Photo courtesy of the U.S. Peace Corps
by Sharyn Kopf - Cedarville, OH
July 9, 2007
It’s not easy to get in touch with Autumn West. She only checks her e-mail once a month. Her morning is our night and vice versa. And she is very, very busy.
That’s what happens when you join the Peace Corps and head to the other side of the world, which West bravely decided to do. West is a part of the first-ever U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers group sent to the Kingdom of Cambodia.
West, who graduated from Cedarville University in 1997 with a history and political science degree, planned to work in government and had intended to attend law school after graduating. But then she found herself thinking about international work. “I truly felt the Lord was leading me in a different direction,” she said. “He continued to open doors for me to join the Peace Corps and work as an ESL [teaching English to Speakers of other Languages] instructor.”
With her plan set, West began the process of joining the organization. One of her first decisions was letting the Corps know her preference for a regional assignment. Having recently taken a “History and Politics of Asia” class with Dr. Frank Jenista, West, who has traveled extensively in Europe and South America, decided she wanted a more in-depth knowledge of Asian culture, politics, and food. It was a whole new part of the world, filled with a whole new realm of possibilities.
Originally, West was told she would be working in an already established program, such as the one in Thailand. But her ESL experience at a college near her home in Tennessee led the Peace Corps to send her to Cambodia instead.
“Needless to say, I was excited to be a part of the first group in a ‘new’ country ... and what a country!” she reported. “With a history of war and political turmoil, it is now beginning to rebuild and develop. And they are in desperate need of English to help them.”
West teaches seven English classes with 60 students in each one, requiring her to learn a mere 420 Khmer names. But they certainly all know her name, pronounced “Ann-eeh” in Khmer. “Often when I bike through the market or town,” she said, “I hear students calling out, ‘Hello, Ann-e!’ over and over again.”
Getting used to Cambodian culture has, of course, been a challenge. The constant need for entertainment and stimulation in the U.S. is an entirely foreign concept to the society in which West is immersed. Expectations for women are also much stricter, meaning she must wear a skirt, is not allowed go out after dark without an escort, and cannot even get coffee by herself.
But for all that, the most difficult challenge has been living as a follower of Jesus in a land devoted to Buddha. Much attention is given to praying daily to ancestors and traveling to gravesites to receive blessings from monks. West struggles, not wanting to offend her Buddhist host family but also not wanting to do anything detrimental to her Christian witness. She admits to wrestling in prayer over where to draw the line and has been reading Paul’s letters to the churches, studying how they were instructed to conduct themselves in other cultures.
“I have learned,” she said, “that church can happen when God and I get together; not just when I am in a specific building or place.” It is this assurance of her relationship with God that she knows will be strengthened during the two years she will spend in Cambodia.
West is grateful to Cedarville University for all the school did to prepare her for her work in Cambodia. She noted, “The whole atmosphere helped me to continually evaluate how to integrate a biblical worldview with one that is far different from my cultural and religious background.”
And as hard as it is to get in touch with West, one highlight of her day is getting a phone call or a letter from home. Another high point is knowing she is right where God wants her to be.