Melissa Gilstrap is a senior at Mizzou, majoring in journalism and English. She is also a student communications assistant in the MU Office of Undergraduate Studies and she was formerly a Missourian reporter in the fall of 2011.
Two years spent away from home could make anyone feel homesick, but add being in a foreign country almost 5,000 miles away, where modern conveniences like running water and wooden floors are luxuries, and the experience can be downright hard.
Cara Stuckel, however, chose to look at the best of this very situation during her 27-month stay in the Kingdom of Morocco as a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer.
“The first village I lived in, I lived in a rock house,” Stuckel said. “I did not have running water, I had really sporadic electricity, I didn’t have any cell phone service — which was actually pretty great because I read a lot, and I watched a lot of movies, and I got to know the people in my village really well.”
Stuckel has returned from her trip and is now in her first year of law school at the University of Missouri. She earned her bachelor’s degree in soil, environmental and atmospheric sciences from the University of Missouri in 2009.
She first received news of her acceptance into the highly selective Peace Corps during her senior year at Mizzou. Less than a year later, in March of 2010, Stuckel was on a plane heading toward Tiznit, Morocco, a city of 50,000 in the southern region of the country.
In the nearby rural village of Ait Erkha, Stuckel began work in community-based environmental education, where she helped empower members of the community and improve living conditions. She and other Peace Corps Volunteers taught literacy classes for women and children, educated women during a women’s empowerment day, supported a local women’s cooperative and participated in a stream cleanup.
“I brought in a female attorney from a bigger town, and she talked about women’s rights under this code of women’s rights in Morocco,” Stuckel said. “We ended up having 80 women there. I didn’t even know there were 80 women who lived in our village. I couldn’t believe how many people were there.”
At the start of her journey, Stuckel knew almost no Talsheet or Moroccan Arabic— the two local languages spoken in Ait Erkha. Because Talsheet has never been written down and is strictly a spoken language, the only way to learn it is through practice.
By the time she had moved to Anezi, Morocco a year and half into her service, Stuckel was practically fluent.
“My language got really good, really fast,” she said.
In Anezi, Stuckel and other Peace Corps Volunteers focused on getting running water to the rural community, where villagers previously had to walk miles to get to the nearest source of drinkable water.
“Every house would have to pay a certain fee, basically, to get the pipes laid to their particular house, and most of the people in these villages couldn’t afford that,” Stuckel said. “So we ended up raising enough money to get the pipes installed to 19 houses in the one village and 23 houses in the other village.”
After another nine months in Anezi, Stuckel made the journey back home. After being accepted into more than 10 law schools, she had another big decision to make.
“I was pretty intent on going somewhere else for law school. I already did my undergrad here (at MU), and it was great. How do you top that?” she said. “I got to the (MU) Law School, and I was like this is where I want to go.”
Her experience helping women in Morocco made her realize she could make a difference through law.
“I think I really knew I wanted to go to law school after Peace Corps when I was doing a lot of the women’s development stuff,” Stuckel said. “Just because I had seen how much those rights that had been given to those women had meant to a lot of people in the community.”
After graduating, Stuckel said she would most likely apply to the U.S. Foreign Service. She would like to work in state-based policy development or in a law firm. But, no matter what career she pursues, she won’t forget her time in Morocco.
“I’ll definitely go back,” Stuckel said. “A big part of my growing happened when I was there, so it’s sort of integral to who I am right now.”