De Pere resident among first Peace Corps volunteers to return to service overseas
By Kat Halfman
DE PERE – De Pere resident Michael McMorrow said his desire to volunteer and give back to the community goes as far back as he can remember, and credits his generous spirit to his parents.
“Some of my earliest memories were sitting around with my dad, just looking over a map, or reading geography or history books when I was quite young, so that was kind of the genesis of it,” he said. “My parents instilled in me from a young age that it’s important to give back, and going through college and following a lot of current affairs, there’s some really, really good stuff happening in the world, but there’s still a tremendous amount of need.”
The 24-year-old said on an emotional level, he feels incredibly fortunate to have grown up in a good home and received a good education.
“I think it’s believed, at least on my end, that the least I can do is to volunteer some time, so I feel like it’s really important to do that,” McMorrow said.
For him, that giving back included joining the Peace Corps as one of the first volunteers to return to overseas service since the agency suspended all operations and evacuated nearly 7,000 volunteers from more than 60 countries in March 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Giving back through the Peace Corps
McMorrow, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a bachelor’s degree in operations and technology management, will serve as a volunteer in Uganda in the education sector.
He said he’s always been aware of the Peace Corps since, but didn’t begin to seriously consider joining until college.
“UW-Madison has a pretty good – kind of a college-to-Peace-Corps pipeline,” McMorrow said. “It’s one of the highest amount of Peace Corps volunteers out of any university in the country. I hadn’t applied in college, but hearing of other people doing it kind of put that seed in my head.”
He said his trip to Uganda, a landlocked country in east Africa, will be his first experience volunteering internationally, but has three years of volunteering in the U.S. already under his belt.
“I am pretty involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters here in Northeast Wisconsin, and have been since August 2019,” he said. “So I have a little brother through that, and it’s been really great. I really feel like I’ve learned a lot, and I’ve really enjoyed getting to meet my little brother and watch him grow.”
In Uganda, McMorrow will also be working with children, primarily to help teach English to students in kindergarten through fifth grade – not necessarily a location he chose, but an opportunity he said he’s looking forward to.
“With the Peace Corps application process, you can apply to a specific country, or you can just apply to serve wherever you are needed most,” he said. “I chose the latter option. I kind of wanted to be surprised as to where I was actually going to get placed. I did really have a strong preference for central Africa or the sub-Saharan region. So when I actually did get paired up with Uganda, I was really excited.”
McMorrow said his motivation lies not just in helping others, but also in expanding his own knowledge and perspective.
“Growing up in Green Bay and staying in Wisconsin for a lot of my life, it’s quite homogenous,” he said. “A lot of the same racial background, and kind of white life experiences, and certainly that isn’t a bad thing, but I think on a personal level, that’s something that I guess I really wanted to challenge – to get a little bit uncomfortable in hopes that maybe changing my mindset on some things will help me be a more well-rounded, better person.”
While McMorrow doesn’t currently speak any native Ugandan languages, he will be required to learn some when he departs on his trip in order to be able to communicate with the students.
“There’s a really intense three-month course that we take to get semi-fluent in that language, so we can better communicate with the students,” he said. “I have some experience in after-school programs, but certainly nothing to the extent of teaching English to a non-native speaker. So, that certainly will be a pretty monumental challenge.”
McMorrow said the official languages of Uganda are English and Swahili, but there are many other native languages spoken throughout the country.
“I think, increasingly, English is the language of commerce and virtual lingua franca (a language that is adopted as a common language between speakers whose native languages are different),” he said. “So, it’s really important that younger schoolkids have that basis in English, just because it will really help them to communicate – whether in an academic setting or in a potential commercial setting, if they do choose to, or have the opportunity to go that route.”
However, McMorrow said the need in Uganda goes beyond English teachers, especially as the global community continues to battle COVID-19.
“I’ve also heard that you get pulled in a lot of different directions and serve however and wherever your community needs you the most,” he said. “I know, relative to the states, Uganda has a low vaccination rate. I think there are a multitude of factors, like disinformation or potentially fear about actually getting the vaccination and what’s in it. There are educational programs related to that, like, ‘Here are the facts related to the vaccine.’ So potentially that could be something related to the work we’re doing.”
The volunteer cohorts McMorrow is a part of are made up of both first-time volunteers, as well as volunteers who were evacuated in early 2020.
Upon finishing a three-month training, volunteers will collaborate with their host communities on locally-prioritized projects in one of Peace Corps’ six sectors – agriculture, community economic development, education, environment, health or youth in development – and all will engage in COVID-19 response and recovery work.
McMorrow starts his training July 30, when he arrives in Uganda, where he will serve for the next two years.
Peace Corps CEO Carol Spahn said the Peace Corps continues to monitor COVID-19 trends in all of its host countries and will send volunteers to serve as conditions permit.
Those interested in learning more about the Peace Corps can visit peacecorps.gov/apply.