From Pannell to Peace Corps: Honors student seizes Sweet Briar opportunities and finds her calling for international aid work

Holly Rueger '17 on a JYS trip to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.
Holly Rueger '17 on a JYS trip to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.
Holly Rueger ’17 on a JYS trip to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain.

Posted on May 02, 2017 by Janika Carey

When Holly Rueger presented her Honors Summer Research project, she had just stepped off a plane from Europe. She was tired and jet-lagged. But there was something else: the distinct sense that her time abroad had fundamentally changed how she saw the world.

Having spoken mostly Spanish for nearly a year, Rueger seemed overwhelmed by the English chatter around her. In many ways, her mind was still an ocean away, after an exhilarating year with Sweet Briar’s JYS in Seville program. One by one, honors students stepped up to the podium to introduce faculty and staff to their research plans.

Fittingly, Rueger’s research focus would be elsewhere. For the next eight weeks, she would study the psychological challenges faced by women who flee from organized violence in the northern triangle of Central America — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In her proposal Rueger wrote that she particularly wanted to examine the “trauma that these women, often mothers, face during each part of their journey — from violence at home through resettlement or deportation once in the United States.”

Being able to delve deeply into an area of interest is one of the great perks of the Honors Program, which offers paid summer scholarships to a select group of students each year. Aside from an array of honors seminars, the program also provides travel grants for research and conferences, as well as a special scholarship for sophomores.

The Honors Program, combined with Sweet Briar’s international study opportunities, opened many doors for Rueger. There was the Pannell Scholarship that took her to Burkina Faso her sophomore year, and study abroad in Spain the next. This fall, the western Massachusetts native is headed to Guatemala as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Holly Rueger in Burkina Faso in 2015 Rueger helps a student with homework at the Sheltering Wings orphanage in Burkina Faso in January 2015.
Rueger says advisors and other faculty members worked with her from day one to make sure she would be able to study abroad and take advantage of everything the College had to offer. But Sweet Briar did something else to encourage her adventurous side.

“I’ve definitely come out of my shell at Sweet Briar,” Rueger says. “I’ve developed confidence in myself, and in my abilities to independently be able to go [places] and live somewhere else successfully. Not just in terms of my language skills, but to be confident enough to walk down the streets of a city and say, ‘I know what I’m doing here — even if I only look like I know what I’m doing.’ ”

In fact, Rueger prefers to travel alone because it forces her to seek the company — and sometimes help — of complete strangers.

“You get that confidence from the classroom, you get it from talking to your professors; you get it from being treated like an adult,” Rueger explains. “If you want to be independent, your professors will expect you to be independent.”

Rueger always knew that study abroad would be central to her undergraduate experience. The junior-year Seville program convinced her to enroll at Sweet Briar, after a high school trip to Spain had kindled her love of the country.

JYS was perfect.

“I just really loved being in Spain, and I loved everything about JYS,” Rueger says. “It’s a really great program. You wouldn’t really know unless you knew what the other, bigger programs are like. JYS really imitates Sweet Briar in that it’s set up to be like a small liberal artsy program, just in Seville. Our classes are at the university, but JYS deals with a ton of other stuff besides the classes. They set you up with your housing; they take you on field trips. The office staff is basically your support system while you’re there.”

JYS staff also helped Rueger land an internship at a local school, where she taught English. During breaks, Rueger traveled — sometimes on the program’s numerous field trips through southern Spain, sometimes with a friend or on her own. She visited Lisbon, Dublin, London, Amsterdam, Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Athens, Rome and Paris — and many cities in between.

Rueger sees Northern Lights in Norway A spontaneous trip to Norway last winter offered Rueger a first-hand look at the Aurora Borealis.

Rueger loved JYS so much she decided to major in Spanish — in addition to her major in psychology, and a minor in dance.

She knows she’ll return to Spain one day, one way or another. But there are so many other places to explore, too. She’s always scanning the Internet for tickets to satisfy her travel addiction. Over winter break, Rueger couch-surfed through Norway for three weeks. She met a German couple that photographed her in the glow of the Northern Lights, and made friends with Australians from all over the continent. Those contacts will come in handy when she takes on another one of her travel goals. Someday.

For now, her eyes are on Guatemala. In September, Rueger will begin a three-month training, followed by two full years as a Peace Corps volunteer. She’s excited her first-choice country worked out, especially since it’s so closely connected to her summer research.

“The Peace Corps used to have programs in all three of the countries [I studied], but they’ve since pulled their programs out of El Salvador and Honduras because of escalating violence in the region,” Rueger says. “Of course there’s a lot of need in all of the Peace Corps countries, but Guatemala was one of the remaining programs in the area that had a really immediate need that I had researched.”

Part of that research focused on the lack of education among young women in rural communities.

“They were basically being tricked into marrying men and moving into cities to later be trafficked,” Rueger explains. “So, I saw that as an immediate problem that I could do something about. These girls don’t even know how you get pregnant. I saw that as a window of — obviously I can’t fix the gang problems — but that tiny little sliver of a problem, there’s a solution: education, right there. If I’m going to be committing two years to somewhere, I’d like to be most effective. And having background information is going to make me most effective.”

In Guatemala, Rueger will work as a youth-in-development volunteer. Her focus will be “everything that’s not education in a school.” That includes after-school activities; programming on sex education, alcohol and drug abuse; workshops for parents; dance and yoga classes; and sports. In addition, Rueger will help address Guatemala’s widespread problem of malnutrition.

“We’re also training in food security: how to plant gardens, and how to start a community garden — how to use the things you can grow there to promote food security,” she says.

Rueger on day hike in southern Costa Rica in August 2016 Rueger on day hike in southern Costa Rica in August 2016

Rueger’s interest in the Peace Corps was sparked during a chance encounter in the Burkina Faso airport her sophomore year. She was on her way back from a two-week trip funded by her Pannell Scholarship. Waiting for her plane to Paris, Rueger struck up a conversation with a fellow traveler who had just completed his Peace Corps service in Burkina Faso. She was intrigued.

“He told me all about the Peace Corps, so it was in the back of my mind, and I’ve kept in contact with him since then,” Rueger says.

It’s a great example of how her life has played out these past few years: One exciting experience has led to the next, with opportunity lurking behind every corner.

Last fall, after completing her summer research and spending three weeks gardening and taking care of chickens in Costa Rica — skills that will come in handy in Guatemala — Rueger interned with the International Rescue Committee at its branch in Charlottesville. Having learned so much about refugees during her research, Rueger wanted to help in a more hands-on way. It was exhausting, she says, driving an hour each way twice a week. But so worth it.

Her favorite part of the job was taking refugee children to their first day of school — and seeing the excitement in everyone’s eyes. Most of them, she says, were from the Middle East, several from Syria. That year alone, the IRC helped resettle 13,400 newly arrived refugees in the U.S.

Rueger is passionate about the organization’s mission and can see herself working with the IRC in the future. But then, there are so many other options, too.

“I guess that’s one of the perks of a liberal arts education,” she says. “There are so many things I could go for, and so many things I want to go for, but I’m not really sure yet. Grad school, eventually. I don’t know if it will be right after the Peace Corps, or if I’ll want to stay longer, do NGO work, teach in Spain, travel around …”

She has an ever-changing list of travel destinations to check off: Peru’s Machu Picchu, the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, Naples in Southern Italy …

“And then I’m thinking, ‘‘Oh, I’m going to backpack through Southeast Asia!’ ” she says, laughing.

“I have lots of ideas. One of the things I’d like to do when I ‘grow up’ is be a professor. But I’m like: What would I be a professor of? Psychology? Spanish? There are so many options. Which is really cool. Mostly, people graduating college can’t say, ‘Oh, I wonder what field I would teach in if I was a professor.’ ”