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Ben DeMarais

Ben DeMarais

Major: Physics
Year of Graduation: 2008
Current Position: Volunteer, St. Mauer's Abbey Hanga, Tanzania

Who is Ben DeMarais?
While at CSB/SJU I did not study abroad, but have been traveling abroad for the first time beginning in July until now! I decided to join the Benedictine Volunteer Corps (BVC) because I knew that I wanted to volunteer for some time right after graduation. I was not ready to go on for more studies, nor was I ready to enter the job market. I didn't want to just be a bum sitting at home, so I decided to be courageous and travel the world! I was amazed at the opportunities offered to Saint John's graduates through this volunteer program. I didn't exactly know what I was getting myself into, but slowly I am coming to truly appreciate the opportunity I have been given.

How does the Benedictine Volunteer Corps compare to the Peace Corps? Is this organization primarily focused on teaching or do they do other service as well? Also what countries do they operate in? What is your time commitment to being in Africa, and what is a typical day like for you?
The BVC is a program started in Collegeville run by St. John's Abbey. Right now the sites where volunteers are placed are as follows:

2 in Hanga, Tanzania at St. Mauer's abbey
2 in Guatemala
2 in Santiago Chile
2 in Jerusalem
1 in Rome
1 in Collegeville
In the past there have also been two volunteers in New Jersey.

The assignments are varied depending on the site. In Hanga our responsibilities are mainly with the schools in the village. In Rome the volunteer helps in the library I believe. In Guatemala the volunteers also teach.

I obviously know the most about the Tanzania site, but for more information on the BVC as a whole you should contact Br. Paul Richards.

My plan right now is to stay in Africa for a total of 9 months. I have already been here for 10 weeks, so that means I will be returning to the states sometime in April 2009. This is a flexible commitment, however. One of the previous volunteers who was in Tanzania just left last spring after a total of three years in the country!

The BVC is similar to the Peace Corps in the fact that it is a volunteer organization with multiple levels of in-country support. With the Peace Corps I understand the time commitments to be stricter. Their supervision over you is also a bit stricter, as they need to be because they are such a large organization. I have met quite a few Peace Corps volunteers in the past two months here in Tanzania, and they seem like a great community of people.

I probably should have revealed this to you earlier, but the BVC is currently only available for male graduates from SJU. This is because the volunteers are all placed at Benedictine Monasteries that are only communities for men.

What is life in Africa like?  What sort of living environment are you in and how was it getting used to your new surroundings? Also, how have you approached teaching without having prior experience in a classroom?
Everything moves at a slower pace here. That has taken a while to get used to. It was very frustrating for me at first because I am one that just wants to get things I am slowly becoming more comfortable with my abundance of down time. The people here in Tanzania are very friendly. It has been difficult to not know the language (the official language is Swahili) but most people I meet are very friendly and want to try and talk regardless of the language barrier. I live in the guest house of the monastery. I have my own bedroom with a bathroom which is pretty nice. We eat meals in the guest dining room three times a day. There is not much variety in the food, but it is pretty good. I also make an attempt to pray with the monks usually once a day for night prayer after supper. The monastic community in Hanga is very welcoming. They take good care of the volunteers here.

I would say that I am still adjusting to life here, and probably will be for the next 7 months until I come back home! It has been a difficult adjustment at times, but it has been comforting knowing I am still connected to SJU through this Benedictine Abbey here and the support of the Benedictine Volunteer Corps. Finally, to talk about teaching. I had minimal experience in front of kids from a couple summer programs I did the past two summers. This experience, as well as coming from a big family, helped me in being comfortable being in charge of 50 thirteen-year-olds for 3 hours a day! I do some lesson planning, but also allow each class to develop as I teach. It is nice to have a very good understanding of the subjects that I teach (English and math).