By Caroline Scarlato
It’s my first night in Madagascar, and I wake up to intense screaming and lots of running around in my host family’s house. Panicked, I come to find my host mom is going to give birth in our house because when they took her to the hospital, no one was there.
I learned that this was quite normal for the very rural town of Mantasoa, and my host mom gave birth to a healthy, beautiful girl named Faratiana. A month later, another family cousin would have a baby in our house for that same reason.
Fast-forward 3 months, and I’m moving into my house on the school campus where I will live for the next two years. It’s 6 a.m., and students begin climbing the windows above my bed to get a peek into my house to see the new teacher. From the very beginning of my Peace Corps experience I realized this country was a beautiful, mysterious world completely different than my own, and I wanted to share that experience and tell my story to my community at home.
Like the rest of the world, the Peace Corps was completely turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic. For the first time in its 60-year history, it evacuated all 7,000+ volunteers worldwide. We slept on floors of Ethiopian airports, got quarantined in hotels, and were left in limbo until the US government was able to charter flights for all the volunteers to return home. While this was the outcome none of us wanted, we began to realize the gravity of the current state of affairs around the world. And as I began to look into which direction I wanted to go for my career, I realized a lot of the hands-on experiences I had in the Peace Corps could translate into skills I could use in the public relations industry.
Teaching in Madagascar not only taught me a lot about the culture and the country itself but serving in a community that is so vastly different than my own, I learned the importance of effective communication and building relationships. Throughout my current public relations internship, I’ve been able to use my lens of the Peace Corps to apply some of my hands on experiences. The Peace Corps taught me the importance of being resilient, organized, and having strong communication skills.
My main job during my service was to be an English teacher. I taught four sections of 65-70 students in classrooms with one chalkboard and three students per every one desk. My lack of access to technology, resources, and even a complete curriculum resulted in a need to be organized. I began dividing my lesson plans and organizing by which section, which lesson, how many students and when the class was going to be. In a lot of ways these things I was doing to prepare for my lessons were preparing me to write things like media advisories and press releases.
Towards the end of my service, I embarked on a project with a fellow volunteer to host a GLOW camp, which stands for Girls Leading Our World. In Madagascar there is still a lack of female empowerment and education in gender equality. Many women work until they are needed to help around the house, or until they have children, which happens at a far younger age than in the United States.
This camp would have hosted young members of the community, both male and female, for a week of education on topics of gender equality, reproductive health, and community building activities. To be able to host this camp, my friend and I began writing for fundraising and applying to grants. We needed to be able to pitch our story in a compelling, engaging, and concise way. The goal was to have our story be meaningful and important so we would receive funds to host the camp.
This helped teach me about the need to present your story in a way that captures the audience. Pitching is a large and important part of public relations and knowing how to present your message properly and effectively is essential.
Most importantly I believe the Peace Corps made me adaptable and resilient.
When I moved to my town, I did not know what to expect. My first time living out of the state of Pennsylvania, and it was 8,000 miles from home, covered in red dirt, and rarely had electricity or running water.
But soon I was bargaining for the best price in the market in a language I never knew existed six months earlier, I was fetching my own water in five-gallon jerry cans and fighting off flea infestations. In Madagascar, I never knew what the next day would hold.
Whether it was monsoons, an exorcism, or students climbing my windows, it was always an adventure. So is the world of PR, you’re always adapting as you never know what the next day may hold. I’m forever grateful for my time in the Peace Corps, and the lessons I learned there I apply hands on into the field of public relations.
Rising Stars is a series of thoughts, reflections and perspectives by the interns at Devine + Partners. Caroline Scarlato was a spring intern at D+P. She earned a degree in communications and media studies with a minor in global relations and served for two years in Madagascar as a member of the Peace Corps before returning home due to the pandemic.