Former Southwest Portlander Jennifer Hatton shares her Peace Corps experience

After graduating from college many 20-somethings live with their parents in their childhood homes or with friends in tiny apartments. Jennifer Hatton, of Ashcreek, chose a different locale: Rwanda, by way of the Peace Corps.

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF JENNIFER HATTON - Jennifer Hatton with her host family in the Gashora Sector of Rwanda. For her, joining the international service organization was not a rash decision, but one a long time in the making.

“Ever since I was little I’d always had a passion for service and being a global citizen; I had always wanted to find out more about how other people live, and learn about other people, because I think it helps us learn about ourselves,” Hatton explained. “Ever since, I would say, I found about the Peace Corps when I was in high school, I knew that I wanted to serve.”

The road to Rwanda

Hatton, 25, already had experience with the international travel aspect of Peace Corps service; she grew up in Australia before immigrating to Southwest Portland, and after graduating from Grant High School she attended both University of Oregon and the University of Western Australia.

Aside from her global traveler status, though, Hatton had to meet a number of criteria in order to fulfill the Peace Corps’ three goals (“To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women,” “To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served” and “To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans”).

“You have to have a college degree, you have to have a certain amount of skill level. ... I’m in the education program, so I had to have a number of classroom hours. ... It’s important to (stay) in one place ... so we can understand our host community and also teach people about American culture,” Hatton said. “I also think with development work it’s really important to know your community and ... who you’re working with instead of just going with your own idea of what you want to do and you own agenda. It’s about understanding what’s best to be helpful.”

Hatton also participated in three months of training on location in Rwanda.

Expectations shattered

After completing her training, Hatton said, she was happy to find that some of her worst fears about the country that would be her home for the next two years were no longer founded.

“I think the first thing everybody thinks of when they think of Rwanda is the genocide — I thought that too,” she said, but “Rwanda is so peaceful now, you just would never think that a genocide of that extent, of that scale, of that magnitude could have happened in this country.”

Hatton cited Rwanda’s infrastructure, such as its roads and Internet capabilities, and its viability as a place to do business as two examples that, as she put it, “It’s just a really progressive country and it just really made really incredible progress since 1994.”

A day in the life

Hatton lives in the Gashora Sector of Rwanda, in a small compound with a local family.

“We don’t have running water, so I usually get up and take a bucket bath, and we don’t have a toilet, so there’s a latrine. ... I make breakfast at my house — usually something low-key like an egg,” she said of her morning routine. Then, “I walk to my school where I teach, and on the way lots of children want to talk to me and say ‘hi’ and practice their English. Rwandans are really friendly — especially children. I always think it’s a fun experience to walk to school and get to talk with kids.”

Hatton teaches at Gashora Girls School, a merit-based, college preparatory boarding school. “I teach English (and) work with girls who are in the equivalent of sophomore- to senior year in high school,” Hatton said. “The girls are incredibly bright, so it’s always fun and a very vibrant atmosphere in the classroom. I always take time to say hi to all my colleagues and neighbors as well. It’s really important in Rwandan culture to greet people.”

After finishing her lunch —which she said consists mostly of starches — because “we have fiber-optic Internet at my school, which is pretty cool ... I can even by on Skype or on Facebook.”

All in all, “It’s very different to be a Peace Corps volunteer in 2014 than it was even 10 years ago,” Hatton said. “So it’s very connected. We say ‘hi’ to families or I say ‘hi’ to my boyfriend, who’s at home in Portland.”

Experiences to remember

Hatton got the surprise of her life in March when a visit was paid to Gashora Girls Academy where she teaches by none other than Mark Shriver, son of original Peace Corps director Sargent Mark Shriver and senior vice president for Save the Children’s U.S. programs.

“For me, it was like getting to come full circle with the Peace Corps experience and get to know someone who is intimately connected like that,” Hatton said. “It was really, really special.”

The most poignant memory Hatton will make during time in the Peace Corps, she said, will almost certainly be of attending the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide. While many Rwandans have been reluctant to talk about the atrocities of 1994, Hatton said, “There are ghosts here.”

And as hard as it was to hear one prolonged wail from another attendee at the ceremony April 7, Hatton said, it seemed that the survivors there that day finally felt able to stop repressing their memories and begin to heal.

Drew Dakessian can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and 503-636-1281, ext. 108.

Contract Publishing

Go to top
Template by JoomlaShine