Wilhite achieves lifelong, Peace Corps dream


When Jackson Wilhite, a 2012 Heritage Hills High School graduate, was in fifth grade, he had the unique experience of visiting Panama.

His cousin was serving in the Central American country as a Peace Corps volunteer, and Wilhite got to visit. Seeing his cousin’s experience firsthand made a lasting impression on him.

“I became fascinated with the opportunity to partake in cultural exchange and the ability to help others from another part of the world by working hands-on and side by side,” Wilhite said via email.

Former President John F. Kennedy founded the Peace Corps in 1961 as a means of cultural exchange. The exchange happens when Peace Corps volunteers are placed in technical work alongside locals. Volunteers become part of the local community, living and working alongside their new neighbors for two years as they learn the way of life and the language.

As soon as Wilhite saw his cousin in Panama, he dreamed of being part of the program.

Photo provided
Jackson Wilhite and a giraffe he encountered near the Zambezi River in Southern Zambia.

The son of Gerald and Laurie Wilhite carried his dream of serving in the Peace Corps as he grew up in Santa Claus, graduated high school and attended college at Missouri University of Science and Technology where he earned a bachelor’s degree in geology and geophysics.

Then, Wilhite’s lifelong dream came true in 2018. He’s forging his own Peace Corps experience during a two-year assignment in the south African country of Zambia. He’s scheduled to return to the U.S. in a few months.

The Herald caught up with Wilhite via email to learn about his experiences so far. His responses have been edited for style and brevity.

What is your position in the Peace Corps?

I am in a sector called LIFE — linking income, food, and environment. My position combines agriculture and conservation farming techniques to preserve the environment and improve yield. This position is particularly important because Zambia relies on a consistent rainy season, so the rural farmers are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, such as pushing the rainy season later and more erratic rainfall. The LIFE program is combating climate change and teaching Malaria and HIV prevention as well within Zambia.

How were you assigned to Zambia?

I applied to serve in any country the Peace Corps thought my resume experience would best fit, however, I did express that I was interested in serving in an African country with an agricultural or forestry sector. I was then placed under consideration for my position here, had an interview with a recruiter in Washington, D.C., before being invited to for my training. After three months of in-country training, I swore in as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

What is Zambia like?

Zambia is a subtropical country despite being right in the middle of the tropics. This is due to an elevation of over 3,000 feet. It can be surprisingly cold during the winters. In the southern hemisphere, the cold season peaks at June and July with nights around 40 degrees. The hot season is in two parts, dry and wet. Dry hot season is from September to November, with temperatures reaching 100 where I live in the Southern Province. Rainy season is November to April, and the temperature varies with rainfall.

Photo provided
Jackson Wilhite with the "host parents" he lived with during his three months of training before taking oath to become an official Peace Corps volunteer.

What stands out about the people?

If I had to pick a few words: diverse, friendly, curious. The country includes 73 different tribes, each with a unique language and culture. People are always greeting one another and offering food as a form of appreciation. There is a curiosity about visitors from other countries. Zambians usually ask about the food we eat, what the weather is like and other general differences we may have.

What about Zambian wildlife?

Zambia has the second largest park in Africa — Kafue National Park. South Luangwa Park is also an incredible location to view almost all of the traditional African favorites. It is usually off the radar of tourist safarigoers who head toward the Serengeti or Kruger, so it has a more real “African” experience. I have seen elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos, Cape buffalo, giraffes, zebras, warthogs, impalas, kudus, hippos, crocodiles and more.

Photo provided
Jackson Wilhite on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls.

What are some memories you’ve made in Zambia that you’ll never forget?

There are so many memories. The first time I visited Victoria Falls was a moment that was exhilarating. The roaring water of the mile-long, 300-foot-tall waterfall was astonishing. Harvesting fish from a pond that had been dug by a farmer who asked for my help shortly after I arrived was a great feeling. To see him happy his hard work paid off and to have shown the community a new form of agricultural diversity was worth the effort and made me feel accomplished in my technical position here. And lastly, a generalized collection of memories: the meals I have shared with many Zambian families. Meals are a time where people get together to share stories, laugh, talk about whatever is on their mind and bring only good vibes. I will miss the comfort and happiness I receive at mealtime with Zambians once I complete my service.

What is your living situation?

I live in a two-room house with a metal roof. The house is made of brick using local materials such as mud, termite clay and sand. The inside walls are smeared, so the brick is not visible inside. I have a solar setup on my roof and a battery inside to use for lighting and charging my devices. I have built a gutter and use a barrel to collect rainwater during rainy season, but otherwise I fetch water from a nearby river and use chlorine and a filter for sanitation. I have an outdoor kitchen made with a grass thatch roof where I cook my meals using charcoal on a brazier or over a fire is charcoal is unavailable. My standard of living is considered moderate. This is intentional as we do not want to set any precedents or attract unnecessary attention. We have the desire to show our honest interest in living as one among the community.

What about growing up in Southwest Indiana prepared you for what you are doing now?

The hospitality and ability to talk to anyone we meet. Being in the Peace Corps requires the volunteer to be kind and talkative to the nationals around them. It is part of our job that is around-the-clock. However, people from anywhere in the U.S. can serve in the Peace Corps. What is most important is mindset. Being open-minded, dedicated and willing to adapt is what truly matters most. No American should feel like living in a faraway country is not for them because of where they grew up. It is an opportunity many Americans should not overlook as unfeasible.

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