Mike with a PC/Mali Senior Staff member.

Mike with PC/Mali Senior Staff.

Mike at a newly-constructed primary school in the village of Konofaye, Mali.

Name: Michael Simsik
U-M Affiliation: Alumni

Where do you work?

Bamako, Mali (West Africa), where I am the Country Director for the Peace Corps in Mali.

When did you serve in the Peace Corps?

I served as a Volunteer from 1986 to 1989.

Where did you serve (which country/countries)?

Benin (West Africa)

What were your main responsibilities as a volunteer?

During the first two years of my service I assisted subsistence farmers in the management of village-based tree nurseries through a project funded by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Then during my third year of Peace Corps service I managed tree nurseries and conducted agroforestry research projects at a research station affiliated with the Beninese Ministry of Agriculture.

Is there a specific person (or persons) who made a strong impression on you during that time?

My Beninese supervisor during my third year of service made a strong impression on me. He was an educated professional committed to his field (agricultural research) and he was always patient and kind in the way that he helped me to understand and complete my own work as a volunteer.

What was one of the most memorable moments you had as a volunteer?

One of the most memorable moments I had as a volunteer was when I was stranded on a rural road at nightfall after the taxi I was traveling in broke down. I walked down the road until I came upon a village, and there, I was offered food and a comfortable place to sleep at the home of perfect strangers. This experience summarizes for me the warmth, generosity and humanity of the African people. Since this event, I have been invited on numerous occasions to share meals with people who often had very little in terms of material wealth, but whom possessed a great deal in terms of generosity and hospitality.

In what ways did your Peace Corps experience affect your life and/or career decisions?

My Peace Corps experience was one that has since influenced my life path. I have since worked as a trainer, recruiter, Associate Director, and now, Country Director for Peace Corps. I am thankful for the experiences that I had, and what I learned from my Beninese colleagues as a Volunteer, and hope that I was able to give to them something as well that will endure in their memories as much as they do in mine.

In what ways did your U-M education, both inside and outside the classroom, prepare you for your Peace Corps experience?

I attended U-M after my Peace Corps experience (for graduate school). Nonetheless, I can add that my experience at Michigan helped to prepare me for a career in international development and conservation. I learned a great deal from faculty and staff who had worked in all corners of the world and as a result, had a global perspective in their teaching and research that proved to be incredibly enlightening.

What advice would you give to others who are contemplating going into the Peace Corps?

As the slogan of our Peace Corps training group was, "set your expectations lower than your abilities." While we all come into Peace Corps with a vision of changing the world, be open as well to being changed yourself. Be ready to leave behind habits that we consider "American"...be humble, modest, observe, listen, and show your respect of your host-country culture. By doing these things, you will win the confidence of others and thus enable your ability to function and succeed in a foreign culture. You will be accepted and respected. You will also learn a great deal about yourself.

What is the value gained from the Peace Corps experience?

The value I gained from my Peace Corps experience was a much broader understanding of the world and its people. Also, while I never would have imagined it before serving as a volunteer, I now value what I learned about being an American, and especially one working abroad. I also learned a great deal about America upon leaving it. I also value the opportunities that America has provided me, which were really appreciated when I saw how many opportunities I had taken for granted were nonexistant for my Beninese colleagues. I appreciated and valued the incredible strength of my Beninese brothers and sisters...their amazing strength and ability to persevere despite the economic, physical, and emotional hardships of daily life; and their ability to smile, laugh, dance and sing when it was time to celebrate the joys that life gives us, from birth until death. I too have learned how to celebrate.

What lessons did you learn in the Peace Corps that you carry with you today?

The lessons that I learned from my Peace Corps experience that I carry today include being empathetic of others, no matter who they are. Also, valuing the knowledge (and knowledge systems) of other people (and their cultures). One culture may do something differently than another, but I have learned not to pass judgement. I have also learned to share with others, whether it be my time, knowledge, or material wealth and possessions. My African friends and acquaintances, often with very little to share, taught me the importance and value of this practice. There is always room for one more at the dinner table.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

Thank you for this opportunity to share my experience and to be a part of this historic occassion, bringing together two great institutions...Peace Corps and the University of Michigan.

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