By: Maria Roos '13
Former UC student and baseball player Jack Nelson, 28, traveled to Cameroon last June to begin a 27-month appointment as a Peace Corps community enterprise development volunteer.
In college, Nelson studied finance and international business. As a senior, he was selected to the ESPN The Magazine Baseball Academic All-America Third Team. His baseball achievements made it possible for him to play in the minor leagues for two years as a non-drafted free agent.
After pro baseball, Nelson earned a Master’s degree in accounting at University of Notre Dame and worked as senior auditor at Ernst & Young. Still, he felt something was missing in his life.
Nelson wanted to experience different languages and cultures, and this desire led him to South America where he traveled with some of his teammates. There he met people from the Peace Corps, who inspired him to serve as volunteer.
The urge to serve runs in his family – his dad was a Peace Corps volunteer serving as a history and English teacher in Liberia in the late '60s. So, at 27 years old, Nelson decided to apply to the Peace Corps to follow in his dad’s footsteps.
Nelson applied with South America as a geographical preference. Many of his teammates in pro baseball were South American, and Spanish is a language he knows very well. He was placed, however, in the French-speaking village Guider, in northern Cameroon, Africa.
As a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon, Nelson went through language, culture and technical training in Bafia, a city located in the central province of Cameroon, and he lived with a local family for three months. Volunteers are encouraged to learn the local language in the small villages to fully integrate with the culture.
“You have to learn French to get around. When you are forced to speak it, you learn it pretty fast,” Nelson says. He admits that it has been hard, since he did not know much French prior to his departure. It took him hours to learn and remember the French words "fork," "spoon" and "plate" during the first dinner with his local host family.
After three months of training in Bafia, Guider became his final home for his Peace Corps service. Guider is a city in the desert with approximately 100,000 people, and it is predominantly Muslim. The local language is Fulfulde, which is Nelson’s fourth language he is trying to master.
Nelson’s job as community enterprise development volunteer involves helping small businesses, creating savings groups, organizational development and helping poor families send their children to school.
Since baseball is the sport closest to Nelson’s heart, he tried to arrange a local baseball team, but it did not work out. Funding Peace Corps projects and generating enthusiasm from the local population are the two most difficult challenges, Nelson says.
Instead, he started a basketball team. The court only vaguely resembled a basketball court in the beginning: it had no nets, faded lines and sand on the ground. Since organized practice started, the court has been cleaned, and Nelson's mother donated two nets and a basketball. Now the local children really enjoy practice. Although the court looks like a basketball court now, Nelson thinks it would be great for the children to have some UC gear.
“I’m trying to get the UC baseball coach to send some old gear for the kids to represent the "C" in Cameroon,” Nelson says.
Beside sports, Nelson discovered a wide interest for journalism at the local high school. Nelson wants to teach the students that journalism involves much more than just standing in front of a camera and talking into a microphone, as many of the younger students believe. He started a journalism club to encourage students to write. After a personal request to the principal at Nelson’s high school in Wheaton, IL, the club and the high school have developed a collaboration.
The experience in Cameroon has been great Nelson says, and it has been very rewarding. “Working with people from all walks of life, from very poor to people with influence, is a powerful thing,” Nelson says. “The most rewarding experience is to talk to people in small villages. They have nothing and still they give me more than what they can afford.”
Even though Cameroon is a great and rewarding experience, it is tough learning a new language and culture, and Nelson misses things from the U.S.
“I miss the lake where my mom lives, friends and family of course. And just having a ham sandwich with iced tea,” Nelson laughs. “I often ask my mom to send me Crystal Light in different flavors, since the water doesn’t taste that good in Guider. ”
Nelson is not sure what he will do after his Peace Corps service, but he knows his life will involve some sort of work with an international corporation that includes myriad cultures and meeting new people. Since he is now comfortable living a more primitive life and culture, he feels he can live almost anywhere in the world.