Taking the road less traveled…to the Peace Corps?
November 20, 2015
He looked around, bag in one hand and passport in the other. Near him, villagers milled about, speaking to each other in fast, fluent French. At last, he had arrived in Togo, West Africa, where he would spend the next two years of his life.
In 2005, history teacher Travis Fitzgerald embarked on a 2-year long volunteer experience with the Peace Corps.
“I was in a program called Girls Education and Empowerment,” Fitzgerald said. “For about 17 months I went and we worked with young girls to try to teach them self confidence, a lot of HIV/AIDS prevention. There [were] a lot of other things, but that was kind of the main goal.”
Although Fitzgerald entered the Peace Corps soon out of college, it was not his initial goal.
“I originally wanted to work for the CIA, and then 9/11 happened and then everybody wanted to work for the CIA, so then I thought it would be cool to work for the State Department,” Fitzgerald said. “So I took the first round of exams for the State Department, and I passed the first round but I didn’t pass the second round because I needed more experience, so I decided to go to the Peace Corps.”
Even though joining the Peace Corps was not an earlier plan of Fitzgerald’s, his decision to join was not much of a shock to his family.
“I had actually thought about the Peace Corps when he didn’t get past his 2nd State Department interview but never said anything because it was probably the last thing I would have wanted him to do,” mother Kim Fitzgerald said. “He came home one night and woke me up to say, “‘Mom! I know what I’m going to do!’” Silently I was praying ‘Don’t say the Peace Corps, don’t say the Peace Corps,’ so of course he said ‘I’m going to join the Peace Corps!’”
Fitzgerald said that while he did want to help, he didn’t enter the Peace Corps for entirely selfless reasons.
“My own pride told me that, you know, I would get respect and it might be a good career builder,” Fitzgerald said. “And it just so happened that the government was paying for it.”
According to Fitzgerald, the time he spent in Togo was difficult. He said that he was isolated in a town where people didn’t speak his language, and, at the time, he wasn’t living out the faith that he had professed while in America. He also said he noticed that, due to the isolation, alcoholism and drug use were common among the other volunteers in Togo.
“Once he was in Togo, he was completely on his own and began to realize just how far he had drifted from God’s plan,” Kim said.
The next December, Fitzgerald returned home for a month on vacation.
“They call that the kiss of death, because when you come back to the U.S. from an underdeveloped country you’re like, ‘Why am I going back?’” Fitzgerald said. “I went to a Christmas Eve service and I had been home for a couple of weeks and I just felt like this kind of unease, like I really felt like something was wrong – I felt like God was kind of tugging at my heart.”
In January of 2007, Fitzgerald returned to Togo to finish his service.
“I was a little anxious,” Fitzgerald said. “I got to my house that I was living in and there was this like fine layer of dust everywhere, because I hadn’t been there in a month, and I just felt this overwhelming sense of isolation.”
Fitzgerald said that upon returning to Togo, he felt that he didn’t need to be there anymore.
“I remember I was riding my bike just in the middle of this lonely country road, and I just like felt this tremendous amount of conviction, and I felt like God was speaking to me,” Fitzgerald said. “So I just got off my bike and I was like, ‘Alright, whatever you want to do with me God, just do it.’”
Soon after, Fitzgerald contacted his country director and left the program.
“So they call it early termination, and it’s actually quitting – you can leave whenever you want but there’s like this stigma attached to early termination,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a 27-month commitment but you’re a volunteer and their mindset is they would rather have people be there that want to be there.”
Fitzgerald said that although the isolation is part of what made him leave, there were volunteers who could handle it.
“There was this one guy, his name was Dan but they called him Diesel because he was like a machine … he didn’t just learn French, he learned the local language, he ate the local food, he biked everywhere,” Fitzgerald said. “We got eight dollars a day to live on and I was always emailing home and having my parents wire me money because I was always broke. This guy, he saved like 2,000 dollars over the course of his service because he was just a machine. There were times where I was like, ‘Man I wish I could’ve been more like that guy.’”
After leaving the Peace Corps and returning to Oklahoma, where he grew up, Fitzgerald decided to make a change in his location.
“I was in Oklahoma City and I just felt like I needed to get to Dallas because I felt like I needed to be somewhere where things were happening,” Fitzgerald said. “Everything had changed… I figured well, if I can teach people in French, what if I could actually teach the things I’d like to teach in English.”
Fitzgerald said even teaching in French in Togo transfers to teaching history in America..
“I would always try to find like, ‘What’s the hook, how am I going to hook these people?’” Fitzgerald said. “I’d say that kind of trickled down to my teaching. I always kind of think like before a lesson or something, ‘What’s the hook? Whats going to pull them in?’ That makes it relevant to them because that’s the only way they were going to listen to me.”
Fitzgerald’s mother said that his experiences in West Africa helped him find his path and discover the importance of his relationship with God.
“I’m not sure he would have packed up and moved to Dallas with no job, no prospects, and embarked on a whole new career path without the strength and empowerment he had gained from those experiences which caused him to look so deeply into his heart and trust God completely,” Kim said.
Fitzgerald said that while his time in Togo was a considerably dark period, it was also a defining moment in his life.
“He was in a dark place while in the Peace Corps, but God met him there,” wife Beth Fitzgerald said. “And through that, transformed him into a gracious man who strives to be selfless. Returning from Africa and recommitting his life and plan to the Lord brought him to Texas, to me, and eventually to Hebron.”