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Peace Corps takes alumna to Azerbaijan
Photo provided by Carissa McCay
Carissa McCay (left) and a coworker visit an Azerbaijani farmer to discuss seed technology.
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Carissa McCay wakes up most mornings around 5:30 like she did at home and walks to a local
stadium near her house to exercise. She runs on a dirt path that circles a sparse grass field, dodging sheep, dogs and unruly
children. Some neighbors used to give her disapproving looks as she walked back to the house, but she says her status as a
foreigner has given her an "exempt shield" for some activities.
McCay works for the
Peace Corps in Agjabedi, Azerbaijan, the former Soviet republic that
borders Russian and Iran. After earning a bachelor's degree in
agricultural economics from Purdue in 2011, the Tippecanoe, Ind.,
native joined the Corps to help people around the world.
To keep a sense of normalcy, McCay started running after she'd become used to the new
culture and work.
After her morning routine, McCay's work takes her to meetings with farmers. Her goal is
to improve the country's agricultural industry. She discusses new technology and advancements in the industry, and finds
out what did or didn't work in the past.
"It's a lot of information dissemination, talking to farmers, connecting resources
to farmers and visiting farms," McCay said. "A part of every project is monitoring and maintaining connections with
the farmers we worked with. Visiting with farmers is a very rewarding part of volunteering within agricultural extension
When it came to her work, nobody gave McCay disapproving looks — she said the farmers
valued ideas that helped improve their agricultural practices. And McCay said she's learned from the farmers, too.
Azerbaijani farmers still practice traditional methods, she said. They graze their
livestock on available land and pastures instead of feeding them on lots.
"It's common to see cattle, water buffalo and sheep herded through the streets to
make their way from one grazing area to another," McCay said.
Growing up on a dairy farm in Indiana didn't prepare McCay to see livestock grazing
year-round and truly living off the land.
Another old custom, tea, is a big part of her work and socializing. Whether at work, or a
village meeting, at the beginning, end or middle of the day, tea is an important part of Azerbaijani culture, McCay said.
"They're not asking if you want tea, they're asking you to sit and talk,"
she said. "Sometimes when you get asked, tea helps facilitate conversation between you and another person."
And her feelings toward tea mellowed after she became steeped in Azerbaijani culture.
"When I arrived in the country I found all this tea drinking to be a bit
excessive," she said. "Initially, I would think, 'I've had five cups already; no, I don't want to drink
tea anymore,' while saying, 'Yes, let's drink some tea.' But now I welcome a time to sit and drink
Soccer camp promotes exercise for girls
While serving with the Peace Corps in Azerbaijan, Carissa McCay tried to learn about a
different culture and teach others about American culture.
The 2011 Purdue Agriculture graduate is committed to running for exercise and discovered
that Azerbaijani culture didn't encourage physical activity, especially for young girls. Throughout the country, but
especially in regions outside the capital city, sports for girls are nearly unheard of, McCay said.
So, she helped coach at a weeklong soccer camp that promoted the idea of physical education
"Typically, sports and physical activity are not encouraged for young (Azerbaijani)
girls," she said. "But this week was a special week where girls could play in a safe place through a structured
event. Personally, (it was) one of my favorite weeks of service."