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Tracy Frank, Published February 26 2013

Her Voice: Peace Corps service life-changing for woman

FARGO – Twila Singh was looking for adventure and new experiences when she joined the Peace Corps.

She found out how much she is capable of accomplishing and what a difference a small group of committed people can make.

“I went into a community and I realized the impact that really strong, motivated groups can have and how much communities can help themselves,” Singh said.

Singh, originally from Oregon, is a graduate student in North Dakota State University’s Masters of Public Health program. She plans to focus on infectious disease management and went into the field after working for the Peace Corps in Malawi, Africa, from 2010 to 2012.

While there, she wrote a grant for $10,000 in aid, helped build a testing center for people with HIV and AIDS and led the community in planting more than 200,000 indigenous trees.

“Reforestation is huge on our priority list,” she said.

Peace Corps volunteers don’t choose where they go, and Singh said she couldn’t have been happier when she found out she would be going to Africa.

First, she spent two months in training, living with a host family to learn as much as she could about the language and the culture.

“It was a huge culture shock,” Singh said. “I’m a very independent person, and I went to country that places a great amount of value on community.”

Privacy was very limited, and she always ate with other people, she said.

After her training, she was sad to leave the host family but excited to get to work in the Malawi village of about 1,000 people where she spent two years of her life.

“I was so welcomed and so happy and excited to be there and be part of this culture,” she said. “Everywhere I went for two years, I was like a celebrity.”

Each day Singh would wake up to the sound of roosters crowing, roll out of her mosquito net and try to find some food. She cooked on an outdoor mud stove built out of bricks and termite mud.

She had a house full of cats, a dog, and even bats, which she said made her an oddity in the village.

“They don’t consider animals pets,” she said. “An animal is just another part of the scenery.”

Singh said she made a bat house in the rafters to attract the bats, which produced fertilizer and ate a lot of mosquitos.

“I just like bats,” she said. “It’s not like they’re trying to suck my blood.”

She thinks it’s because of the bats that she never had malaria while in Africa, she said.

Singh said she’s an entomologist and loves insects, but even she “did the yucky dance” a few times. The bugs were twice as big as what you’d find here – she even saw a foot-long centipede, she said.

This week is Peace Corps Week and to help her peers better understand the Peace Corps, Singh plans to set up a table from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Thursday in NDSU’s Memorial Union. She will share information about her experiences, including all her crazy bug stories, she said.

She said the Peace Corps strives to recruit people in the fields of agriculture, business development, education and health, and there are a plethora of highly qualified potential volunteers on NDSU’s campus.

“I would like to embolden my fellow students to consider this life-changing opportunity,” she said.

Singh says her service in the Peace Corps was the catalyst for all the best things that have happened to her in the past two years. It set her on her career path and she met her husband, Jagnoor Singh, while working as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Tracy Frank at (701) 241-5526