Clemson senior bound for Peace Corps, Zambia upon graduation
CLEMSON — Seeing the world was something Julia Riley knew she wanted to do at an early age; saving it took a bit longer to enter the equation.
As a high school student in Knoxville, Tenn., Riley settled on wildlife and fisheries biology as her intended area of study in college, without knowing exactly what options it might create after graduation.
“People would kind of make fun and say, ‘Are you going to be a park ranger?’ And there’s nothing wrong with that, but I was like, ‘Of course not. I’m going to do something awesome and like save the world and join the Peace Corps,’ ” she said. “And that always kind of shut them up.”
Turns out, Riley’s proclamation was more than a snappy comeback. Soon after she graduates from Clemson University this month, she will begin preparing to leave for the Peace Corps — bound for Zambia in February to pursue aquaculture.
If not saving the world, Riley will certainly have an opportunity to make an impact on part of it. Her academic adviser, assistant professor of Human Dimensions of Wildlife Shari Rodriguez, said Riley’s aquaculture work would embody a familiar adage: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
“She’s going to be teaching some people in very rural villages how to farm fish,” Rodriguez said.
But there were a series of steps for Riley to realize how — and where — she wanted to make her impact. One of the first was realizing there were so many wonders in the world, it would be a shame not to see them.
“When I was a kid we were watching this movie — my parents, my sister and I — and the Egyptian pyramids were in it, and I just looked at my parents and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be so cool to go and see them?’ And my mom was like, ‘I don’t really have any desire to do that,’ ” Riley said. “And there’s nothing wrong with that, but I thought, ‘What do you mean? This amazing thing is out there.’ ”
The next step in Riley’s journey to the Peace Corps was finding a university that, in addition to offering a wildlife and fisheries biology program, would nurture an adventurous spirit in a welcoming environment.
“I toured a bunch of different places,” she said. “It’s kind of funny we always talk about the Clemson Family, but people actually seemed genuinely happy to be here and wanted other people to feel that, too.”
In her first semester on campus, Riley had a class with Donald Hagan, assistant professor of forest ecology and a former Peace Corps volunteer in coastal Ecuador from 2004-06. Hagan’s tales of making a difference in a different part of the world caught Riley’s attention.
“He talked really fondly about it, and the more time I spent trying to figure out what I wanted to do, I really want to take what I’ve learned and try to help people with it, which I think is what everyone wants to do,” Riley said.
For his part, Hagan said serving in the Peace Corps was not only a “transformative experience,” but one rife with challenges and lessons in facing adversity, failure and a life without many of the creature comforts to which some are accustomed.
“You get to see real poverty and what it means to be poor, and you get to experience some of that,” he said. “Because you’re in that community living more or less like they are. Eating rice every day. Having to ration your water. Using rainwater to bathe. Those are experiences you just don’t really have. Julia has probably never experienced that.”
While hearing of Hagan’s experiences set her sights on the Peace Corps — which has volunteers in 140 countries worldwide and saw 88 Clemson students accepted into its ranks from 2012-16 — Riley was still uncertain what assignment might suit her skill set.
As her senior year approached and doubts lingered about whether to actually go forward with the application process, Riley approached Rodriguez for advice. Having not been in the Corps herself, Rodriguez set about trying to connect her pupil with others who had.
But what really resonated, Riley says, was a book Rodriguez suggested: “The Ponds of Kalambayi,” a Peace Corps memoir by Mike Tidwell.
“The author served in the Congo, which is right next to Zambia,” she said. “And then when I applied, I ended up actually applying for the same position as the man who wrote the book. This has been what I wanted to do the whole time I’ve been in college; I just didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do in the Peace Corps. So, reading the book and realizing that was an option for me made me want to choose that.”
Now armed with not only the desire to join the Corps, but also a vision for her goals upon doing so, Riley said an internship with the Nevada Conservation Corps in the summer of 2017 bolstered her confidence for the job.
Often working eight days on and six days off, Riley was left far from home and with plenty of time on her hands to see new parts of America. In her downtime, she would find a locale that piqued her interest, drive there and sleep in her car along the way.
Riley said it was a welcome change from previous internships — one at Owl’s Hill Nature Sanctuary near Nashville, Tenn., and another at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y. — that were heavily focused on research.
“It was nice to have just a fun summer of swimming in Lake Tahoe and running around Yosemite and stuff like that,” she said. “I think I’ve always wanted to get away. Not because I’m unhappy where I’m at, but I feel like I can’t be content to not go and see what’s out there.”
Through her travels, Riley would send pictures back to Rodriguez, a native of California, of the spots she visited along the West Coast. And when Riley learned she had been accepted into the Peace Corps, her first call was to Rodriguez.
“Julia is one of those handful of former students I’ll maintain a friendship with after graduation,” Rodriguez said. “I’m excited to see where life takes her. It’s going to be good, no matter what she ultimately ends up doing.”
While an initial impression of Riley might be that she is quiet or reserved, Rodriguez says a deeper understanding of her student reveals a maturity and thoughtfulness not typical of undergraduates.
“I think that lends itself to her being someone who will do well in the Peace Corps because it takes someone who is a self-reliant person,” Rodriguez said. “You have to be a real problem-solver, you have to be really open-minded and that fits Julia.”
When it came to picking her role in the Peace Corps, Riley shied away from European countries or even assignments in the northern hemisphere. Her perspective: “Might as well go big.”
“I really wanted to experience a totally different culture,” she said. “I get to learn a version of Bemba, which is a language I had never heard of until applying for this. I’m pretty excited about that — pretty nervous also.”
Hagan, who learned Spanish for his volunteer work in Ecuador, was not surprised to learn Riley had picked the most adventurous assignment possible.
“That’s Julia for you,” he said. “She’s not one to back down from a challenge in my experience. She looks at those kind of things as, ‘That’s an opportunity.’ She could have taken the easy route and graduated with a really high grade point average by just doing what she’s supposed to do.
“But she’s been involved with Creative Inquiry and had a wide range of internships. She’s really the kind of person who sees the value in a diversifying your life experiences — not only from just a career standpoint, preparing her for whatever’s next, but from a life enrichment standpoint. And that’s what makes her special.”
A landlocked country in central southern Africa, Zambia has a predominantly rural population of about 16 million and is one of the fastest-growing counties in the world with annual growth rates above 3 percent. It is also home to Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.
Riley’s work will focus on teaching communities to raise fish ponds not only as a food source to supplement their own protein, but also to sell as a source of income.
“They have been in a food shortage for a long time,” Riley said. “So, it’s also my job that I’m picking up where another Peace Corps volunteer is leaving off, so that there will already be people with fish farms and maybe try to encourage them to make it a business almost. Still a local business, but to send the extra fish that doesn’t go to their families or communities to cities nearby.”
For her part, Rodriguez expects her soon-to-be-former student to thrive in her next adventure.
“Once you break into the Peace Corps, it’s a club,” Rodriguez said. “Once you have completed your Peace Corps assignment, this whole world of opportunity for jobs within the organization opens up to you. And I can really see her doing really well in it.”