It’s a Journey, Not a Race
March 18, 2020
March 18, 2020
“Maybe later, you can consider going to Africa.”
Those were the words New Hampshire native Lindsey Knapton ’10 remembers her parents saying when she broached the subject of studying abroad in Senegal. Having come to Southwestern University on a theater scholarship after years in high school working in scenic design, stage management, and costume construction, Knapton had picked up a second major in political science because she thought it would open more doors. Now she was ready for another new challenge. She had always wanted to travel and see new things, begging her parents to take her on trips when she was a child. But as she contemplated spending a semester in Africa, they were understandably concerned because she had never been across the ocean.
To Knapton’s disappointment, studying abroad in Senegal would not ultimately pan out. However, SU’s Paideia® program would provide her with her first two opportunities to, as she puts it, “get out of the classroom and see the rest of the world.” As a student of the late Daniel Castro, a history professor who helped shape the University’s Latin American Studies program, Knapton traveled twice to Honduras, where she, Castro, David Gaines (professor of English and then director of Paideia), and several Southwestern students worked with the nonprofit Save the Children to refurbish computers, set them up, and teach young students to use them.
She then traveled to Nantes, a city on the Loire River in western France, where she studied abroad for a semester. There, she honed her language skills and taught preschool and kindergarten children.
Those three forays outside the U.S. “opened my eyes to what was out there,” Knapton says. “I just wanted to go deeper.”
From SU to the PC
Although she had enjoyed her brief jaunts to Central America and her semester in France, that unfulfilled dream of studying in Senegal still shimmered invitingly as Knapton considered life after college. So she prioritized applying to the Peace Corps during her senior year at Southwestern. “The Peace Corps was my opportunity to go to Africa,” she recalls, “but I told them I would go anywhere. I was open to seeing new things.”
To achieve her goal, Knapton willingly endured months of medical tests and rigorous interviews, sometimes having to drive to Dallas in the early morning hours to meet with recruiters. She was angling for a teaching position in the agency because she loved working with kids and felt that education was her calling, just as it had been her mother’s. However, because her students in France had been so young, she was not immediately eligible to teach abroad through the Peace Corps, so she devoted her energies to gaining the necessary experience by volunteering as a tutor with the Williamson County Literacy Council and the Georgetown Independent School District’s Migrant Services Program. Knapton loved building her students’ confidence as they prepared for standardized tests, but she admits that the entire process of applying to the Peace Corps and making herself the strongest candidate possible was time consuming. Nevertheless, she willingly jumped through all those hoops because she was adamant about serving in the Peace Corps.
Her persistence and hard work paid off: in the spring of her senior year, Knapton received notification of her acceptance. She was assigned not to her first choice of Africa but rather to Eastern Europe. She remained undeterred; she cared only about making some sort of contribution somewhere in the world, wherever it was needed. And since she had successfully studied abroad in France for a semester, even her parents were on board with this new adventure awaiting her across the Atlantic.
In June 2010, the recent SU graduate received a call from the Peace Corps: was she willing to be flexible, to change her site, and to leave within the next month or two? Knapton didn’t hesitate. “Yes, all of those things!” she responded excitedly.
After she eagerly ripped open the envelope, Knapton’s excitement intensified: the dream of going to Africa was materializing after all! But like so many other volunteers, Knapton didn’t know much about the specific country where she was being assigned: Namibia, the second least densely populated nation in the world (after Mongolia). “I didn’t really know what I was getting into,” she admits. An episode of the Travel Channel series No Reservations would offer one of her few previews of the country. In the episode, the late Anthony Bourdain sampled an ostrich-egg omelet; Knapton recalls thinking to herself, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this, but OK!”
She spent six weeks training in country before moving to her village, which was one of the more remote communities in Namibia. “I was about an hour—if you could get a ride—to the closest volunteer,” she describes. She had spotty cell service at best when it was working at all, so reaching out to friends and other Peace Corps volunteers was difficult. Her weekends were filled with chores that took much longer than those we might do at home in the U.S. because there was no washing machine or dishwasher; indeed, there was no running water, so to complete even simple tasks such as laundry meant having to lug 25-liter Jerrycans water from a faucet at the school next door back to the house where she was living—a slow and laborious process. She was still enthusiastic about the experience, but, she admits, “It’s hard to go to a country and live in a village where you are more isolated than you’ve ever been in your entire life.”
Negotiating what language scholar Mary Louise Pratt calls a “contact zone” (a space where cultures meet and sometimes clash) required Knapton’s adjustment and resilience as well, but she was simultaneously buoyed by the support of her community and gained confidence through various confrontations. As a woman who was willing to speak out and defend herself in a country where women were still considered subordinate to men, Knapton sometimes found herself in violent situations. “I was robbed and thrown on the ground, and I definitely had people pull taxi drivers away from me because they would have a swing at me because I would stand up for myself,” she remembers. She says that sometimes, the Namibian local men would get aggressive because they had little knowledge of the U.S., so they mistakenly assumed Knapton was no different from the unflattering representations of Americans they might see on such programs as Keeping up with the Kardashians. Yet during that same incident, she adds, “I had five people who came to pick me up off the ground. They were all apologizing profusely. They all escorted me to where I was going next. They tried to make it better… .They go beyond to make sure you do feel safe.”
Professor Castro took it upon himself to break that pretty sterilized version of the world we had grown up in. I couldn’t have done Peace Corps without it.
In addition to the caring, generous town and village people, Knapton credits Southwestern for giving her the ability to endure the more difficult challenges of her experience. “Coming to SU, so many of us come from suburban communities and very safe places in Texas,” she explains. “But Professor Castro took it upon himself to break that pretty sterilized version of the world we had grown up in. I couldn’t have done Peace Corps without it.” She recalls learning about parts of the world she was previously unfamiliar with, reading books and watching movies that taught her the extent to which people in other countries live in poverty. One film in particular left an indelible impression on Knapton: Pixote: A Lei do Mais Fraco [The Law of the Weakest] (1981), a brutal depiction of how delinquent children are drawn into a world of drugs, crime, and violence. “I had never seen children being physically abused before on film before,” she says, “but I saw that there [in Castro’s class], and although the abuse was not to the same degree as [in] Pixote, I saw how poverty and the threat of abuse can change a child in Namibia.”
Having her curiosity stoked while at Southwestern would carry her through those bad days in Africa. “You have to wonder about things, because a lot of things won’t sit well with you when you first see them,” says Knapton. “It was helpful to be willing to ask why: ‘Why are we doing this?’ And then you understand it’s not necessarily right or wrong; it’s just a different culture or tradition.”
The realities of teaching
In Namibia, Knapton taught English full time to seventh- and eighth-grade students. Because their primary cultural influences were still British and European, they required time to acclimate to Knapton’s American accent, so she ended up teaching the same students her second year. “It was really great,” she recalls. “You can mold young minds. It’s fun working with them because they don’t have the same filter that adults have, and I was really excited about that.” She gratefully put to use the classroom supplies her mother was sending her in regular care packages. She also ran the school library and helped establish a school cinema through writing grants and organizing fundraisers.
Soon after beginning her service, however, the SU alum recognized that perhaps she was not meant to follow in her mother’s footsteps after all. “I quickly realized in Peace Corps that I am not cut out to be a teacher,” says Knapton. “I just didn’t have the patience.” She showed up every day, came prepared, cared about her students, and stood up for kids who were being bullied by their classmates. But she was sometimes teaching students who were her own age—young men who were hostile to a female teacher and disruptive during lessons—so it took a year for her to learn how to successfully control her classroom and earn their respect.
It also didn’t help that Namibian teaching methods were still entrenched in the country’s colonial roots from apartheid, which meant that many of her fellow teachers would walk into a classroom, write some text on a blackboard, and expect the students to copy it. Knapton, by contrast, was used to more modern practices of using a range of teaching tools and accommodating students’ learning preferences. So in addition to being her students’ instructor, the recent college graduate bore the burden of serving as a model for 21st-century education for her fellow teachers.
Knapton may have realized that teaching was no longer in her future, but she still loved it—“I like thinking about different ways to connect with youth,” she says. So she took on an organizational role during Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), a leadership conference in which 80 students from around the country met in the capital city of Windhoek to discuss issues such as gender stereotypes and HIV/AIDS. They also visited the local university and the General Assembly so that the children could see what it was like to attend college or work in government. Knapton revamped the conference’s programming to make it more interactive, and she’s proud of how the GLOW participants she still keeps in touch with grew from that experience. “It’s neat to see them now,” she reflects. “Some of the students have gone on to law school in Namibia or … found careers for themselves a little bit different from what their parents planned for them.”
The U.S. as a foreign country
From dealing with theft and violence to surviving a bout of malaria during her second year of service, Knapton candidly admits that the Peace Corps was both “one of the best ways to grow up in a short period of time” and “the hardest thing I’ve ever done—and I’ve worked for some very difficult employers afterwards in the U.S.!” she laughs. But her greatest difficulty was transitioning back to living in the States.
“I had a hard time when I came back, [realizing] that I had actually idealized the country I had left and was so proud of,” she says.
For example, Namibia is a developing nation, but Knapton had free healthcare there. By contrast, when she returned to Texas and was preparing to take the LSAT, she couldn’t afford to go to the doctor and had to take the standardized exam while sick. Knapton also started to notice that some of her American peers seemed rather focused on obtaining material possessions and getting ahead in the world. However, she still felt that a more worthwhile priority was to do “something to make the world better.” So by connecting with another Southwestern alum, she landed a position working as a research analyst in the Texas Senate, writing summaries of committee hearings and researching policies that had been implemented in other states. While there, she watched as Wendy Davis, a state senator representing District 10, launched a filibuster to block Texas Senate Bill 5—an event that caught national attention. It was an inspiring 13 hours, Knapton says, but it was during her stint at the legislature that she recognized how sheltered she had been before her service abroad; now, her eyes were open to the subtle forms of misogyny she was experiencing or observing, such as being called “girl” despite being a 25-year-old who had lived independently on another continent and watching a group of men making decisions that affected the bodies and lives of women.
“Had I not done Peace Corps, I probably would have been a lot more blind to a lot of the injustices that exist here in the U.S.,” she says. “That experience lit a fire in me that has led me on the path that I’m on now.”
A new path
Watching so many elected officials in the Texas Senate show up to committee meetings not having read the bills they were supposed to be discussing and not being able to answer questions was “infuriating” to Knapton; “this isn’t how government is supposed to work!” she thought. But she was motivated by senators who were consistently prepared and demonstrated genuine interest in whether specific laws, policies, and incentives were working or not—senators such as Davis and former Austin mayor Kirk Watson. From their example, the SU grad was energized to get more involved.
“To be honest, I never wanted to be a lawyer in college,” she admits. “I thought my friends taking the LSAT were crazy. [I thought,] ‘That’s the worst job in the world! They work all the time. That’s not the world that I want to go into.’ But then seeing those lawyers in the legislature and the work that they did changed my mind.”
Knapton got a job working as a paralegal in an Austin law firm that specialized in personal injury and civil rights. She assisted the company as they brought a historic suit against the Texas prison system for housing inmates in facilities that lacked climate control—conditions that led to the deaths of multiple prisoners (the landmark case is still ongoing). Knapton recounts that “it was one of the most difficult jobs I’ve had besides the Peace Corps.” But she was inspired by the work her colleagues were doing, and they encouraged her to apply to law school. So she did and was accepted at the University of Colorado.
During law school, Knapton considered a range of possible specializations, participating in various organizations, internships, and law clinics on reproductive justice, technology, federal regulation, and criminal defense. She also served as editor in chief for the Colorado Technology Law Journal. “It was a really great experience,” she describes. “It’s a lot like Southwestern because it’s a small school with very supportive group of professors.” Law school also gave her the opportunity to travel abroad again, this time engaging with the World Intellectual Property Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations where Knapton had the opportunity to discuss copyright and disability laws with member-state representatives.
Of journeys and next steps
Since graduating with her J.D. in 2018, Knapton has been working in the Colorado Attorney General’s Office, where she had interned as a law student; in the past two years, she has served as a fellow and an assistant attorney general. The SU alum was originally drawn in by the office’s section on consumer protection, which often prosecutes crimes against vulnerable populations, such as those perpetrated by for-profit colleges. She’s also worked on cases in which she defended county findings of child abuse—work that links back to the film she watched in Castro’s course at Southwestern and the acts of violence she witnessed during her Peace Corps service. She has represented the Division of Youth Services, which runs Colorado’s juvenile detention program, and focused on cybersecurity and data privacy. This summer, she’ll be embarking on a yet another new journey: her husband, an attorney serving in the Air Force Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corp, is being stationed in Anchorage, so Knapton will soon be adjusting to life in Alaska, where she will be clerking for a judge.
Knapton shares that she enjoys working as a lawyer, in part because it entails some of those aspects of teaching that she loved at SU and in Namibia. “In many ways, I feel like my job is still to teach, but I don’t teach every single day,” she explains. “Instead, I’m teaching opposing counsel or jurors about my case. I like the idea of taking a complicated issue or text and distilling it into something that is accessible for everybody.”
“I really do feel like it’s a journey; there’s no race to get anywhere in particular. Southwestern was necessary in my development and my growth as a person. When I chose schools, … I didn’t want to go to bigger schools; I wanted that quintessential college experience. It was the right next step. Had I not taken it, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take the next step, which was Peace Corps.”
She says of her SU and Peace Corps experiences, “I really do feel like it’s a journey; there’s no race to get anywhere in particular. Southwestern was necessary in my development and my growth as a person. When I chose schools, … I didn’t want to go to bigger schools; I wanted that quintessential college experience. It was the right next step. Had I not taken it, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take the next step, which was Peace Corps.” When Knapton graduated from Southwestern, she had only ideas of what she wanted to do professionally, but, she says, “the Peace Corps enabled me to chase down those ideas, have an adventure, and learn things that I never expected to learn and wouldn’t have learned in the classroom.”
She hopes that current SU students and fellow alumni consider a stint in the Peace Corps at some point in their lives—even if they volunteer in their 40s, 50s, or 60s—because the University and the agency are so similar in their mission of cultivating individuals’ global outlook. “Every American owes it to themselves to see a different part of our own country or another part of the world,” she opines. “I think it makes you a better person for putting yourself out there with different groups with different values. It makes you better at getting to know people, looking past people’s partisan leanings or their religious beliefs and seeing them as people. I just think it’s worth doing. It’s such a great experience.”