July 31, 2014

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Oberlin grad immersing herself in culture, life of Turkmenistan

OBERLIN — Oberlin College graduate Rebecca Balmer is trading the stage lights and greasepaint of theater studies for 27 months in Turkmenistan with the Peace Corps.

Balmer, who graduated in May with a theater and comparative literature degree, said she is eager to arrive in the country which is bordered by Iran, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and the Caspian Sea.

When people question her decision, she said she has a simple answer: She expects to grow leaps and bounds as a person by teaching English to schoolchildren.

“I’m interested in immersing myself in a different culture,” said Balmer, who last served as an associate producer at Oberlin Summer Theater Festival. While some recent graduates might be more career-oriented, Balmer said Peace Corps volunteers have a different mindset.

“We think going to another country and immersing ourselves in another culture is a smart thing to do as a human being,” she said. “You grow in a variety of ways.”

For her part, she’s looking forward to getting out of the comfort zone that is life in the United States.

She will receive a small stipend for expenses, but room and board with a host family will cover most of her needs, she said.

“They set up everything for you,” she said.

Balmer said she had been hoping for an assignment in Africa after spending her winter-term project in January in an orphanage in Ghana.

Balmer said she had been hoping for an assignment in Africa after spending her winter-term project in January in an orphanage in Ghana.

However, you don’t get a say in choice of assignments she said, and she is eager to learn about a part of the world where so much is happening.

Fortunately, Turkmenistan, formerly part of the Soviet Union, is at peace, she said.

It has about 5 million people, and its capital, Ashgabat, is near the Iranian border. The country has oil reserves which are largely undeveloped.

Turkmenistan is largely Muslim, but she does not know if she will wear a head scarf, however she expects to dress more conservatively. She also will be learning the language. Most people speak Turkmen although about some speak Uzbek.

Balmer said she’s not sure what kind of live theater is in Turkmenistan, but she expects to incorporate theater in her work with children.

Her Oberlin acting credits include productions of “Aunt Dan and Lemon,” “Measure for Measure,” “The Heidi Chronicles” and two student films. She also worked as a staff writer in the theater and dance program’s publicity office at the college, as well as in the box office and as a house manager.

After her stint in the Peace Corps, she hopes to work in theater but does not know if she will pursue an acting career.

Two years and three months “can seem a long time, but it’s not in the scheme of things,” said Balmer, originally from Portland, Ore.

Send your Wellington and Oberlin news to Cindy Leise, 329-7245 or cleise@chroniclet.com.