Volunteering two years of your life in another country might seem like an impossible task for most. But for Nathaniel and Rachael Sawyer, sharing their time, passion for people and love of other cultures came naturally.
After Nathaniel graduated from Southwest Baptist University in May, he and his wife, Rachael, left to serve in the Peace Corps. The couple will be focusing on youth and development work in Quito, Ecuador.
They will have the opportunity to mentor to children and build up youth programs while in the Peace Corps for the next two years. They’ll also work with various school systems and implement programs.
While they didn’t know all of the specifics of their roles before going to Ecuador, Rachael says the job wasn’t as important as the impact they will make.
“Our main job is to build relationships, be role models, share our skills and passions and encourage others to pursue their dreams and make a difference for their own communities,” she says.
Volunteering and giving back are important to both of them and things they’ve been doing their whole lives.
“My mother has always made it her life to help others any way she could and has instilled that in me,” Nathaniel says. “Everything I have done in my life and do is because I genuinely want to serve people and be a great leader.”
Rachael shares that same passion for people and hopes to make a difference in others’ lives.
“Volunteering and giving back are important because people are important. Every person has so much potential, but not every person always has the environment to help them achieve their dreams,” Rachael says. “I think that the most valuable act of service anyone can volunteer is to be a friend and mentor to another.”
Before joining the Peace Corps, they were students at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri — which is where they met. Nathaniel is originally from Shelby, Alabama, and graduated from Cornerstone Christian School, and Rachael is from Carrier Mills, Illinois, which is about two hours from St. Louis.
“We were friends for a long time before we dated, which was good because we had pretty different priorities when we met,” says Rachael, who majored in intercultural studies and English. “But as time went by, we both changed.”
The pair dated pretty seriously for several months before Rachael spent a semester abroad, which was required for her degree program. “The time apart was hard, but I think it helped solidify us and show us that we can make things work, despite what life throws at us,” she says.
Traveling internationally was nothing new for the couple. Nathaniel, who majored in criminal justice and Spanish, has been to the Philippines, where he taught English to elementary, high schools and colleges — and also spoke at a prison.
Rachael went on mission trips to Canada, Jamaica and Nicaragua during high school. They also got engaged in Costa Rica and spent their honeymoon in Cartagena, Colombia.
“Even though we’ve been blessed to travel to lots of places, I think that the thing that is really special about travel is how it teaches you,” Rachael says. “You realize how people are different, but you also realize how they are the same. No matter where you live, people still work, care for their families, try to make the best out of the hard situations that life throws at them. People are still people, and we’re all doing our best with what we’re given.”
Their love for people was one of the things that helped lead them to the Peace Corps. “I have always wanted to serve my country and make an impact in the world, and the Peace Corps allows me to do that,” Nathaniel says.
He shared his idea to join with Rachael, and it seemed like the perfect fit for her adventurous spirit and passion for different people and cultures, as well.
“We were looking for things to do after he graduates, and the Peace Corps was the perfect place for us to combine our interests in community service and culture, to build up important skills and to use our previous experience for something that will truly make a difference,” she says.
While their pasts are quite different, both of their experiences helped prepare them for the next chapter of their journeys. Nathaniel’s father died before he was born and was raised by his mother, along with three siblings. He says he’s always been involved with his community and was seen as a hard worker, holding jobs since he was 15.
Rachael, a self-proclaimed book nerd, grew up knowing there was more out there than her small town. She became active in her church and started going on mission trips during high school.
“I always wanted to move somewhere else,” she says. “How and where were never planned, but God has a funny way of working things out.”
Now that those plans are a reality, the couple says they’re excited about enjoying the experience together and growing their relationship. They’ll also get the chance to take in the slower pace of life in Ecuador.
“Here in the States, it’s so easy to get caught up in the busyness of life,” Rachael says. “I want to use this opportunity to really slow down and enjoy life.”
After their two years of service are complete, Nathaniel says he hopes to go to law school and become a district attorney. One day, he’d even like to run for governor of Alabama.
Rachael, on the other hand, doesn’t have a set plan for when they get back to the states — something that goes against her personality. She’s normally the one with plenty of plans and goals, but she says she wants to leave her options open right now as she works and build skills that will help her in the future.
“It’s important to be working toward goals and to know what you want, but it’s also important to give yourself the freedom to be open to new possibilities and opportunities as they come along,” she says. “Right now, I’m trying to find that balance.”
For others who are considering joining the Peace Corps or want more information, the couple says the experience can be life-changing.
“If you are interested in serving not just your country but others and you have built up your resume where you have helped communities in your own backyard or worked and have leadership skills, compassion and the ability to be humble, apply to the Peace Corps,” Nathaniel says.
Rachael agrees and says while it’s not for everyone, it can be a meaningful experience for those who are interested in serving.
“I think that it is worth learning more to see if the Peace Corps is a good option for you,” she says. “I think it is a unique experience that will teach you a lot about yourself, about the world and about life. There is so much you can learn by living in another country.”