PLATTEVILLE — When Joseph Peterson tells people he’s heading to Burkina Faso in early June, the resulting question usually is: Where in the world is Burkina Faso?
“I’ve only had one person know,” said Peterson, a Platteville High School and UW–Platteville graduate who is heading to the western Africa country to serve in the Peace Corps.
Burkina Faso, a former French protectorate whose name means “the land of upright people” in its two most common local languages, will be the first country other than Canada — for a 10-minute-long doughnut run — that Peterson has ever visited.
Peterson, 26, who earned a UWP Broadfield Science degree while minoring in math and physics, will be a secondary school math teacher. The son of Steve and Kay Peterson of Platteville will leave Sunday for orientation for Peace Corps volunteers going to Burkina Faso. He expects to be in the country June 6. He will spend three days in the capital, Ouagadougou, before spending 11 weeks in training in a village 30 kilometers south of Ouagadougou.
“They say you’ll do what you’re supposed to do, but everybody ends up teaching English,” he said. “In training, there’s a crash course in teaching English as a Second Language. And from there, it’s once you get integrated in the community, what gaps need to be filled. Some people go there to do one thing and end up doing something completely different.
“I always wanted to do something like this — go out and change the world, give back, do something no one else in my family has ever done, my friends have ever done.”
Part of the Peace Corps experience is not knowing what to expect from your Peace Corps experience.
“I’ve talked to returned Peace Corps volunteers, I’ve talked to people in the Peace Corps, I’ve talked to people going, and I’ve learned that everyone’s experience is different, and you don’t really know what’s going to happen until it happens,” said Peterson. “I’d like to go out in the world and broaden my horizons. I’ve never lived in a culture where I was a minority.”
Peterson took a circuitous route to the Peace Corps.
“I graduated from Platteville High School in 2004,” he said. “I really didn’t know what to do, so I kind of bummed around — I had a couple different majors.”
During an international relations class in the fall of 2009, “a professor mentioned something about the Peace Corps needing people with a background in math and science. And I kind of filed that away. It must have been the next spring, February or March, I said, Mom, Dad, I’m going to apply to the Peace Corps. I always wanted to do something like this, so it wasn’t a surprise to them.”
Peterson first applied before his last year in college, a process that involved lengthy essays and getting recommendations. He was nominated in 2011 to be a secondary school science teacher in sub-Saharan Africa, but chose a one-year hold so he could complete college.
“On Jan. 20, I was on a beach in Florida, and I got a phone call from the Peace Corps,” he said, telling him he was going to teach math instead.
When he returned to Platteville, Peterson got a large blue packet from the Peace Corps.
“Until you get that blue packet, you’re not really in the Peace Corps,” he said. “Once you get that blue packet, that’s how you know you’re really in.”
Burkina Faso is a landlocked country, about the size of Colorado, surrounded by Mali, Niger, Benin, Togo, Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The former Republic of Upper Volta has about 16 million people. Burkina Faso was a French protectorate until it became independent in 1960.
“It’s hot, hotter yet, and ‘oh my god what is this’ is pretty much the weather,” said Peterson. “I’ve heard their hospitality is pretty much unmatched.”
Burkina Faso has a mix of Christianity, Islam and local religions. According to the Peace Corps, 19 different languages, including French, are spoken in the country.
“They don’t have much,” said Peterson. “When they get an opportunity, they like to dress up, and it has a lot to do with respect.”
Peterson was not particular about where he wanted to serve.
“When you apply, there’s an understanding that where they send you is where they send you,” he said. “To me, it really didn’t matter.”
Wisconsin is one of the larger contributors to the Peace Corps. According to the Peace Corps, 229 state residents are now serving, and more than 5,600 have served in the Peace Corps since it began in 1961.
There is one big difference between serving in the Peace Corps now and in previous decades.
“I think it’s going to be easier for my generation in the Peace Corps than previous generations, because I’ll have 24/7 cellphone access,” said Peterson. “They say the world’s getting smaller every day. And I’ll have intermittent email access.
“As far as being away from everybody, I guess it’s part of the experience. I think it’s why they do things in steps; it’s to ease the transition.”
Burkina Faso is five hours ahead of Central Daylight Time. There are 155 Peace Corps volunteers in Burkina Faso, part of the more than 1,700 Peace Corps volunteers that have served since 1966.
“My first step off the plane — that moment when I’m finally here — to me that’s when I’ll know what’s in store for me,” he said.