Growing up in foster care, Maya Penn was surrounded by people who understood the value of sharing and caring for others. Just one month after Penn graduates with her bachelor’s degree in psychology from RIT’s College of Liberal Arts, she will fulfill her own personal quest for serving others with the Peace Corps in Africa.
Penn, who is deaf, is eagerly anticipating her two-year assignment— teaching deaf children in Ghana.
“This will be a time of significant personal growth for me,” said Penn, who hails from the Bay Area in California. “And I’m just looking forward to impacting the lives of so many children, where there is such a need.”
Although Penn admits that she didn’t know much about the Peace Corps before applying, she knew that she wanted to travel and was hooked when she discovered that there were positions for deaf and hard-of-hearing people to work in schools for those who are deaf. After videophone conversations with Peace Corps volunteers and administrators, Penn applied, interviewed and was accepted into the program.
Penn says that this experience is a “big step” for her, and she is eager to learn as much as she can about different cultures. And even though she’s a bit nervous, she believes her related experiences as a teaching assistant in a school for deaf children, her work at summer camps and at RIT’s Margaret’s House child care center, and her experience tutoring American Sign Language will also contribute to her success in Africa.
And she’s no stranger to traveling in not-so-perfect conditions, having backpacked extensively through Central America and Jamaica.
“I believe that it’s so important for people to study or travel abroad,” said Penn. “It’s crucial to learn from and meet people from other cultures. There are so many opportunities that grow out of these experiences. Of course, you learn and grow in an academic environment, but what you can learn outside of the classroom is beneficial, too.”
At RIT/NTID, Penn was vice president of NTID’s Ebony Club, worked with the NTID Student Life team, was a community student advocate and was involved in theater. She also played intramural volleyball and basketball.
“I’ve loved so much about the RIT/NTID community, including the students, my mentors and all of the events and opportunities,” she said.
Sarah Sarchet, a lecturer at RIT/NTID, met Penn in 2016 when Penn was accepted into RIT’s WOCHA (Women of Color, Honor and Ambition) program.
“Maya is natural leader and a true empath,” said Sarchet. “We ‘clicked’ as a mentor/mentee pair because of how well Maya can relate to others. We both come from large families with many siblings as well as mixed-race families. We had many shared experiences, and our conversations flowed naturally, despite the fact that we had only known each other briefly. And she has been truly bitten by the travel bug. This makes her skilled at meeting new people and learning new cultures. She is unafraid of leaving her comfort zone to try new adventures.”
Of course, Penn says she will miss her parents, who are both RIT/NTID alumni.
“My mom is worried, of course, but she made sure that it’s safe and that I’m in good hands. She’s just so happy that I have the opportunity to do something like this with my life.”
After her work with the Peace Corps, Penn is thinking about pursuing a graduate degree in social work, driven by her time in the foster care system. But she also likes to keep her options open.
“You just never know what’s going to happen after two years in Africa.”