From UA to Africa

Alumnus Uses Philosophy Degree in Peace Corps

Korey McLeod
Korey McLeod, an alumnus of the Department of Philosophy, is serving in the Peace Corps

From the 2013 Celebrating Excellence Coming from Ozark, Alabama, to Tuscaloosa to attend The University of Alabama, Korey McLeod was like many new undergraduates. He was young, ambitious, and ready to start the higher education journey. But beyond this vague notion of upward movement, he had no idea where his UA experience would take him.

Today, McLeod, a 2009 graduate with a major in philosophy, is in the Northeast Wollo Region of Ethiopia where he has been serving in the U.S. Peace Corps since 2011. He teaches English to local students in Dessie, a city of approximately 150,000 people, where he lives with other Peace Corps members. The region is mountainous and the weather is cold, not the Africa that McLeod had imagined. He says that although it has been difficult to leave his friends, family, and country behind to serve Ethiopia, his experience has significantly shaped his character.

“When I travel throughout the country and meet Ethiopians, this may be the only time they ever meet an American,” McLeod said. “Having a positive interaction with them shows them another side of America, in a world and region where we may not have the best reputation.”

Although his work is challenging, McLeod says his experiences at UA, particularly his philosophy courses, play a large part in giving him the skills to meet those challenges.

McLeod says that after taking his first course in the Department of Philosophy, he was so interested in the ideas presented that he spent the whole summer reading the course material over again. “I never felt that way about any subject, and so I decided to major in it,” he said. Courses in both philosophy of religion and philosophy of law have especially helped McLeod navigate his world experiences.

A chance encounter in Cuba in the spring of 2009 fueled McLeod’s desire to travel to Africa. He was studying at the University of Havana as part of the College of Arts and Sciences semester abroad program, part of the College’s Cuba-Alabama Initiative. Dr. Michael Schnepf, associate professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages and Classics and the director of the program, and the UA study-abroad students participated in International Day at the University of Havana. Schnepf connected with a group of west African students. McLeod later learned that Schnepf had served in the Peace Corps in Liberia.

When McLeod returned to Tuscaloosa, he attended a presentation by Paul E. Rowe, a diplomat-in-residence who came to UA to speak about his experiences in the U.S. Foreign Service. Rowe, too, had served in the Peace Corps in Africa. Inspired by what he heard, McLeod decided it was time for him to serve there as well.

He trained for three months in the Southern Oromia Region, where he lived with an Ethiopian Protestant priest and his family, in a town called Bekojii. The experience was difficult, McLeod said. On the first day he met his host family, he remembers sitting down to dinner after a long day of traveling and only knowing a few words of the local language. Sitting in that crowded room, unable to communicate, McLeod worried that he would not make it in Africa.

“Later that night I realized that if I could live with these complete strangers in this completely new environment and learn their language, then I could do almost anything,” he said.

As a teacher of English, McLeod works with a wide range of people – some of whom don’t want his help or don’t want to better their lives.  But, on occasion, he said, he gets to see his students’ eyes light up with enthusiasm and the satisfaction of learning something new. When McLeod’s Peace Corps service ends in August, he hopes to continue working in Africa.

“I feel like Africa is the final frontier, and there is a lot of opportunity here,” McLeod said.

McLeod says he is grateful for all he has been given in life. After living in Cuba and Africa, he sees that even the poorest Americans have more than most people in the Third World.

“The Peace Corps taught me that as Americans we can do something about the world’s problems,” he said. “My well-rounded liberal arts education from UA makes me comfortable with any type of project.”