Community service has always been a big part of my life. When I was 11-years-old, I joined the youth leadership organization, Job’s Daughters. This group of adult and peer mentors instilled in me the principles of leadership, compassion, empathy and selfless service. Guided by these values, I spent much of my free time in high school and college volunteering and fundraising for various charities.

These activities however, remained fairly separate from my studies and professional life. In 2008, I was preparing to graduate from a four-year university where I had earned a Bachelors in Business Management, and suddenly it hit me: this was not at all who I was or what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My heart was in the volunteer work where I had dedicated so many of my years. Why does a professional career have to be separate from what one is truly passionate about? Pursuing Peace Corps was my way of finding out how to merge the two.

Peace Corps, Cape Verde.

I served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cape Verde, where I worked in the area of small business and community development. The experience was life changing. When spending two years completely immersed in a small village, the community becomes your friend, and friends become your family. I learned so much about myself through cultural exchange, respectful dialogue and meaningful engagement.

Returning to the United States left me feeling empty, yet inspired. I was saddened to leave what became my second home, but I now knew, more than ever, my life mission. I am meant to dedicate my life to a cause higher than myself, something that outlasts me, something that leaves this world a little better than I found it.

I spent some time volunteering for non-profit organizations in the U.S. and Brazil before joining the World Bank in their mission to end extreme poverty and boost shared prosperity. Working among esteemed economists and specialists at the World Bank inspired me, but I quickly realized that I would need to further my education in order to make a meaningful difference. After researching and applying to several programs, I decided on a Master’s of Science in International Development and Public Policy at the University of Manchester, England. As a perpetual volunteer who had only worked for about 24 months in the past 7 years, funding a graduate degree would be the next immediate challenge.

I had been familiar with Rotary mainly because I saw their signs everywhere, from my village in Cape Verde to the streets in Porto Velho, Brazil. I reached out to my local Fairfax Rotary Club and was blessed to be connected with Rotarian Verne Tuininga, the Youth Service Director, who graciously guided me through The Rotary Foundation’s Global Grants Scholarship application process, interview and eventual acceptance process.

I set off for the United Kingdom in September 2015, as a Rotary Global Grants Scholar. I began my graduate program where I also co-started the fundraising group Students Unite to End Polio in support of Rotary’s PolioPlus campaign. Students Unite to End Polio consisted of ten international students committed to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania in an effort to raise funds and awareness around polio eradication.

After graduating from the University of Manchester and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, I have returned to the World Bank as a research analyst for the social protection department. Looking back, Peace Corps and the community I served, gave me the self-belief and drive to pursue radical social change; and my Rotary scholarship equipped me with the education and knowledge I needed to transform that drive into action. It may be awhile before we see the end to extreme poverty, but my experiences with Peace Corps and Rotary give me hope that lasting change is possible through time, unwavering focus and fierce determination.

~Cecilia Kern, former Rotary Global Grant Scholar and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer

Reprinted with permission from RotaryService, May 2017.