By Jeff Charis-Carlson, Iowa City Press-Citizen
During their youth in Liberia, Theophilus and Rebecca Kollie developed fond memories from their interactions with U.S. Peace Corps volunteers. Little did they know that, decades later, their American-born daughter would complete the circle by returning to Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer after graduating from the University of Iowa.
University of Iowa senior Nyassa Kollie, left, studies with her friend, senior Jenna Anderson, at High Ground Cafe on Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014. Photo by David Scrivner
“My parents are unbelievably excited,” said 22-year-old Nyassa Kollie, who is prepared to be one of the 750 graduating students receiving their Bachelor of Arts degree during Saturday’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences commencement ceremony. “It literally is a dream come true."
Kollie, who is majoring in English and African American Studies, won’t be returning to her parents’ East African homeland. The Peace Corps, instead, has selected her for a position teaching English across the continent in Malawi. Kollie doesn’t yet know exactly which city she will be assigned to, but she is scheduled to begin her new adventure on June 16, 2015.
Meredith Mahy Gall, the UI Peace Corps recruiter, said Kollie has a variety of qualities and experiences that will make her a successful volunteer.
“She has a strong desire to help others and connect them to opportunities for growth,” Gall wrote in an email to the Press-Citizen. “She has a passion and curiosity to learn about other cultures and immerse herself in a host community.”
Gall also noted that Kollie is graduating from UI with strong leadership, community service and cross-cultural experiences. Combined with Kollie’s “friendly, open, and enthusiastic manner,” Gall said, that blend of skills will help her “integrate successfully into her community in Malawi and connect with her students.”
The Michigan-born and Illinois-raised Kollie said she initially was skeptical about applying to UI for her undergraduate studies. But she wanted to attend a university with a strong literary reputation — one that would help her develop as a writer and as a person.
Her doubts, she said, disappeared during her first campus visit.
“I saw the Old Capitol and that golden dome, and I just knew, it feels right,” Kollie said. “Eventually I declared myself an English major and never looked back.”
Kollie spent her first year at UI living on the Women’s Writers Floor of Currier Hall as part of one of the Living-Learning Communities offered by the university. She said the students she met continued to inspire and challenge her.
Kollie’s experience with student housing was so positive that she continued to live in Currier as a resident assistant for her junior and senior years. She also began to be more intentional about seeking out other students of color.
Coming from the northern Chicago suburb of Gurnee, Ill., Kollie said she was used to being one of the few people of color in a mostly white school. But by her sophomore year at UI, she discovered large pockets of diversity on campus, “if you are looking for them.”
She joined the UI African Student Association and found the student group had a strong mixture of international students from African countries and first-generation African-American students like herself. She also started taking more classes in African American Studies and focused on adding the subject as her minor.
If UI offered a graduate degree in African American Studies, Kollie said, she definitely would apply and, if accepted, stay in Iowa for another year or two.
After two years as an RA, and fearful of burnout, Kollie decided to move off campus for her senior year — as well as for the extra fall semester that she calls her “super senior year.” To help make ends meet, she took a job with UI Parking and Transportation.
“The perfect job for anyone interested in studying,” Kollie said.
For the past year, she has served as the president of a growing African Student Association.
“It’s still a relatively small organization,” Kollie said. “But this year, we’ve seen a lot of new first-year students. Suddenly we’re having 30 people show up at meetings.”
Choosing the Peace Corps
Kollie said her five-year plan includes earning a master’s degree in African American Studies — preferably at a historically black college — and pursing a career in the U.S. State Department. She said she decided last fall that serving for two years in the Peace Corps would be a perfect first step toward that plan.
She applied for positions in Africa after having visited the continent twice before:
- A two-week trip to South Africa in 2010 after graduating high school.
- And a three-week family trip to Liberia at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014.
Those experiences make her simultaneously excited and nervous about what awaits in Malawi.
“During the South African trip, with the kids that I interacted with, there was often confusion about how, while I look like them, I didn’t speak the language,” Kollie said. “I’m nervous that will happen in Malawi.”
The family’s trip to Liberia was her parents’ first trip home since the start of that country’s civil war. Kollie said many of her relatives didn’t even know her mother had given birth to two children in America — Kollie and her brother, Bryant. She was aware that her actions and interactions were being scrutinized carefully by her parents’ relatives and friends.
“There were a lot of eyes on me and my brother,” Kollie said.
Preparing for the unfamiliar
Knowing she still needs to prepare herself for living two years abroad, Kollie said she will spend the next few months “getting my life in order.”
She will continue to live and work in Iowa City for the majority of that time, but she’s taking the Peace Corps’ training advice seriously. She’s making a point to talk to someone new every day, and she’s seeking out opportunities to put herself in unfamiliar situations while still living in Iowa City.
Dan Boscaljon, a visiting professor of English, said Kollie is well prepared to begin such an adventure. He said he was impressed this semester with Kollie’s “maturity and depth,” as well as with “her willingness to engage the world in an open way.”
“She had this ability to really articulate what her views were in a way that made everyone in the room very comfortable,” said Boscaljon, who taught Kollie this semester in his class on Religion, Secularism and Literary Uncertainty.
“She was refreshingly honest about things,” Boscaljon said. “Many people, when they state their opinion, tend to alienate others, but whatever her opinion was, she was very open with it” and expressed it in a way that helped “create a sense of community.”