Penn State alumnus returns from Peace Corps

The first time Michael Dissen, who graduated from Penn State in 2008, ever lived alone happened to be in a town called Ha Sefako in the Kingdom of Lesotho, an enclave in South Africa.

The Pittsburgh-born Peace Corps member had been serving since November 2008 and returned to the United States in October 2010.

“I will really miss the simplicity of my house and village,” he said. “I have never lived alone before and I have mixed feelings about it. I love the freedom of being able to live how I want, but miss the company of my family or a roommate.”

Along with simplicity comes the lack of luxuries such as cell phone service and electricity, he said.

“There were times when I would have to search for a tap that has water during the dry season, and while it was awful at the time, I liked that I had to work to live,” Dissen said. “I made bread and pasta from scratch and prepared most of my meals by candlelight.”

Dissen, who has his bachelor’s degree in elementary and kindergarten education, spent the majority of his time in Lesotho training about 30-35 teachers in four primary schools. The main focus of his work has been to improve the self-evaluation skills of the teachers by promoting career-long development in areas such as classroom management, gender equity, curriculum, instruction methodologies and alternatives to corporal punishment.

“It took a long time for the teachers and students to understand that I was there to help, and not to act as an authority figure,” Dissen said.

Dissen considers his decision to join the Peace Corps to be the best decision he has ever made -- but his sister had her doubts.

Maria Dissen, a Penn State senior majoring in elementary education, said she was apprehensive about him being so far away. She thought Michael had made the wrong decision.

“In retrospect, I think the Peace Corps was an excellent choice and an ideal fit for Michael,” she said. “He has grown so much from his time spent in Africa, and he has taught me a lot from his experience.”

Maria credits Michael’s educational history with providing insight into a field she now considers her own.

While Michael Dissen is a leading example for his sister now, he was not always on the path to education. Originally a business major, he switched to education after taking a trip to the Dominican Republic through Orphanage Outreach. The program’s mission is to provide opportunities for disadvantaged, abandoned or orphaned children.

This experience inspired DIssen to sign up for a women’s studies course linked to a program that traveled to a rural village in Tanzania for a month. In Tanzania he taught classes in a primary school, visited and stayed at a local orphanage, and spent time with the Maasai tribe.

When graduation-time started rolling around in 2008, Dissen knew he wanted to teach, but he was looking for alternatives.

“Peace Corps came up in Google many times, but I kept ignoring it,” Dissenl said. “Eventually I clicked on it and almost immediately, after thoroughly reading their website, began applying. It seemed to combine everything I was interested in and more.”

Throughout his time spent in Lesotho, Dissenl regularly walked to school with, tutored and spent time with his students. He has given lessons on everything from HIV health to puberty. With the help of the African Library Project, which coordinates book drives in the U.S., Dissen has also developed libraries in the schools he worked for.

“The students love reading the books and it's really helping them learn English,” Dissen said. “They have had a really positive impact on the schools.”

Dissen also spearheaded a pen pal program between students in fifth-grade classes in Lesotho and in California.

“I taught the students about California, the weather in the states, food we enjoy and how school is different,” DIssen said. “It was a great way to teach about our lives and culture in the states, and the students in Lesotho really enjoyed it.”

Days in Lesotho proved to be unpredictable, Dissen said.

“Life there was crazy. Some of my best days were when a teacher, friend or neighbor just wanted to talk. We talked a lot about HIV, living healthy or just our lives. As for some of the worst,” he continued, “I have lost several friends in Lesotho and it has been hard. Lesotho has the third-highest HIV rate in the world.”

As his days left in Lesotho came to a close, he began to realize how much he will miss the country.

“As I began to pack up my house and say my goodbyes, I was surprised by how much I will miss Lesotho,” Dissen said. “I have made some amazing friends, both Basotho and American, and will really miss them.”

As for his return, the Dissen family will be preparing a traditional-style Thanksgiving feast for Michael. In order to appreciate this welcome-back celebration, Maria said it’s important to understand how they sent him off. In 2008, when his family had to say their goodbyes, they knew he would be missing all his favorite holidays. They decided to combine a Christmas present-opening ceremony, Thanksgiving feast and an Easter basket hunt all into one night.

For the first few months of his return, Michael is looking forward to relaxing and spending time with family.

“Once the new year hits, I am hoping to work as a consultant in Africa,” Michael Dissen said, adding that he is most interested in developing and managing projects that train teachers and members of communities.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010