by Cori Hilsgen
It is often said that some people cannot see the forest for the trees. During her three years in the Peace Corps in Guatemala, Molly Roske of St. Joseph helped rural Guatemalans see the forest and the trees.
“The Guatemalans I lived and worked with depend on forest ecosystems for so much – water supply in the six-month dry season, air purification, prevention of soil erosion for ensured crops, medicinal plants for preventative health in low-income rural homes, browse for livestock, fuel for cooking and heating, spiritual renewal – and yet real knowledge of how to keep a forest healthy isn’t made accessible to them,” Roske said.
Roske is the daughter of Mike and Peggy Roske of St. Joseph. She attended St. Joseph Lab School, Cathedral High School and the College of St. Benedict.
Roske graduated from CSB in 2008 with a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and a minor in Spanish.
Roske completed the Peace Corps application process during her last semester of college and then travelled to Alaska to work a summer seasonal position. She said she had some requirements for what she wanted to do after graduation.
“The Peace Corps service wasn’t my only idea of what to do after college,” said Roske. “My priorities at the time were to be doing environmental work – preferably abroad, gaining the kinds of professional and cultural experience that I didn’t see as very likely domestically and to be using my Spanish.”
Roske said she knew that the Peace Corps provides excellent language, technical and cross-cultural training before sending participants off to their site assignments. She had also heard that the Peace Corps provides the best international medical coverage in the world.
According to Roske, the Peace Corps requires a college degree and the application process depends on the applicant’s level of skill or training, health condition, language capabilities and flexibility in awaiting an assignment. The application process is a long one.
There are older people who have successfully been Peace Corps volunteers because of their in-demand skills such as medical training and their adaptability for new and challenging jobs. Sometimes young people aren’t accepted because they aren’t skilled and not as willing to adapt to the unpredictability of the Peace Corps assignment.
In September 2009, Roske was invited to serve with the Peace Corps/Guatemala in the Sustainable Community Tourism program which has a long history as an environmental conservation program. Recently, it has focused more on tourism to generate more income for conservation efforts by marketing community-run tours and services in their natural areas to outside tourists.
After three months of training with 15 other Sustainable Community Tourism trainees, Roske was assigned alone in a province/town called Totonicapan in the western highlands, where a small nature park called the Sendero Ecologico El Aprisco had just started operating as a nature center.
During her first two years, Roske and her Guatemalan co-workers worked to improve environmental education for school groups on the park’s trail and in classrooms before and after visits to the park.
Roske worked with park infrastructure (offices, latrines, a museum), as well as marketing, financing and human-resources administration. She also helped obtain a grant between the local Communal Mayors’ Association and the U.S. Agency for International Development for community forest conservation. This was the first of such type in a Mayan area of Guatemala.
Roske’s third year took her to the non-governmental organization rainforest alliance to carry out the grant project. The project helped build tree nurseries, organized reforestations and other environmental events and trained local leaders about forest- and water-resource management.
“It was in my third year that I really began to appreciate the value of good natural resource-management education,” Roske said.
Roske said the science of forest ecosystems is usually approached from a crop-oriented perspective, but she is more interested in studying them from an ecological-services perspective.
In August, Roske will start her master’s program at Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies to learn more about forest ecology.
Roske said she would recommend the Peace Corps service experience to others. She said it is unique for every volunteer who has served but guarantees that it will stretch and challenge those who accept the invitation.
“It forces one to overcome obstacles never imagined,” said Roske. “One is constantly ‘on duty’ in the ambassadorial role as a U.S. citizen living in a foreign country for the humanitarian cause of sustainable development.”
Roske said the conditions under which volunteers serve aren’t often relatable to life in the U.S., but they learn unique skills and a perspective that sets them apart. She believes the friendships made during service are lasting.
“I will never forget the people who came to mean family to me while I lived in Totonicapan,” Roske said.