When Bonnie Nelson, 24, walked off a plane at SeaTac Airport after a leadership volunteerism trip to Thailand last year, only one thought crossed her mind.
“I realized that I’m not done,” Nelson said. “I thought, ‘I have to join the Peace Corps.’”
She quickly applied for the prestigious social service program and was invited to serve two years in Mongolia starting next month.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, Nelson will begin pre-service training as a secondary English teacher in the country. Upon graduation from volunteer training in September, Nelson will be working in community schools to improve students’ English skills.
Born and raised in the tiny town of Adna (populated by just 2,000 residents), Nelson admits she did not know much about Mongolia before accepting her assignment.
“I found out where I was going while I was at work,” she said. “I had to Wikipedia it.”
Mongolia, a country about three times larger than Texas located north of China, is one of the most sparsely populated places in the world. Its nearly three million citizens are mostly Tibetan Buddhist, and are influenced by both Russian and Chinese cultures.
While most of the country is rural, its cities have become more westernized in recent decades. It is not unusual to see a busy city downtown core with Apple computer stores, hotels and high rises, Nelson said.
Nelson will not know if her future neighborhood will be rural or urban until she arrives in the country, but said the program will place her where she is most needed.
One thing she’s no stranger to: traveling.
When attending Pacific Lutheran University, Nelson traveled to Bolivia for a month-long study abroad trip, and experienced the rugged and urban surroundings of the country. After earning her masters degree from the University of Washington, she served in AmeriCorps as a team leader in Denver. Projects included hurricane relief in Houston as well as home building with Habitat for Humanity in Mobile, Ala. and Durango, Colo.
“I wouldn’t be doing Peace Corps without AmeriCorps,” she said. “I wouldn’t be doing either if I hadn’t gone to PLU. I’m grateful I’ve gone there.”
Nelson also has spent time working for the Boys & Girls Club of South Puget Sound and the YMCA of Greater Seattle. Last year, Nelson traveled to Thailand with the YMCA leadership service team for several weeks to help teach English and build a classroom for students with special needs. She has also spent family vacations in Norway, where her family has roots. She credits her family for cultivating her wanderlust.
“My family has been extremely supportive of my decisions to travel,” she said. “They’ve instilled the value of service. I always tell them, ‘you guys led me down this path.’”
During the first three months of her service in Mongolia, Nelson will live with a local host family to become fully immersed in the country’s language and culture. After acquiring the language and cultural skills necessary to assist her community, Nelson will serve for two years in Mongolia, living just like an ordinary citizen of her host country.
Her training will be tough. Four hours of language classes each day, then lessons on local culture, customs and history.
“It’s really intense,” she said. “But I have to learn, in order to communicate with my host family and to teach effectively. I have to dive in a little bit.”
When Nelson returns from her adventure, she will join an elite group of people who chose to give back in some of the most extreme countries in the would. There are 372 Washington residents currently serving in the Peace Corps and more than 8,400 have served since 1961, ranking the state third for historical production.
A total of 869 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Mongolia since the program was established in 1991. Currently, 131 volunteers are serving there. Volunteers in this Asian nation work in the areas of community and economic development as well as English and health education.
Nelson said it is hard to say where this experience will take her in life after she finishes, but she hopes to continue giving back and working in education and service – where her passions lie.
“At this point, my plans are the least of my concerns,” she said.