By Philip Walzer

The daughter of Peace Corps volunteers, Elena Simon grew up believing in the value of service and cultural immersion.

At Old Dominion University, she traveled the world with four study-abroad experiences. After Simon graduated in 2020, the next step seemed obvious.

The pandemic slowed her down, but in May Simon flew to Paraguay to begin 27 months of service in the Peace Corps. "Joining the Peace Corps feels like a natural extension that allows for further opportunities to assist other people," Simon, 24, said before she left.

The Peace Corps evacuated nearly 7,000 volunteers from more than 60 countries when the pandemic hit in March 2020. Simon is among the first wave of volunteers to return to Peace Corps locations.

She seemed destined for a global life.

Her father volunteered for the Peace Corps in Nicaragua and Ecuador; her mother served in Morocco. They met at a Peace Corps reunion in Washington.

Simon graduated from Old Dominion with an interdisciplinary studies degree. She focused on international studies and cross-cultural communications.

At ODU, she went on four study-abroad trips - to Greece, Peru and Poland (to visit Holocaust sites) and a semester in Costa Rica.

Simon's study-abroad trips "shaped not just who I am," she said. "They shaped my perception of the world, how everybody works together and treats each other. I was given a lot more experience with working with different cultures, traveling and adapting in general, all of which serves me well for the Peace Corps."

During the experience in Poland, "I witnessed her powerful sensitivity to the human experience," said Annette Finley-Croswhite, University Professor of history and director of ODU's Center for Faculty Development.

"Elena feels a moral and ethical responsibility to help the suffering, whether they are lacking in food, water, medicine, proper housing and/or educational opportunities - and especially if they are victims of discrimination or racism," Finley-Croswhite said. "She understands how cruelly humans have been treated, past and present, and searches for ways to turn her considerable talents and emotional intelligence into actions for positive change."

Simon applied to the Peace Corps in 2019 and was accepted. "My departure was supposed to be a week after graduation," in May 2020. But she had to wait for two years.

In the interim, she worked as a lead preschool teacher at a Montessori school in Burke, Virginia, and an HIV health educator at a clinic in San Diego.

Simon, who is bilingual, will be working to promote health and wellness among youths ages 8 to 18 in Paraguay. "I enjoy immersing myself in different communities and understanding different perspectives and cultures," she said. "I want to be a positive representation of all of the pieces of my identity."

Not surprisingly, after Simon finishes her time in the Peace Corps, she said, "I would like to continue to serve communities as I go forward."

"Elena is a great example of a Global Monarch who is passionate about trying to make the world a better place for everyone," said Michael W. Dean, deputy director of Old Dominion's Center for Global Engagement. "The experiences that she had at ODU (inside and outside the classroom) helped to further develop her understanding of and dedication to at-risk populations and finding ways to empower them. We are incredibly proud of what she has already accomplished and look forward to seeing all that she will achieve in the future."

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