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Peace Corps Experience in Senegal leads to new education fund

UWM-Alumni Magazine Article

It's a long way from the sugar maples of Milwaukee to the baobabs of West Africa. From the soft, quiet forests of Wisconsin to the rolling sandy plains of Senegal. From the comfort of a modern kitchen to an open fire in a village courtyard.

It's the journey Judy Kader (BA Biological Sciences '97) made, culminating with her establishment of the Senegalese Education Fund. Along the unexpected twists and turns, she used knowledge she gained from her studies, learning to adapt to and enjoy a culture she never dreamed she'd be experiencing.

Since her days at Rufus King High School in Milwaukee, Kader planned to become a Peace Corps volunteer, but her studies came first. Her plan was to serve her country in some way, then complete studies in mycology (fungal biology) or become a veterinarian, spending two years at UWM, then transfer to UW-Madison.

But plans can change. "I had the most amazing professors at UWM," Kader exclaimed. "First, there was Prof. Karl Taylor. He was head of the herbarium at the Milwaukee Public Museum, and everthing excited him. So, I shifted my whole focus to plant ecology."

During her junior year, working on prairie restoration and at an organic farm, Kader thought of abandoning her studies. But she continued for two reasons. With a degree, she had a better chance of being accepted into the Peace Corps. But more compelling, she continued because of "the amazing professors" she studies with at UWM; people such as Jeffrey Karron, Norman Lasca and Bernard Grosfeld. It was Grosfeld who encouraged Kader, who knew Hebrew, to complete a second major in Biblical Hebrew Studies. With unabashed enthusiasm, Kader called her professors "phenomenal".

But after graduation, her priority was the Peace Corps. "I believe the average person should do something for our country, whatever form that takes," Kader emphasized. "I love to travel, meet and talk with people, and I'm not bad with languages. So I chose the Peace Corps."

And that's where Kader's life took another unexpected twist. Learning she would be assigned to Haiti, she studied all she could about the country. Just two weeks before she was to leave, she learned that she'd be reassigned to Senegal, a West African country about the size of South Dakota.

Her 2-1/2 year stint as a Peace Corps volunteer took place in the small villiage of SanchiTaba (pop. 100) where she lived in a 12x12 mud hut and took part in the village activities.

She met the village chief's family who are Mandinka. Her village "family" was Pulaar, and she had learned the Sareer language. So, initially they used hand singnals, until Kader learned the common Wolof language and could converse with the villagers. Then, she discovered exactly what the villagers wanted her to do. Because the well they used was polluted and unsanitary, they asked Kader to get them a new, sanitary well. With no knowledge of well-building, Kader asked herself, "Do I say, 'I don't know' or do I ask myself, 'How can we get this done?'" Kader applied for a grant and found a professional well engineer, and helped organize volunteers from the village to dig and build the well.

"It was what I expected, but harder," Kader admitted. "Living in a different culture is an amazing experience. I really felt I was using my knowledge, because now they have a clean well and clean water."

Now in Milwaukee, she is a land steward at the Schlitz Audubon Center, where she plants natural varieties and manages invasive plant species. "What I really love about this is the hardcore restoration work, what you do to nurture plant communities," she explained.

It's the same for Kader when it comes to nurturing her "other home" of Senegal.

After returning to the U.S., Kader wanted to continue to help the people she had become so close to in Senegal, so she established the Senegalese Education Fund, a non-profit organization (under the auspices of The Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Madison, Wis.) that provides scholarships for higher education and for a Girls' Club program that teaches critical life skills and basic education to Senegalese girls.

Because only one of every 25 Senegalese boys and one of every 75 Senegalese girls graduates from high school, Kader looked to education as the way to help. But more than numbers, it stems from deeper feelings she discovered while living in that small village in Senegal. "You see," Kader said thoughtfully, "you don't stay in Senegal for the food (mainly millet and rice) or the climate (hot and dry) or because you're doing great work. You stay because you fall in love with the people." (Senegalese Education Fund Web site: