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Recent OHIO computer engineering, math grad shares transformative Peace Corps experience

Recent OHIO computer engineering, math grad shares transformative Peace Corps experience

Author: Baylee Demuth

For recent Russ College graduate Dylan Denner, BSEE ‘19, joining the Peace Corps was uncharted territory he was admittedly scared to pursue. It ended up being a decision that changed his life for the better.

Denner, a double major in applied mathematics and computer engineering, had several promising post-Commencement prospects. He’d already completed a Pathways co-op position with the NASA Glenn Research Center in Cleveland; was offered a job teaching at an inner-city charter school in Brooklyn, New York; and had looked into attending graduate school for mathematics. But then in fall 2018, Denner opened his email to find a chance to join the Peace Corps, and he knew it was an opportunity worth pursuing.

“When I evaluated Peace Corps, I was like, ‘Wow, this is something that I just don't know what I'm going to get myself into,’” Denner said. “But something that I had learned throughout my undergraduate years was that the things that generally scared me ended up being the direction that I needed to pursue and push myself toward.”

Shortly thereafter, Denner was accepted into the Peace Corps as a secondary math education teacher. He would take his education, leadership skills and teaching abilities to Ghana in June 2019 to work with 23 other individuals on a 27-month commitment.

Denner’s experiences as a Russ College student had outfitted him for the challenge. He had helped found the Russ College's student chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), where he led OHIO’s rocket design and engineering team as chief engineer for two years. As president of the engineering honorary Tau Beta Pi, he developed a peer-led mathematics mentoring program for fellow students, and the chapter received the national chapter excellence award. And as a junior, he was named along with just 20 other students to the inaugural class of President Nellis' Presidential Leadership Society.

He applied what he had gained from those leadership and development opportunities to his teaching in Ghana.

“It was about working with students and getting them to find potential within themselves,” Denner said. “And I think that that's what really drove me into joining the Peace Corps, that I felt like I had some success in doing that at OU, which was interacting with students and getting them to realize the potential within themselves.”

Monica Burdick, Associate Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and Tau Beta Pi adviser, had no doubts whether Denner was a fit for the Peace Corps, given his track record.

“Dylan is a true, inspirational leader,” Burdick said. “I greatly admire his enthusiasm and vision, whether leading initiatives like the math instruction support team through Tau Beta Pi or sharing his love of learning and STEM through the Peace Corps. He's the type of person you know will make an impact on the world.”

The experience began with a couple months of pre-service training about the Ghanaian education system, culture and lifestyle. Denner was then off to Ghana, and while teaching was his primary responsibility, he immersed himself in the community. He’d stay just eight months instead of his full term due to the mind-March evacuation of Peace Corps volunteers as the coronavirus pandemic was sweeping the world.

“I spent those eight months really just trying to learn and understand what my community did, why they did it – the culture, and the history and the reasoning behind things – because it’s not always apparent at face value,” Denner explained.

For Denner, the culture shock was difficult, but he learned to step away from what he’d always known and take the new lifestyle one day at a time, which ultimately helped him appreciate Ghanaian culture even more.

“Peace Corps has a platinum role, which is to treat others as they wish to be treated,” Denner said. “And the reason behind that is because, with a cultural difference, how I wish to be treated is not necessarily a respectful way that others wish to be treated.”

Denner said that living in a community in a Sub-Saharan African country taught him the world is actually a big place.

“We often say ours is a small world, but it's generally just the people that we interact with who make it so much smaller because it's a very large world,” said Denner, who has applied to OHIO’s graduate program in mathematics education. “I hope to be a university professor or lecturer, and that way, I can continue to have projects, and travel and work with different schools and do this type of work.”

Colleen Carow contributed to this story.