Nick Marotta has been told to expect the unexpected when he arrives in Madagascar for a two-year assignment with the education sector of the Peace Corps.
The 23-year-old Ocoee resident will be teaching the English language to students — but he doesn’t know in what city he will serve, he doesn’t know whether the students are elementary school or college age, and he doesn’t know their native language of Malagasy. But he’s excited for the challenge.
“I’m young, and I feel that there’s a really great importance in having new experiences and being exposed to other cultures, learning from other people, broadening your perspective, seeing a new way of living,” Marotta said. “All of those made me want to go out. After graduation from college, the Peace Corps seemed like a good opportunity to do that and serve people … being a beneficial contribution.”
Marotta left Saturday, Aug. 27, to begin the first leg of his journey to the East African country of Madagascar. He will spend three months living with a host family and training in the capital city of Antananarivo before heading to his destination.
Marotta graduated from West Orange High School in 2017 and has a bachelor’s degree in design from Carnegie Mellon University. He said when the pandemic started and the country was in quarantine, he dreamed of ways to get out into the world and engage with people. He dreamed of new experiences outside his home’s four walls.
After doing his research, he realized the Peace Corps could fulfill those needs, and he applied in October 2020. By then, however, the organization had suspended its program because of COVID-19 and evacuated more than 7,000 volunteers around the world. He received word he had been accepted five months ago.
The Peace Corps has begun sending volunteers back to 23 of the 60 global posts, and Marotta is among the first to help restart the organization’s mission. He will be joining two other volunteers already at their post.
“I told the Peace Corps when I applied that they could put me anywhere,” Marotta said. “I said I was interested in teaching or some kind of educational role. They had a spot in Madagascar. Officially, my role is teaching English but, of course, the Peace Corps service has multidimensional expectations for volunteers.
“You are intended to serve many roles in the community,” he said. “I’ll have opportunities to … maybe start a community garden. I’ve been doing farm jobs around the United States, so that would be interesting to bring that experience.”
EXPECTING THE UNEXPECTED
Marotta spent last week packing for the next phase of his life. He said it was quite an ordeal, but previous volunteers provided packing lists that included items he hadn’t considered.
“Like printing photos of family members, because the kids would like to see my family,” he said.
He also is taking some English teaching books given to him — and he hopes to have access to some Malagasy children’s books for his training.
He and about 30 other agriculture and education volunteers start preservice training in Antananarivo this week.
Tamim Choudhury, public affairs specialist with the Peace Corps, explained the initial three months: “The entire cohort will learn what you are expected to do, what you’ll be doing as a teacher teaching English in a particular community, (you’ll) learn the language they speak. … You get the guidelines from our country director on down for what you’ll be doing for the next two years of your life.”
Madagascar residents speak the Malagasy language, but there are a number of dialects spoken throughout the country.
“One of the interesting things about that is because I don’t know where I will be assigned yet, I’ll learn the dialect spoken in the capital city, but when I’m assigned to a village or town I will have to learn an entirely new dialect,” Marotta said. “It could be completely distinct from the one I spoke in Antananarivo.
“I do expect the unexpected,” he said. “There’s a great diversity of teaching roles or contexts I could be put into. I was told I’ll be likely teaching middle school or high school — but it could be college, it could elementary.”
He was told his classes could number as many as 40 students.
“On top of that, I’m prepared to not have paper or copying materials or internet or reading materials,” Marotta said. “There is a chance that I will, but it’s very possible to only have access to a chalk board and chalk. You could have 40 students go up to the chalkboard to practice.”
Marotta said he has a few big recreational goals he wants to accomplish while in Madagascar.
“One, of course, is to meet a lemur,” he said. “Second is I’m hoping to try scuba diving. I don’t know if it will be an option there, but I just got scuba certified with my sister and I’m hoping to try that out. And I’m bringing binoculars so I can birdwatch there. I have a little book with all the birds of Madagascar. I’m just getting into it. I figure if you’re going to get into birdwatching, Madagascar is the place to do it.”
LIFE OF SERVICE
Although this is Marotta’s first time volunteering on such a large scale, he has previous service experience. He was a board member with the nonprofit Noah’s Light Foundation, a Winter Garden organization that raised funds and awareness for pediatric cancer research.
“That was a big experience for me because it sent me to Washington, D.C.,” Marotta said. “They trained me to do advocacy, and then they sent me to Congress to have meetings, and I got to practice having a stump speech and talked about what I care about. It gave me a sense of contributing to the bigger picture and making a difference.”
THE PEACE CORPS
The volunteer cohorts are made up of both first-time volunteers and volunteers who were evacuated in early 2020. After 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.
The Peace Corps, established in 1961, is an international service network of volunteers, community members, host country partners and staff who carry out the agency’s mission of world peace and friendship.
The agency currently is recruiting volunteers to serve in countries around the world. For information, visit peacecorps.gov.