Architect Olga Cano ’05 last year turned her life upside down. Wanting to help others and reset her professional priorities, she left a job with a Miami firm to enter a master’s program facilitated by the Peace Corps. The organization partners with more than 80 graduate schools across the country to allow American students to complement their graduate studies with volunteer work abroad. Cano will continue serving with the Peace Corps through 2014 in the Amazon region of Peru, after which she will complete an MS in environmental engineering at Michigan Technological University.
Why go into the Peace Corps when you were already an established professional?
Cano: I joined the Peace Corps because it was time to take my career in a different direction. After FIU, I worked in the architecture field for about seven years. While I enjoyed it, I found there was something missing. So in my free time I volunteered with various community-based grassroots organizations, such as Emerge Miami and Architecture for Humanity, which provided both personal and professional gratification.
Where does your interest in development work come from?
Cano: I am originally from Medellin, Colombia, and aware of the high rate of poverty in South America and the region’s need for access to basics such as food, water, healthcare and education, to name a few. It has always been my interest to one day give back to the country I came from by investing my skills and knowledge in its improvement.
How did you end up in Peru?
Cano: I don’t know—most, if not everything, in the Peace Corps is a big unknown. The Peace Corps has every applicant go through a tedious application process in which they take into consideration your professional skills, health and language, among others factors. Then the Peace Corps decides where you will be placed.
What are you doing there?
Cano: I’m serving as a “water, sanitation and hygiene volunteer.” What that means is that I have the opportunity and responsibility to improve peoples lives by improving their access to water, increasing sanitation and implementing better hygiene practices. A typical day can include brainstorming meetings with department heads of the central municipal government to locate funds and support for projects such as rehabilitating water systems and promoting sewage connections. Or I might make visits to nearby small towns to host community workshops to educate about hand washing, appropriate water storage and the use of latrines.
Do you work with other Peace Corps volunteers?
Cano: Though there are 16 of us in the Amazon region, we rarely work together because we serve different communities. However, I do work in groups with members of my community. This is actually the key to sustainable projects — that when we leave there are individuals who are knowledgeable and trained and able to continue moving forward what we have helped implement. This empowers the community as a whole and gives the project a greater chance to grow.
What was the transition to Peru like?
Cano: The Peace Corps does a good job of removing all the pretty and enamoring ideals one may have prior to joining the program. You know, the traveling to exotic places, meeting wonderful people, eating amazing foods. And though all of these are actually true, there is also the other side. Traveling is exhausting. The people are indeed wonderful, but you start to miss family and friends and, in my case, my boyfriend, a lot. And the food! Peru has really good food, but your stomach will not be happy as it adjusts to the new condiments and whatnot. So the transition was not the easiest, but with time your mind, body and heart adjust and things begin to fall into place. You realize that the challenges make this whole experience an epic one.
Where do you live and how did you get settled?
Cano: Every country has a different policy on volunteers’ living situations. In Peru, the Peace Corps staff identifies a family who is willing to bring a complete stranger into their home for two years to do everything from eating and celebrating together to doing chores, etc. In my case I live with an older couple and a host sister about my age. This transition was not that difficult because I found enough similarities with my own tight-knit Colombian family. The hardest part was living with a family after I had been on my own for more than 10 years. I have had to give up some independence and privacy, but I have also gained new parents, siblings, nieces, nephews and pets.
What do you do in your free time?
Cano: I joined a local dance group and have learned various traditional dances that we perform in different towns during special events. I’m also teaching ballet classes, which has been an interesting experience because none of the kids had ever been exposed to it. And it’s nice to have the other Peace Corps volunteers to do “American” things with, like potlucks and board games and basketball finals-watching parties.
How did FIU prepare you for what you are doing today in Peru?
Cano: Understanding the interaction between building and user has allowed me to better implement projects through a human-centered method in which the community, who will ultimately be the end users and beneficiaries, takes the lead. This is something I learned from my Design I architecture professor at FIU, who really had us focus on this dynamic and made us do many, many study models to better understand the concept.
How will this experience inform your personal and professional life moving forward?
Cano: On a personal level, this experience makes you realize how many luxuries we enjoy in the States. This is petty, but oh do I miss hot showers! I know when I leave here, I will be able to live with a lot less than I was once accustomed to. Upon my return home the plan is to adapt the type of work I am doing here to local communities in the United States. Though ours is a developed country, there are still many communities that lack access to basic resources. I’d like to set up my own practice and work with a small multi-disciplinary team that focuses on human centered design through implementation of projects – architectural, engineering and social – that have direct impact on communities, are sustainable long-term and apply a process that empowers those on the receiving end. Eventually I would like to become the water and sanitation program director for the Peace Corps in Colombia. Now, that would be coming full circle.