Africa in Our Lives: Aleia McCord

Ph.D student Aleia McCord traces her steps from Ghana to Wisconsin to Uganda. From tips on making plans post-graduation to her passion for renewable energy in Uganda, McCord shares her experiences at home and abroad.

“I came back [from the Peace Corps] a more empathetic, compassionate, patient, self-reliant, and resilient person.” – Aleia McCord (Photo by Catherine A. Reiland/UW-Madison)

Field of study: Environmental Studies (Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies)
Hometown: Georgetown, TX

What brought you to Madison?

My husband went to graduate school at UW-Madison (Chemistry, 2002) and spent years regaling me with stories of how fantastic this city is. I was suspicious of the winters, but eventually decided to give it try, and I’m glad I did! We both love this town.

What is your favorite activity around Madison?

I really enjoy biking in the summer and cross-country skiing in the winter. I love that this city is so active and accessible.

How did you make the decision to join the Peace Corps?

Like all of my best life decisions, my decision to join the Peace Corps came about because of an unexpected rejection. I had interviewed for a position and was (overly) confident that I was (clearly) the best candidate. I was so sure I was going to be offered the job, that I hadn’t made any other post-graduation plans. I cried about my rejection to my best friend, who had just received her invitation letter to join Peace Corps Ghana. Inspired by our conversation, I went home and applied right away. Three months later, I also received an invitation to serve as a “Natural Resource Management for Livelihoods and Food Security” volunteer with Peace Corps Ghana. My best friend and I ended up going on the adventure of lifetime together! Now, I am incredibly grateful for that fortuitous rejection.

What did you learn during your Peace Corps experience that still shapes you today?

I can’t even begin to capture the many ways that Peace Corps shaped my professional and personal trajectory. I came back to the USA a more empathetic, compassionate, patient, self-reliant and resilient person. I learned how to really listen to people. I learned how to ask for and accept help. I learned how to lead and also how to follow.

What are your go-to sources for Africa-related news and information?, an African news aggregator

New Vision Uganda, a Ugandan daily newspaper

The Independent, a Ugandan news magazine

What inspired your studies of Africa?

After the Peace Corps, I knew I wanted to work in Africa again. I was in Ghana at a really exciting time (2003-2005). During the course of my service, mobile phones became widely available, and the Internet was just starting to be a part of professional life. There was a kind of electricity in the air, and you could tell everything was changing. Women were demanding a bigger role in public life, the youth were clamoring for better opportunities and technology was completely changing the way that rural communities interacted with urban markets and the wider world. The vibrant entrepreneurial energy and innovative spirit of my African colleagues keeps me hooked to this day.

Briefly tell us about your work, as it relates to Africa:

I work with a talented team of Ugandan researchers and graduate students to study the sustainability of a renewable energy and waste management technology called anaerobic digestion. Anaerobic digesters transform organic wastes (such as manure or food wastes) into a clean burning source of renewable energy (methane) and a high-quality fertilizer product. We look at how this technology impacts air quality, sanitation, agricultural productivity, and fuelwood use.

Aleia McCord
McCord (left) and her colleagues build digesters that break down organic wastes to produce biogas, a fuel that can be used for cooking.

What is your Waste 2 Energy initiative?

W2E supports anaerobic digester innovation, research, education, and installation in Uganda. Check out our website for the latest updates!

What advice would you give students who are exploring ways to fund research projects or study abroad?

Ask. Apply. Listen. Ask. Apply. Listen. Repeat ad nauseam. Our team is constantly applying for grants and seeking financial support… and we are constantly rejected. Persistence is the key. We’ve had to grow a thick skin to ask for and listen to the feedback we receive in order to understand why our applications aren’t successful. Then we adapt, adjust, and apply again (and again, and again). Rejection forces you to refine your ideas and can lead you in new and exciting directions. Never fear the fortuitous rejection!

How do you see your Africa-related work and interest affecting your future trajectory?

How can it not? The skills I have learned from working with a cross-cultural team of hard-working students and researchers will be invaluable for any future position I may have.

Profile produced by Meagan Doll.

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Listen to Aleia McCord on Wisconsin Public Radio’s  The Larry Meiller Show. “Exploring The Alternative Fuel Source, Biogas” 27 May, 2015.