Starting the adventure

A restless spirit drove her forward.

Jessica Schwarz wasn’t sure she was meant to spend her life working in an office building, confined to a cubicle. The Center Grove graduate had found success in finance, working for a prominent firm in Indianapolis. She had stability and had just earned her master’s degree, with a multitude of possibilities of where her career could take her.

But an adventurous side of her wondered what other opportunities the world might hold.

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“I had a great job, I didn’t want for anything, I had great family support and great friends. But I wanted more. I wanted to surrender to that craving,” she said.

Schwarz plans to find out. One week ago, she embarked on a flight out of Indianapolis that will eventually take her to the Ukraine. The 30-year-old has pledged the next two years to the Peace Corps, and she will be working with the local population as a volunteer to help with business development.

The decision to join the Peace Corps was a combination of Schwarz’s desire to help other people with a yearning to see what the rest of the world has to offer.

“I really have a heart to serve, and I have a heart for international people and how they’re wired, and what’s outside this box in America and visions on the global level,” she said.

The Peace Corps is a government service organization that peace and cooperation with countries around the world. Volunteers are assigned to communities to help address challenges in education, health, economic development, agriculture, the environment and youth development.

Since it was founded in 1961, more than 235,000 people have served in 141 countries worldwide. The Ukraine has been one of the partner countries since declaring its independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.

The main focus of its work there is in education, community economic development and youth development, according to Joe Nava, spokesman for the organization’s office of recruitment and development.

Volunteers work as English teachers and helped establish a network between educators to exchange information on best teaching methods. They take part in a project working with underserved youth from around the Ukraine.

And they work at community organizations such as charitable groups, libraries, museums, local government and other entities to promote social and economic development at a grassroots level, Nava said.

“Volunteers’ goals are to increase the capacity of individual community members and service providers, to assist local institutions in achieving organizational sustainability, and to foster cross-sector cooperation between (non-governmental and charitable organizations), government entities and private enterprises,” he said in an email.

This is the project that Schwarz will be working on.

The seeds of service were planted for Schwarz while studying business administration and international business at the University of Southern Indiana. During her sophomore year, her economics professor, Peter Cashel-Cordo, had served in the Peace Corps in Africa.

He would often tell stories of his service during class.

“I could not get enough of his stories. There would be times I’d go to his office hours, and ask for stories,” she said. “I was fascinated by it.”

Schwarz didn’t act on her interest, though. She graduated with her bachelor’s degree in 2011, got married and ended up with a job at Elements Financial Federal Credit Union, eventually rising to the role of executive assistant.

The thought was that life has a specific pathway to follow, and Schwarz didn’t want to deviate from it.

So she worked hard at her career, in addition to volunteering for local organizations such as Outreach Inc. and Christel House, which helps impoverished children break the cycle of poverty. Elements Financial offered an opportunity for employees to work towards their master’s degree through Western Governors University, which Schwarz took advantage of.

“I was struggling in my marriage, and thought that I had to do something for me. So I started working towards my master’s. It’s different. It’s something future me can thank me for, and it’s not a financial commitment because of the tuition reimbursement,” she said.

As she approached the final semester of her master’s work in 2018, she started pondering what might be next for her career. A mentor of hers posed a question: If you could do anything in life, what would it be? Her answer was to travel. And that concept circled back to the Peace Corps.

“It was like this craving that you can’t quite quench,” she said. “I just needed to shift, a few degrees.”

Schwarz pulled up the organization’s website and investigated it. Peace Corps’ business and economic development activities was the most appealing. With her finalizing her master’s degree in management and leadership, she qualified for the program.

She made an appointment with a recruiter for the organization, and sat with her for a three-hour meeting. At the end of the discussion, the recruiter looked at her and said that Schwarz was made for this.

“I had been looking at this for so long, and she said that I really needed to consider this,” she said. “We got out of this meeting, and something in me was on fire. I had to do this.”

The timing of the decision made sense, too. She had divorced her husband, and didn’t have any children. She was living in an apartment in Indianapolis, but that could be worked around. Without any commitments holding her back, now was the time if she wanted to try it.

Schwarz had been trying to satiate her sense of adventure and truly find herself as her marriage failed. She went skydiving with her father, backpacked through the Grand Canyon and tried everything she could.

Peace Corps was the next step.

“It’s an honor. There are so many people who want for these opportunities with Peace Corps, and they aren’t selected for whatever reason,” she said. “I’m thankful at the age I am that life has give me the opportunity, in a fairly easy way, to do this. To me, it was the perfect time to go do this.”

Her parents, Jim and Rose Schwarz, were not surprised when she came to them and told her about her desires to join the Peace Corps. Living and working abroad has been an interest of hers for many years, and they have always tried to empower their children to take big steps in life, Jim Schwarz said.

“We have found, through travel, the need to open our minds to other cultures and the opportunities to learn how others live in their world every day,” he said. “In today’s world of social media, it is critical to understand how other parts of the world live their lives and how it impacts our thought and behavior. Overall, everyone wants the same thing: love, safety and security.”

Watching their daughter embark on such a staggering journey has been difficult. But they are proud of Schwarz for seizing a unique opportunity.

“We have always empowered our kids to take big steps in life and not regret doing so,” Jim Schwarz said. “For anyone who makes the time and commitment to serve in their community, state or country, it is so important to find ways to give back to these areas. Giving of our self should be part of life. … Neither of us were surprised when she brought up the conversation of the Peace Corps.

“I will miss doing some fun things with her, like jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, state park hiking or taking a torpedo dive in a warbird. I am very excited for her next 27 months of service and look forward to her stories,” Jim Schwarz said. “Rose is a bit more emotional, as a mom. She will miss having Jessica close by to do fun girl things and grow together as a mother/daughter should. She relishes the thought of another place to visit.”

For the past three months, Jessica Schwarz has learned the culture, customs and daily lifestyle of the Ukrainian people. She had learned how to dress, how to interact with people and how to integrate into the community. Blogs and information from past volunteers also help get a sense of what to expect.

“You get a pretty good feel by the time you get on the plane. Not that I’m not going to be completely disoriented and clueless when I get there, but they do everything they can to set you up for success,” she said.

After leaving Indianapolis on Aug. 10, Schwarz flew to Seattle for additional training, before taking a flight to Frankfort, Germany, and eventually to Kiev, the capital of the Ukraine. She will spent the first three months living with a host family to become fully immersed in Ukrainian culture and language.

Afterwards, she’ll be assigned to a permanent post helping businesses and the town to strengthen its economic development.

The transition will be a shock. But Schwarz will have support in the region, from her host family and Peace Corps representatives in the region. She will have access to email, so she can communicate regularly with family and friends. And her brother, Grant, lives in Sweden, meaning there’s someone a little closer in case she needs him.

As her adventure starts, the time leading up to her departure has been a whirlwind. But Schwarz remains energized about the opportunity before her.

“It is exciting, it is terrifying, it is overwhelming, it’s all of it,” she said.