A country the size of Colorado sits in Northwestern Africa, landlocked with a lack of tools we in the United States tend to take for granted. Burkina Faso is facing detrimental issues nationwide, whether it be from their economics, government or lack of healthcare. Ranked third as one of the poorest countries in the world, the population of over 19 million has limited natural resources, resulting in a majority of its citizens having to live in a poor economy. Even by West African standards, Burkina Faso’s quality of life has several inequalities from food insecurity and drought to forced child labor and sex trafficking.
Derived from the Mossi word meaning “land of honest men,” Burkina Faso could not be more corrupt. The country has experienced a number of public protests over the high cost of living, corruption and other socioeconomic issues including the fall of their government and military in 2014. Political insecurity has put the country in an uproar, and many of its citizens live in fear of the unknown.
The country is in ruins, and Kyle Hastbacka cannot wait to go there.
Hastbacka is a senior at Keene State College (KSC) and isn’t quite sure where he sees himself after graduation. As a double major in criminal justice and political science, most of his peers are applying to graduate school, but Hastbacka said he wanted a change of pace. That change of pace, however, is taking him into a Third World country, volunteering for the Peace Corps.
During his time at KSC, Hastbacka has become a familiar face on campus for many. Involved in first-year orientation, the Sigma Pi fraternity and Alternative Break, his presence does not go unnoticed. Being involved on campus was never one of Hastbacka’s original goals, though. In fact, KSC was never even on his radar when he was first applying to colleges.
Raised right outside of Miami, Florida, Hastbacka always dreamed of attending the University of Northern Florida (UNF) in Jacksonville. He had thought of attending school in New England, but knew it was unrealistic because of financial reasons. UNF was the first school he applied to, and during October of his senior year he was accepted. With a strong study abroad program and the location on the beach, Hastbacka was hooked since his first year of high school. Being accepted was a dream, so he “did not see the point” in applying to any other schools.
Throughout high school, Hastbacka said he was not “super involved” because he wanted to solely focus on his grades. It was not until his junior year, when his parents were going through a divorce, that he found an opportunity he was passionate about. The fighting caused him to not be home very often, which in turn drove him to find more involvement in school.
His mother had “forced” him to join a Youth Group his sophomore year in an attempt to get him active in the community, but he was not into the idea. After a year of being a member, a few friends he had gained from the group informed him about a service trip the church took to Haiti every year. This was the first opportunity he had to give back and also the first project that sparked his interest throughout his high school career.
Convincing his parents to let him travel to a foreign country took almost a year, but he was finally able to join the trip his junior and senior years of high school. “From that point on, I was looking into service work and that’s when I really started putting my eye on the Peace Corps. I started realizing it was something that I really wanted to do,” Hastbacka said.
After the divorce, his dad moved back to New Hampshire for work, where Hastbacka was originally born before moving to Florida at a young age. Shortly after his dad moved back, his mother informed him that she would be moving to the area as well to be closer to family. Hastbacka was torn—his dreams of UNF did not seem to fit into his family’s plan any longer. Having to take a plane back and forth when he wanted to return home was unimaginable for him, so half-way through senior year, he began to search for other schools closer to New Hampshire.
A family-friend graduated from KSC, and Hastbacka decided to apply. He knew nothing about the campus; he didn’t even know the school’s color was red. By the time Hastbacka received his acceptance letter from KSC in early February, he had already paid his deposit to UNF. As the end of his senior year crept up on him, Hastbacka had a decision to make. His heart was still set on the warm weather he had always called home, but the thought of being away from his family was unsettling.
In April, he decided to switch his school and head north for the next four years. His attitude when deciding to become an Owl was one of uncertainty. He kept telling himself that he could always transfer if he hated it, and he had a strong feeling that he would. But Hastbacka found himself pleasantly surprised when he enjoyed the close-knit environment Keene welcomed him with.
Hastbacka’s high school was one of the largest in the nation, with his grduating class containing about 1,100 students. He appreciated that he was now at a small school, with only 5,000 students on the whole campus, where he didn’t know anybody–not even a familiar face. Similar to his high school mindset, when he arrived on campus, he wanted to get a job and focus on his academics. It wasn’t until he overheard a speech about the Alternative Break Program that he decided he wanted to get involved with the community service opportunities KSC had to offer.
After being hooked on the idea of an Alternative Break, Hastbacka decided that he would make participating in these trips his niche. He was accepted onto the international trip to Panama to work at a school his first year, went to our nation’s capital to work with those who suffer from homelessness his sophomore year and during his junior year, he went to New York City to work on LGBTQA+ rights. Out of all the trips he attended, the one he said he appreciated most is his NYC trip because he had a limited amount of knowledge on the trip’s focus, which allowed him to truly learn about it from the community members.
Friends he made from his trip to Panama convinced Hastbacka he needed to further immerse himself in the campus community. The organizations he later became involved with were never a part of his plan, but with a push from his peers, he signed up for Greek life and first-year orientation.
“I had zero interest in Greek life, the fact that I ended up in it was kind of a fluke. I at first started off very much as ‘I’m just here to be here, my friend told me to do it,’ and I wasn’t super interested. Then the more I was in it the more I started to enjoy it,” Hastbacka said.
In high school and college, Hastbacka said most of his experiences were accidental, explaining that a majority of his involvement has been because of persuasion by others. However, with everything he became a part of, Hastbacka thrived. He was the coordinator for Orientation Staff last year, is currently the President of Sigma Pi and has held other roles within those organizations as well. While he originally lacked enthusiasm for the clubs he participated in, his natural ability as a leader has shown in all that he does.
While he tends to have a reserved demeanor, best friend and classmate Kathleen Dougherty has always seen Hastbacka becoming involved in something for the greater good.
Friends since the first day of their first-year at KSC, Dougherty claims she has always seen Hastbacka’s potential. As a friend, Dougherty describes Hastbacka as loyal, trustworthy and honest, which she thinks are characteristics that have helped him grow throughout his personal and professional life. When Hastbacka told her he was applying to the Peace Corps, his attitude was subdued. However, Dougherty could tell that this meant a lot to him because of the amount of effort he was putting into getting accepted.
“Once he finally decided to apply, that’s when it clicked that he actually really wanted it because I think he always just thought ‘I could do this, it’s an option,’” Dougherty said. “But once he put motion into it, you could tell that he really wanted it. He was asking one of our professors to do practice Skype calls for the interview and doing everything he could to be the best potential candidate, which he really didn’t even need to do because on paper alone he could have gotten it. The extra touch of an interview, though, showcased that he is the candidate that the Peace Corps needs.”
Hastbacka was accepted into the program in mid-September, and that is when he found out he would be stationed in Burkina Faso. Until he arrives, Hastbacka does not have a concrete idea of what he will be helping with. What he does know is he will be involved with community economic development, and past participants with this job have helped with farmers, small schools and community gardens. Spending over two years in a Third World country would scare most, but Hastbacka is more than excited to embark on this opportunity.
“I have always thought that if you are in a position to help someone, you should,” Hastbacka said. “There is no other time in my life really where I’m going to be able to drop everything that I’m doing and go away and live in a different country for over two years [27 months]. It’s important to help others when you can, and why not do it when you’re young and can explore and have no worries back home.”
Once he returns to the United States, Hastbacka is not set on what he wants to pursue for a career. He is using the time he has outside of the country to relieve some of the stress he puts on himself about his career path. What he is certain of, he said, is that he does not want to do a “basic, boring desk job” because he likes to be hands-on with his work.
He has toyed with the idea of law school, but when asked where she pictures Hastbacka when he returns, Dougherty said law school is not it.
Student involvement is a part of Hastbacka’s personality, according to Dougherty, and the amount of service he is involved with makes it hard for her to see him becoming a lawyer. “To be a lawyer, you have to be very black and white and to see right and wrong and you need to make hard and fast decisions, but with everything he does with volunteer work and how involved he is with orientation and how he interacts with people, he knows the whole grey area in between. He knows that there is more to every single story, that there is no right or wrong necessarily,” Dougherty said. “I think that when it comes to something Kyle should do, he very much should be a president or CEO of something because we need people in high positions like Kyle. Kyle could be the President of the United States if he wanted to be–150%. He absolutely could.”
Olivia Belanger can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org