17 February 2021 • Alums Mendelson '17 Reflects on Peace Corps Experiences

HWS commemorates the 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps by asking alums to reflect on their service as volunteers. Lucie Mendelson ’17 shares her experience as a Spanish literacy promoter in the Dominican Republic and what it was like to have her time cut short by the pandemic.

On March 15, 2020, Lucie Mendelson ’17 was serving as a Spanish literacy promoter and Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic when she was evacuated due to the coronavirus pandemic. She recalls the day well, as she received an email informing her of the evacuation during a party celebrating her 26th birthday.

“I was celebrating with two other volunteers and a few kids from my school,” Mendelson explains. “There were a lot of rumors going around that we’d get evacuated. We were joking about how it wouldn’t happen at the exact moment we got the email.”

Mendelson '17 takes a selfie with a student.

Mendelson '17 takes a selfie with a student.

Mendelson had five weeks left of her service when she was given about 16 hours to pack her things and say goodbye. “The next morning about 80 kids from my school came to my house and walked me to my bus stop,” she says. “I have never cried that hard in my life.”

Even though it was an abrupt goodbye, there were happy moments. “To make me less sad, one of my first-grade students said he’d sing me an ‘English’ song,” Mendelson says. “He sang ‘Happy Birthday’ nonstop for 15 minutes, but didn’t know the real words. It was all gibberish, but it was so cute.”

Mendelson is currently pursuing a master’s in special education and teaching at American University and working as a lab fellow at the Lab School of Washington, where she teaches students with learning disabilities. Her focus on special education was partly inspired by her experience in the Dominican Republic; in the area where she worked, students with disabilities were not usually educated in the schools, and Mendelson sought to make the environment more equitable.

“I was able to help train the teachers in my community and convince some parents who thought that it was a bad idea to integrate kids with special needs into the school,” she says, explaining that several months of conversation led to moving the classroom of a kindergarten student with cerebral palsy from the second floor to the first. “I still talk to that student and his family a lot,” she says. “He’s in second grade now and one of the best readers in his class.”

While Mendelson considered joining the Peace Corps as early as her first year at HWS, it was a study abroad experience in New Zealand with Professor of Education Jamie MaKinster that allowed her to see volunteering as part of her path. “I was able to student-teach a fourth grade class there and I realized that there’s really an entire world that treats education differently than we do in the U.S.,” she explains. “Professor MaKinster helped me contextualize what I was experiencing while learning and working abroad.”

A sociology and educational studies double major, Mendelson served as a senior board member for the HWS First Generation initiative and as a tutor and a student coordinator with America Reads. While her time with America Reads helped prepare her to teach literacy in the Dominican Republic, the Peace Corps offered experiences that pushed her out of her comfort zone.

“I had the opportunity to do things I never thought I’d do,” Mendelson explains. “I taught sex-education, worked with several female empowerment groups for teen girls, helped form a co-ed dominos league, taught kids to read Haitian Creole and was the emcee and judge of an ‘eco-friendly’ beauty pageant, where the contestants had to create dresses made out of recycled goods.”

Mendelson encourages current HWS students to consider serving in the Peace Corps. “Be open to experiences,” she advises. “Don’t have set expectations on how it’s going to go, because it won’t. If you go in with a blank slate, your experience will be that much better.”