A Gap Year in Africa Instills a Love for Service

Originally published in The Fordham Ram on October 19, 2016.

A common question asked of west coast Fordham students is “How did you end up all the way out here?” For Corey Glackin-Coley, FCRH ’19, the story is a little complicated, and involves a couple of continents.

Glackin-Coley is a Tacoma, Washington native. His parents — his mom is a special education preschool teacher and his father runs Food Connection, a food bank in the Pierce County area — rooted within him a desire to help people from a young age. During his senior year of high school, Glackin-Coley’s mind was not focused on heading to college.

“My senior year, people were looking into colleges and I was just thinking ‘Am I more anxious to work in the library right now, or am I more anxious to kind of get some experience abroad?’” asked Glackin-Coley. He chose the latter, and decided to take a gap year and make his way to Africa. “I thought ‘Where’s the place that I know the least about? Where’s the place that I feel the media kind of ignores or misconstrues? And where’s the place I feel I could have the most fun and do a lot of things I hadn’t done before?’”

Glackin-Coley had a plan. “My senior year of high school I didn’t really do any school work. I just was looking at African maps and histories and civil wars and finding out what languages people speak where,” he said. “During that process, I networked myself with a few local, grassroots NGOs in Tacoma. A lot of them were started by former Peace Corps members. That helped structure my trip.”

After flying into Johannesburg, South Africa, Glackin-Coley made his way to the tiny enclave nation of Lesotho, which is fully landlocked in the middle of South Africa. There, he worked at an orphanage for a few weeks, doing “big guy stuff: cutting trees, carrying water,” while also spending a lot of time with the kids at the orphanage. “That’s one thing everyone can do,” he said. “They can hang out with kids, especially orphans.”
The influence of his mother’s work with children continued while he was in Zambia, where he worked at a day-care center that serves as a place for younger kids to get schooling and for older kids to get meals and clothes for school.

Glackin-Coley roughed it from place to place, taking all forms of public transportation to make his way up from South Africa eventually to Kenya. “That’s when I felt the most part of the community most equal, because everyone’s got to take the bus,” he said. “I equate it to the subway: the subway’s blind to your socio-economic status. Everyone’s on the subway, we’re getting from here to here.”

But even though he was by himself among the people of a place many would describe as “under-developed,” he was never worried about his safety. “I never felt like I was in any more danger than I would be here in the States. I think being a large white man with a beard helped. Not everyone you meet is going to have your best intention in mind, especially when there’s a huge economic variance. But in my experience, everyone you meet, especially once you show them that you’re interested in where they’re from and what they do, is going to help you out. I never had anyone physically hurt me, I never had anyone steal from me. The only thing I had happen was people bringing me into their home and giving me a place to sleep, giving me food, telling me how to get to the bus stop.”

After working his way up through Africa for six months, Glackin-Coley flew from Nairobi, Kenya into Malaysia, and from there met a friend whose father was on sabbatical in Indonesia doing biology research. He described that experience as eye-opening in itself. “Right when I thought I was understanding a little bit about how the world worked, I went to another continent and realized, ‘No, you don’t. You don’t at all understand how the world works.”

After spending two months there, Glackin-Coley finally returned home to Tacoma, where he took another year off from school to try and reorient to a life he had left behind for eight months. “Reverse culture-shock I think is very real,” he said. “When I was in Africa, I felt like I was ready.

I saw things that you would never see here, but I wanted to be there. I had prepped myself as much as I could for it. When I came back home and the place that I lived my whole life didn’t look the same, that was scary. The fact that I wasn’t on the move all the time, that I was stationary. I feel like I might have learned more from the culture shock of coming home than even going there.”

Glackin-Coley actually first heard of Fordham through a former Peace Corps member he met while in Africa who was a Fordham graduate and suggested he attend the school. Glackin-Coley’s experiences in Africa drove his studies in more way than one, as he intends to double major in international political economy and possibly anthropology or African studies. He is taking French in order to communicate better with the people of Burundi.

He has applied for an undergraduate research grant to look into the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, which diverted water into South Africa from Lesotho and brought electricity to the small nation, but at the cost of a large amount of homes. He feels motivated to stay in the library for long periods of time after seeing five high school-aged boys at the day-care in Zambia sleep there because that was the only place they had lights to study deep into the night. “The big thing I realized while I was traveling, and a big reason why I’m at school, is I’m not specialized at anything. I don’t have any skills that I can transfer to help people out there.”

He has his sights set on eventually returning to Africa and helping some of the more “underdeveloped” places grow, he is just unsure of how, whether it be through a larger aid organization, as an anthropologist, or even just telling the stories of the people he meets as a journalist, as he is incredibly cognizant of the effects foreigners have on developing nations even when they are trying to help. He does know his first step will be joining the Peace Corps.

“I’m trying to understand what the best way to use this academic power could be.”

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