meet everyday, there is always a way to do good.
Ways to Get Involved:
If you’d like to hear more about the campaign and what the Peace Corps is doing, please follow them on social media or check out their website and for those who are interested in getting involved, here are ways to do so:
- Watch CNN’s We Will Rise Film to learn more about the issue and the campaign.
- If you’re a student, have someone speak at your school about the campaign.
- If you’re a college student or beyond, join the Peace Corps.(Kaite’s recommendations: Do your homework, research, research, research the program before you apply and try a random placement if you’re up for it! )
- If you’re in high school or elementary school, Skype a Let Girls Learn Peace Corp volunteer to meet the girls.
- Start a Social Media Campaign to Raise Awareness about the 62 Million Girls.
- Put on a fundraiser to raise Funds for the campaign .
- And as always, you can donate here!
Katie’s bit of wisdom: Having a conversation with someone will make you see things differently. We are more alike than we are different. Take time to get to know and understand someone, it may change your life.