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When Olivia Ingram told her parents she planned to join the Peace Corps, the Wilson couple was stunned.
“Disbelief. Shock. Fear. I think I was in denial for a while... thinking, hoping, it wouldn’t all work out. But it did and we’re coping,” Cindy Ingram admitted through tears. “We are proud of the strong, young woman she has become and are amazed every day by her determination and commitment. She is such a great blessing to us and now we send her off to be a blessing to others.”
And they planned to send her off today as the 24-year-old is scheduled to board a plane to the Ukraine, where she’ll spend three months getting acclimated with a host family before being assigned to work on economic development in a Ukrainian community. Her Peace Corps assignment is in line with what she’s has done for the past few months alongside her mom, the assistant director of the Wilson Economic Development Council.
“I really had no idea what economic development would look like in Ukraine, but I was certain it would be nothing like what I do. After some research, I discovered differently,” Cindy Ingram said. “Ukraine has a strong agriculture economy that serves much of Europe and exports industrial and energy products. Obviously, there is a lot of potential for growth and some of the hurdles are the same: workforce, infrastructure and education. Their politics, however, is the biggest hurdle.”
Olivia Ingram said it was the contrast of previous international trips that really spurred her interest in the Peace Corps. After graduating in 2013 from Hunt High School, she went to the University of North Carolina to study journalism and international studies. During her senior year, she studied abroad in London and opted to delay her graduation a semester to attend a journalism trip to China.
“I was culturally shocked. Everywhere I’d been before had been Western societies and not that different from what I knew, but when I was in China, I would tell my mom things I saw and write blog posts,” Olivia Ingram recalled. “My mom asked if I was going to be detained for saying what I did and there was no reason she wouldn’t think that because of the way that country is portrayed in the media. I felt it was my responsibility to show others what I’d learned about China and teach people there something about me besides that I was tall and didn’t play for the WNBA — something several people asked.”
After graduation, she returned to London and helped coordinate the study abroad program for her alma mater. Meanwhile she kept up with a classmate who was serving with the Peace Corps in Mozambique. She decided she wanted to have a service-oriented career where she could continue to learn about other cultures and tackle new challenges on a daily basis. When she revealed her own ambition of volunteering in the Peace Corps, her parents were less than enthused, but her commitment grew and in March, she returned from London. As she worked locally on economic development, she readied for her assignment in the Ukraine.
“I know it was great to see how economic development looks in Wilson and North Carolina and in the United States, but I’m not sure how similar or different it will be there,” she said. “Community economic development can mean working with local governments like here or with NGOs or a local museum. You just don’t know until you get there, but I can say working at the economic development council taught me a lot.”
She said there was a fair bit of preparation work that had to happen personally to ready for her trip.
“I’m from Wilson originally, so I’ve never needed to own a pair of snow boots or a parka. There has been a lot of online ordering and trying things on at home, followed by being sweaty within about two minutes of having it on my body,” she said with a laugh. “Am I going to freeze in the Ukraine? It is possible.”
In addition to studying Ukrainian and Russian, she tried to cherish the people and experiences that made her feel at home.
“We have enjoyed this summer with Olivia. She was working in London for about a year, but has been home with us since March,” said her father, Michael Ingram. “She’s traveled some, visited with friends and relatives and had the opportunity to perform in the summer community musical, which are all things she loves to do. We just got back from a great week in Maine. We’ve tried to take in every minute we have with her.”
According to a press release, Olivia Ingram will work with locals and partner organizations to develop sustainable, community-based projects that improve the lives of Ukrainians while enhancing her own leadership, technical and cross-culture skills. Cindy Ingram said she is confident in her daughter, seeing her abilities firsthand while working on economic development in Wilson.
“I could see the spark in her and the same sense of purpose and satisfaction I get when a new industry opens its doors,” she said. “I think she has gained some valuable marketing and development skills to carry with her.”
Olivia Ingram is among 227 North Carolinians currently serving in the Peace Corps and more than 350 volunteers from across the country who are deployed to Ukraine. The Peace Corps is accepting applications until Oct. 1 for programs to start in June in nearly 30 countries. Volunteers receive a living stipend and extensive language and technical training along with financial benefits such as student loan deferment and graduate school fellowships after deployments. Visit www.peacecorps.gov/ to learn more or to apply.