Park City High School alum joins Peace Corps in Sierra Leone
A Park City High School alumna, Laurel Morrison, will begin a two-year term of service with the Peace Corps on Sunday. She will teach English in Sierra Leone, a small North African country wedged between Guinea, Liberia and the Atlantic Ocean.
"I want to get a program going for girls’ education," Morrison said.
Girls forced into early marriages and pregnancies in Sierra Leone struggle against gender bias. UNICEF reports that only 15 percent of girls reach secondary school.
Peace Corps efforts began in Sierra Leone in 1962, but halted in 1994, three years after the Revolutionary United Front rebelled against the government. Diamond mines in southern and eastern Sierra Leone funded rebel efforts. The conflict left about 50,000 people dead.
The war formally ended in 2002, when United Nations troops took over areas occupied by rebels. In 2007, Charles Taylor, the Liberian president accused of arming the revolutionaries in exchange for diamonds, was tried for war crimes.
After receiving a request for help, the Peace Corps re-entered Sierra Leone several years later. 40 to 50 volunteers flew in to help rebuild the country’s educational system. Morrison is part of a second wave of teachers.
Morrison will teach English in secondary schools. In Sierra Leone’s public school system, she said, she will confront classes of 60 to 100 students packed in rooms with no books, pencils or paper. Sierra Leone faces a 70 percent illiteracy rate, she said.
"I’m worried about going into a post-conflict area," Morrison said.
Fresh reminders of murder and destruction, blasted buildings and suffering people, still fester in the country.
She will also adopt the same lifestyle as the people she will serve, which means living near poverty without basic comforts. She said, "If they can do it, I can do it."
Living in Park City allowed Morrison to develop awareness of international issues.
"I was growing up around people who traveled all the time," she said. She urges students to "be aware of what’s going on outside of this town."
She added that the Park City community builds a strong educational foundation that encourages generosity, and that "our community has a charitable outlook."
In her senior year, Morrison completed an exchange program that broadened her understanding of international issues. She continued her exploration of cultural dynamics with a degree in international studies in anthropology at the University of Utah.
"Anthropology courses showed me how important education is to communities," she said.
Morrison also undertook a teaching internship in Thailand with the University of Utah’s Hinckley Institute of Politics, then continued to a program in Washington, D.C. with the Department of Justice. The Hinckley Institute works to engage students in "governmental, civic and political processes."
Teaching English is not entirely new to Morrison, either. She tutored English for five years at the Guadalupe School in Rose Park, a non-profit that helps immigrants and refugees learn a second language.
Morrison is scheduled to fly to Philadelphia on Sunday for "staging," a poignant first meeting with the unfamiliar people she will join overseas for two years. From there, she will take a bus to New York City, then fly to Brussels, Belgium to depart for the last leg of the trip to Sierra Leone.
When Morrison arrives, she will undergo a comprehensive three-month training in Bo, the country’s second largest city, where she will learn everything from teaching techniques to showering without running water. Then she will be embedded in a small village to serve as the only Peace Corps representative in that area.
"I don’t just want to get through," Morrison said. "I want to do a good job."
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