DU Alumna Making a Difference With The Peace Corps
A few days before Christmas we reached out to Robin Colombin over a Facebook messenger phone call. Colombin, who graduated in 2016 with a degree in international business and a minor in fine art, is stationed with the Peace Corps in rural Benin and traveled two hours to the capital, Cotonou, to make this call.
She was teeming with enthusiasm for her work and loads of new international economics and business vocabulary. French is the official language of Benin, so the conversation was marked by the vacillations and pauses that develop when communicating ideas and concepts across multiple languages and cultures. Colombin, who studied French at DU, travelled abroad her junior year to Aix-in-Provence in southern France.
Q: Tell us about your time at DU. How did you get here, what did you study?
A: I was really interested in marketing and was impressed with Daniels College of Business when I came to visit. I graduated with a bachelor’s in international business from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies and Daniels. I took some first year classes in international politics and economics and I fell in love. I was especially inspired by Professor Robert Uttaro. It was through my class work and work study position in the humanitarian assistance graduate program that I became interested in humanitarian aid. I took a lot of Korbel classes and knew that if I wanted to do it seriously, I also wanted to have an idea of what it is like on the ground, which led me to the Peace Corps.
Q: How did you choose Benin and what was that like?
A: With the Peace Corps, you pick your top three placement choices, much like the study abroad program at DU. You could always choose “Wherever I’m Needed” as an option and roll the dice, or you can choose a specific region or country. I chose Benin as my first choice. It was the only country that had an opening for a Community Economic Development Advisor in a Francophone country, which were two of my requirements.
Q: What is your life in Agon, Benin like?
A: I’m the only American and non-local in the community. There are about 2,000 people living here and it’s largely an agricultural economy. Most people are farming corn, cassava, pineapples, palm trees, and local vegetables.
I personally really like being in a smaller community where most people know me, but it is a lot like living in a fish bowl. Everyone has been so understanding and supportive here, and it’s been amazing working with them.
Q: How did you end up in Agon as opposed to another city in Benin?
A: Each volunteer gets requested by someone in the community — that person becomes your counterpart. My counterpart is Delphin Sessou — he’s been working for over 10 years to get savings and loans groups started — there were 10 in place when I got here. They have been growing, too. We teach community members the structure, how to manage them and oversee the accounting. While we provide overall management of groups, each group has its own self-elected managerial structure.
Q: What is a savings and loans group?
A: Savings and loans groups go by a few different names and acronyms. In French they are called AVEC (L’association villageoise d’épargne et de crédit) and the English translation is VSLA (village savings and loans association). The need for AVEC comes from a gap between banking and microfinance. There are not a lot of banks nearby, especially in small villages, so it’s not easy to do banking. The goal of AVEC is to help the most vulnerable people, particularly women, save and loan money to each other when access to a bank is not possible, or individuals are not comfortable doing business with banks. Big banks can be intimidating. Many people can’t read or write and the documents are in French. Quite simply, some people just don’t see the value in having a savings account either.
Q: What advice do you have for a first or second year students who are just getting started at DU?
A: I recommend taking classes that sound interesting to you; the best thing you can do is figure out what you are most passionate about and dive in. I came out with an entirely different degree than I thought I would.
Q: What professional or life advice do you have for fellow alumni or students who are about to graduate and launch their careers?
A: Apply for things you don’t feel qualified for. Once you have the position, work hard to be over-qualified for it. That is how you’ll grow.