It's a job without a job description.

That's how Peace Corps volunteer Jessica Mangskau described the last year of her life, which she has spent living in Macedonia, helping develop educational opportunities for underprivileged youth.

Mangskau, a 2001 graduate of Decorah High School with a master's degree from the University of Minnesota, said when she finished school, she started looking for volunteering opportunities abroad.

"Although the Peace Corps' two-year commitment sounded like a long time, some of the other volunteer opportunities were financially out of reach for me. Plus I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn some new skills," said Mangskau, who was recently home for a short holiday break before she returns for the second year of her assignment.

Going abroad

Mangskau, whose degree is in counseling and psychology, took an assignment in Topaana, a community in Skopje, Macedonia, located in Southeast Europe, populated primarily by the Roma people, also known as

Gypsies.

"The community is almost 100 percent Roma, a minority. It's its own culture, which is isolated and extremely different from the rest of the city."

Mangskau's first step on her journey was to attend training in Cavadarci, Macedonia, where she lived with a host family for three months, while she learned the Macedonian language.

"That was great, but when I arrived in Topaana, I realized the Roma people spoke their own, distinct language (Roma), so since then I've been trying to pick that up," she said.

Her mission

Mangskau works with a non-governmental group, called Association of Citizens Sumnal, whose primary focus is education of the Romani youth.

Sumnal was established in 2004 in response to the needs of the Romani community, with regard to extremely poor school performance, high dropout rates, illiteracy, and low awareness of the importance of education.

Family unemployment rates in Topaana are upwards of 90 percent, and approximately 90 percent of all families live at or below poverty level.

"The goal is to raise their living standards," said Mangskau.

Mangskau said her primary responsibilities include putting together grant proposals for small projects and teaching English.

"English is getting to be so important in the world, It's a skill people are going to need if they are ever to leave Macedonia," said Mangskau.

Reaching out

Mangskau said, while the Sumnal organization provides educational assistance for first through eighth graders, she has taken the initiative to help organize activities for high schoolers as well.

"We have the center for the younger kids, and there were a few high schoolers who would come and volunteer. Others would just hang around, hungry for some kind of experience. So, I started with them and have been gradually recruiting more," said Mangskau.

Last summer, Mangskau helped launch the first-ever Roma Youth Leadership Program (RYLP), a 6-day, 5-night residential experience for 64 Romani high school students. It was the first such experiment of its kind, and led to the creation of the Roma Youth Leaders group.

"They don't have a lot of opportunities to work as a team. Anything we have in our schools, such as clubs, are nonexistent there. It's fun to see them think creatively - to see them plan and do something where they can see the outcome of their work," said Mangskau, adding students who attend the center regularly experience an average grade point increase of 40 percent.



Many parallels

Mangskau said she sees some parallels between what has happened in Postville to how the Roma are treated in Macedonia.

"These people have a voice that's not always heard. There are administrative barriers that we don't always know about. I know it's better than it was 20 years ago, but discrimination still happens," she said.

"In Postville some people ask, 'Why don't immigrants have a legal identity? Why do they have to live like this?' People are asking those same questions about the Roma people in Macedonia. Why do 50 percent of students drop out of school by the time they are in fifth grade?" she asked.

Reality check

"One day I was waiting at a bus stop, talking with some neighbor boys. All of a sudden, two men pulled up on the sidewalk and started beating the kids and the kids ran off," she said.

"It all happened really fast ... I was in such shock, I just kind of lost the language. I just kept saying, 'They're only kids!' I don't think those guys were expecting that. They probably thought the boys were harassing me," she said.

Mangskau said she's also heard many stories of high school-aged Roma students dropping out of school due to fear of violence.

"These kids are afraid for their physical safety and they don't have anyone to go to. Everyone should have the opportunity to go to school and be safe. These students have no advocates," she said.

There is hope

But Mangskau said through the work of the Peace Corps and organizations like Sumnal, she believes things will change.

"I have so much hope, working with these high schoolers and seeing the changes that my organization is making in this community. When you give people a chance, they can really succeed. Some days are really discouraging, but other days kids have these victories, and I try to focus on that," she said.

"I like to believe in the Martin Luther King, Jr. adage that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice ... I don't think discrimination is something that's natural. I think ask humans learn more, I think that's (discrimination) something that will be eradicated," she said, adding she feels the election of Barack Obama as U.S. president can only help.

"Seeing a person of color elected to such a high office sends a message to the world that we can overcome our differences and the past. I was really proud of our country on that (election) day," she said.

Possibilities

Mangskau said she is grateful for the opportunities she has been afforded by enlisting in the Peace Corps.

"I feel like this whole experience has opened up my eyes to possibilities. It empowers you and makes you feel like you can do anything. I thought maybe it would narrow my options, but it's done the opposite," she said, adding she would definitely encourage others to consider it.

"Right now they're pushing for people over 50. We have a gentleman here who is 77. It's never too late," she said.

"This has been so fulfilling for me. In addition to being a great opportunity for me to use the skills I have and gain new skills, it's been rewarding for me to be able to create relationships with people who I feel are really different. You can be close friends regardless of how different your lives may be," she said.

For more information, or to donate to Friends of Sumnal, visit www.sumnal.org.