A Life of Service: AHS Alumna Carly Pierson Returns from Peace Corps
By Billie Brand
Osprey legend Carly Pierson, a member of AHS’ first graduating class of 2013, finished her Peace Corps service in Paraguay on November 27, 2019 with the ring of a bell and a ceremonial poem. For two years and three months, Carly was immersed in service projects, working in agriculture, health, literacy, and on environmental topics.
Her interest in international service started when she was little, visiting Mexico with her family and traveling to China with a school group in 8th grade. These experiences left Carly with great lessons about culture and humans as well as a profound desire to travel with the purpose of connecting to local peoples and contributing to their communities.
The next time she traveled on a mission trip to Kenya, she was able to get to know some of the people and feel like she was making a small contribution to the children at an orphanage near Nairobi. Working with a mission group from her church, she built a patio using concrete slabs so that the area wouldn’t turn to mud during the rains.
She was only in Kenya for two short weeks, but Carly resolved to continue on this path of service and human connection. She knew she wanted to pursue opportunities of cultural immersion over long periods of time where she could “truly get to know the country and the culture and the issues that people are facing on a personal level. Peace Corps fit that bill pretty darn well.”
Her dreams of international service continued while attending Cornell College in Iowa, where she majored in environmental studies and minored in anthropology. She continued her pursuit of Spanish fluency when she travelled abroad to Xela, Guatemala in her sophomore year, immersing herself in the language as well as social and environmental justice issues impacting the land and peoples. She also traveled to the Bahamas the following year with an anthropology class to study the effects of tourism on small-scale societies.
Upon graduating from Cornell in 2017 and applying to the Peace Corps, her placement in Paraguay aligned beautifully with her passions and expertises, and she began training in September of the same year. In a small village in the Caazapá region, Carly helped educate local populations on sustainable farming methods and ecologically-sound practices, bringing together the knowledge and experience she had developed through her service and coursework. She also did numerous projects with local children and teens, ranging from sexual and dental health initiatives to book drives to advance literacy.
Most of all, her work in the Peace Corps allowed Carly to do what has become the core of her identity: to be of service. She reflected, “For a long time it’s been important to me to be a part of a community, to contribute to that community. My parents have volunteered for a lot of different things, my grandparents also. I feel like I followed in their footsteps a little bit and I learned from them what it means to contribute and to care for those around you.”
She did this while attending Animas High School in its early years, leaving her alma mater a significantly better place than she found it in the strip mall. The annual faculty-selected “Carly Pierson ‘Be of Service’ Award” continues her legacy, allowing subsequent generations of Animas students to be celebrated for their dedication to service. Carly was surprised and flattered when she found out about the award. She reminisced: “As a student I always tried to give back to my classmates and my teachers. Animas was such a home for me. Having those relationships allowed me to give where I saw needed.”
Not only did she leave with an award named after her, but she left lasting impressions with many of the teachers and staff. Lori Fisher was Carly’s advisor and humanities teacher, watching her grow personally and academically throughout four years. “I learned from Carly that you can be passionate and optimistic without being naive. She combines this beautiful love of the world and people with this fierceness for action and for change. She would start from a place of her own interest and then think about how she could use this project to serve others. It helped us as teachers expand our own thinking of what this project could be, and it also provided an example to students of what projects could be.”
Jessica McCallum taught Carly in 11th grade Humanities and remembers fondly her benevolent spirit and deeply empathetic nature. “Carly’s super power has always been to make the people around her feel special and loved,” Jessica remarked. “She makes us all better people by reminding us of our own potential for kindness and positive connection. I never had any doubt that Carly would continue to shine her light and lift people up. She still gives me hope that we can make a better world if we would just turn our hearts toward each other more often.”
These teachers carry fond memories of Carly, Jessica keeping a card that Carly made her pinned up next to her desk, depicting their similar love of wearing pants under skirts, and Lori regularly inviting Carly for dinner at her house.
Carly enjoys creating those relationships because, as she puts it, “being able to be known in a community is really powerful because when you know the people around you, it’s easier to celebrate the triumphs.”
Carly created a lot of strong relationships while she was in Colonia Yerovia Quintanilla, the small town in Paraguay where she was staying. “The relationship I will remember the most is with my host mom, Francisca, who’s a badass. She’s a teacher, and she’s a seamstress, and she’s a party decorator. And she’s a photographer, and she’s a mom, and her son is freaking going to college to become a doctor, like crazy stuff. And I felt like I could talk to her about anything, which includes religion.” These conversations felt like a continuation of Pierson’s senior project, which looked at the similarities between religions. She found that when looking closely at religious texts, the things that are most important to us hardly differ.
Her connection to the people of Paraguay did not end with her service, or even after she stayed for an additional two weeks after her end of service date. “I wasn’t ready to say goodbye,” she commented with a chuckle, “I promised that I would go back in 3 to 5 years, I’m still trying to send them books in Spanish for my host mom, Francisca, to have in her school and toothbrushes and toothpaste. I’ve still got my feelers in there.”
Her dedication to helping others also did not end with her Peace Corps service; she explained, “in the scheme of my life, I just can’t really imagine living a life that’s not doing something for others.”
It’s pretty simple for Carly: “It sounds kind of cheesy, but it’s not a bad thing to try to make the world a better place.”
Carly has left her mark in every place that she has travelled to, from the old Animas strip mall campus to the lands and people of Paraguay. There is no doubt that whatever her next adventure is, she will continue to be of service.