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Alumna gives new meaning to global citizenship

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November 15, 2013

Two words have carried Autumn Hilsinger ’07, M.S. ’09, to 18 countries on six continents in the past eight years: Global Citizen.

From study abroad in Australia as a History major to Peace Corps volunteer in South Africa, and on to teaching assignments in Kuwait and the Congo, Hilsinger is experiencing the world – thanks in part to prompts from McDaniel professors Ochieng K’Olewe, Bryn Upton, Sue Travetto, Janet Medina and Simeon Schlossberg. In fact, only Antarctica stands between her and her goal of visiting all seven continents before she’s 30.

“As a History teacher, I could not think of teaching about a world I did not live in,” writes Hilsinger in an email from the Congo where she and her husband, Jasen van Kampen, are teachers at The American School in Kinshasa. “I want to be able to say I have been there, I have tasted that. I want to breathe in all that the world has to offer.”

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When Hilsinger arrived at McDaniel from her hometown of Mechanicsburg, Pa., in the fall of 2004, she had never traveled outside of the U.S. and had only been on a plane once. Her dream of becoming a Peace Corps volunteer seemed outlandish, something people like her, from small-town America, could never experience.

However, as she settled into her freshman year, study abroad seemed more and more a possibility.

She chose Australia – 11,000 miles away and as far from Westminster as you can get without traveling to space. While there, she explored the country, visited Thailand and was infected with a wanderlust that propels her adventures still today.

Back on the Hill, she revised her program of study to finish a semester early and enrolled in McDaniel’s BEST program to earn her master’s degree and teaching certificate. Along the way, she did a Jan Term study tour in Egypt and went to Ecuador with a family she served as a nanny.

Just eight weeks after earning her master’s, Hilsinger was on a plane to South Africa as a Peace Corps education/community development volunteer. The experience changed her life.

“My family (in South Africa) was Batswana, and I fell in love with them instantly,” she writes. “I worked at two primary schools within walking distance of the family I stayed with, and I completed a number of projects while in the Peace Corps – the three most significant are the creation of a school library, an income-generating project run by community members and an after-school program, also run by community members.”

The project shaped her service, helping her create lasting relationships with a group of young women who wanted to gain experience and help their village.

“I worked closely with these women throughout my two years of service, and they have continued to work for the school and maintain these projects since I left,” she writes. “The library is still functioning and more women have been employed by the income-generating project.

“Peace Corps approach is grassroots and having the ability to live and work in such a close-knit community really opened my eyes in regards to development work.”

Hilsinger notes the many reminders she’s seen of development work that failed because companies and organizations took a top-down approach, either by handing out items the companies deemed necessary or going ahead with projects without fully understanding the infrastructure of the community they were trying to help.

“In order for development and change to truly take place, the community has to be involved and invested. The village knew what it needed, and I realized early on that the ideas and the projects had to come from them if the projects were going to be sustainable,” she writes. “I walked away with a new perspective on what development work looks like.”

She also met her husband while serving in the Peace Corps – in fact, he ran the training for Hilsinger’s volunteer group. Back in the States after two years in the Peace Corps, Hilsinger was unsure of what she wanted to do, but then she and her husband landed jobs teaching at an international school in Kuwait.

Less than a month after getting married in the Bahamas in July of 2012, they were on a plane to Kuwait – and another adventure.

“We had a one-year contract with the school and realized that although it was interesting, the closed-off culture of Kuwait was not for us,” writes Hilsinger.

Next stop? Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Hilsinger is teaching English as a second language (ESL) to grades six through 11 and next year will teach World History, African Studies and U.S. History.  

“We are absolutely loving it here. Our school serves a large population of ex-pats and Congolese students so it is quite the international community,” she writes. “It is amazing to work in a school with such a diverse student body. These students are true global citizens, having lived in multiple countries, speaking multiple languages and accepting of others.”

So far, that’s Australia, Thailand, Ecuador, Egypt, Cyprus, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Sri Lanka, South Africa, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Kenya, Tanzania, Swaziland and the Congo – 18 countries on six continents.

Little doubt, it seems, that sometime in the next two years, she’ll send or post the ultimate photo – the one with a grinning Hilsinger surrounded by snow, ice and penguins.

Follow Autumn Hilsinger at