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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

Volunteering Helped Me Figure Out What I Was Actually Passionate About

Jennifer Bangoura
Jennifer Bangoura

When Jennifer Bangoura arrived in Mali in the summer of 2008, she spent three months in Bamako (the capital city) for rigorous language and technical training.

As a Peace Corps environmental volunteer, she needed to become fluent in Bambara, the country’s main language, and be well-versed on environmental concerns in the region, such as desertification, which is when fertile land turns into desert due to drought and deforestation.

When her training was over, Bangoura moved to Zana, a remote village of 1,000 people located nine hours north of Bamako.

“It didn’t take long at all to feel integrated into the fabric of the community,” she shares. “In the United States, it can take knowing someone for years to be invited to social events like weddings and baptisms. In Mali, all it takes is showing up because Malians are so generous and welcoming. So, sure, it was a struggle at times, but it was never hard to strike up a conversation with someone or find a friendly face.”

As a volunteer in Zana for two years, Bangoura worked with a women’s association and their shea butter business, helped out at some gardening groups around the village, and assisted a men’s group in building a community cereal bank, where they could store grains such as millet, rice, and sorghum—staples of the Malian diet—to prepare for times of food insecurity.

When her two years came to an end, Bangoura knew she wanted to stay for at least another year.

“While I’d spent two years in a village,” she explains, “I still didn’t know a lot of the things people typically associate with Mali—the music, the arts, the photography.” So, she spoke with her country director and they figured out a way for her to stay.

For the next two years, she worked as a communications and outreach specialist for a USAID-funded education project with the goal of using radio to improve teaching. She wrote success stories, took photos of training sessions, and followed a team of trainers all over the country to document their work and learn more about literacy programs and their implementation.

According to Bangoura, her four years in the Peace Corps completely changed the course of her career.

“When I first joined, I thought I wanted to pursue a career in museum studies, focusing on African art,” she shares. “But after starting my third year, I fell in love with doing work that, for me, felt more tangible and pressing.”

So, after coming back to the states, she earned a graduate degree in international education. She held several different jobs, from program officer at a global development and educational organization to a role in which she managed the financial and programmatic reporting for seven sub-Saharan African countries. Today, in her role as a career services specialist at 2U, she provides career development and education services to graduate students, from resume and cover letter reviews to job search strategy and mock interviews.

“I love supporting my students as they realize their professional goals,” says Bangoura. “And I really enjoy getting to work with students across different areas of study, like social work, nursing, data science, and many more. I get to explore new industries and empower others to reach their fullest professional potential.”

Throughout her entire career, Bangoura’s volunteer work has helped keep her grounded.

“It’s been central to guiding my professional compass,” she explains. “It helped shape my path in the Peace Corps—my volunteer work in a community garden is why I was placed in the environmental sector—and helped me identify where my passions lie. I had no idea I wanted to work in education until my position with the USAID project.”

In addition, Bangoura says that it continues to play a large role in the types of companies she chooses to work for. At 2U, employees receive three “Volunteer Time Off” days each year to support causes they’re passionate about, which is something that really drew Bangoura in. To her, “it’s a reminder that how a company treats its employees is how it treats its customers.”

Volunteering has been such a positive force in Bangoura’s life that she strongly encourages everyone to get involved in some way.

“Just jump in and get started,” she says. “Find ways to commit to organizations in a meaningful way. You’d be surprised at how grounded it can help you feel in your community, even if you’re not there for a very long time.” And hey, it might even help shape your career path, too.