FREEPORT — Freeport native Eli Pier always knew she wanted to pursue a career with social impact, and she knew she wanted to live abroad after college.

What she didn’t know was that her journey would lead her to join more than 50 Mainers now serving in the Peace Corps.

Freeport native Eli Pier is joining more than 50 Mainers who are now serving in the Peace Corps. Contributed

Pier, 24, will depart on Feb. 21 for Senegal, a West African nation on the Atlantic Ocean of about 16 million citizens that is known for surfing, birdwatching and as one of the safest countries in Africa. During the first three months of her service, she’ll live with a host family to become fully immersed in the country’s language and culture – Senegal is home to about 20 ethnic groups that speak 36 different languages.

“My goal is to build the necessary language and intercultural skills to be able to work with people from diverse backgrounds,” Pier said. “I think the Peace Corps will make it very clear to me all the things I don’t yet understand about the world and will also give me the tools and connections to begin to figure those out.”

As a Community Health Support Agent, Pier will be tasked to expand access to community health programs, and she’ll help Senegalese community health workers by assuming the role of a facilitator, support person, organizer and motivator for her community’s health needs.

Pier, a competitive skier, grew up in Freeport and attended Freeport High School for two years before receiving her diploma from Proctor Academy in New Hampshire, where she could be closer to her ski training facility. She graduated last year with degrees in Spanish and studio art from Williams College in Massachusetts, and prior to joining the Peace Corps, worked as a camp counselor at Seeds of Peace Camp and interned at the McNulty Foundation in New York City.

After high school, she spent a year in Spain and quickly learned that it was a privilege to speak and understand another language and culture. She fell in love with learning culture through language and knew she’d continue to find ways to explore new places.

Pier said she considered many options following her college graduation, including the Peace Corps, but she surprised herself when she decided to go for it. She admitted that joining the volunteer organization wasn’t in her plans, but looking back, a lot of what she did in college led her to this moment.

“Initially, the two-year commitment was intimidating, but I realized the Peace Corps combined my desire to learn and serve other communities and to gain the skills that will help me help others, and that wasn’t an opportunity I wanted to pass up,” she said.

Pier became interested in public heath after suffering a serious concussion during her freshman year in college. She developed resources for students dealing with concussions to help them, their loves ones and their professors understand the complexities of a head injury.

Later, during a semester studying in Lima, Peru, Pier worked with a group of volunteers at a local orphanage. There, she helped develop programming around health education to provide guidance and mentoring to underprivileged youth, who had very few resources to help them understand their own health.

“I realized that public health, especially for young women, is an issue I am passionate about,” she said.

While Pier has spent extended periods of time in foreign countries, she’s never lived outside of the U.S. for as long as she’ll be in Senegal. She won’t even know where in Senegal she’ll be living until after about five weeks of training. To prepare, Pier has been reading a lot, watching movies and reading blogs and articles about the country. She is talking to everyone she can find who has a connection to Senegal, but she said it’s impossible to grasp the scope of the place until she gets there.

“There’s really no good way to prepare for something like this or understand a place before you’ve experienced it yourself, so what I am committed to do is to connect to my new community and mentors, listen to others and learn as much as I can during my nine-week in-country training and throughout the two years,” Pier said. “I realize that I have so much to learn, which is intimidating, exciting and just an important piece of my new reality.”

Pier’s background as a counselor and mentor will serve her well when she arrives in Senegal, Joshua Voda, a public affairs specialist with the Peace Corps, said in a press release.

“(Eli’s) perspective will surely aid her when she arrived in her community to support local health projects that rely on honed communications and goal-setting skill sets,” Voda said.

There are more than 270 Peace Corps volunteers working in Senegal on projects in agriculture, community economic development and health, Voda said, more than 4,070 volunteers have served in Senegal since the program was established in 1963.

According to Voda, Maine ranked eighth in the Peace Corps’ list of top volunteer-producing states in 2019; there are 51 volunteers now serving around the world. Since the agency was founded in 1961 under President John F. Kennedy, 1,984 Mainers have served in the Peace Corps  The state has consistently ranked in the top 10 states per capita, and held its No. 8 ranking from 2018.

Micaela Hajduk, of Winthrop, is serving as an English teacher in Ecuador, and said in a press release that writing to pen pals at schools in Maine has been a great way to get both groups of students learning about another culture and practicing a second language.

Pier said she’s certain it will be difficult being away from what she calls her incredible network of family and friends and navigating a new place that’s so different.

“But I’m excited to be challenged and to have everything that I understand challenged as well,” she said. “I am looking forward to the perspective, skills and relationships I will build through this experience and for the new mentors who will guide me along the way.”

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