Locally Grown: Dennis (DJ) Smith

Interviews with South Dakotans finding success outside their college major by Kyle Hallberg.

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Growing up in a three generation home, playing football and soccer, and being avidly devoted to Boy Scouts, Dennis (DJ) Smith had a full schedule to keep up with. If that wasn’t enough, Smith ended his senior year with a gold medal at the national FCCLA gathering. By creating and implementing a project called “Doing More Than Writing Love On Your Arms”, based on the pay it forward theory, Smith was able to give some insight on suicide prevention, starting the national program known as Lost and Found, which was later picked up at the University of South Dakota.

Smith went on to join the Peace Corps, which is where things get even more interesting. Smith and I sat down to talk about his life after the FCCLA win, which was as full, if not more, of adventure, accomplishment and discovery.

Kyle Hallberg: After such a diverse high school experience, what did you do when you started college?

DJ Smith: When I first started as USD, I was double majoring in Theatre and Political Science. After finding out I would have had to do two completely separate degrees, I ended up switching to a double major in Political Science and English, which was okay since I was still able to take Shakespeare classes.

KH: At least you got to keep those theatre-esque classes. Is that when you decided peace corps?

DS: Have you ever read Perks of Being A Wallflower? There is one sentence in that book that talks about joining the peace corps – which started my two day binge on researching everything there is to know about the peace corps during my senior year of high school. Then in college, everything I worked on was to move me towards the peace corps.

KH: So, your interest was sparked in high school, and grew in college?

DS: Actually, one of my buddies had just gotten back from a tour in Afghanistan and we went out for drinks, which is where he convinced me to get up and actually do it, to join the Peace Corps. So I went home at 2 a.m. to apply, got an interview a week later, got nominated, and was appointed to Peace Corps Tanzania. I was extra excited because the Tanzania post was actually the first Peace Corps post set up by JFK.

KH: Wow, that’s a lot to happen while still going to school. What happens after you get appointed?

DS: After I was appointed, I spent the next year going to medical checkups and doing everything you need to do to go to a different country. In February of 2015, we flew to Pennsylvania, then to Tanzania where we met everyone and started our journey. Then, the next 8 weeks were spent doing language training, where we were immersed in Swahili.

About 5 weeks in, we were given our assignments and I was placed in the southern village of Mtambula. I was in the Health/Agriculture cohort, so I worked for three months to get to know my village and not early terminate. My friends, we were called the Goon Squad, spent every weekend together, and we were on our way to a lake when one of our friends was killed in a car accident. The Goon Squad was hit hard, and we were somewhat expected to early terminate, which none of us did. We wanted to do it for Robby.”

KH: I can’t even imagine going to through all of that, and still deciding to stay the full term. I’m sure it was difficult to go back to a somewhat normal life.

DS: Yeah it was hard. We all went back to our villages to continue to cope, which is where things get interesting. Each cohort has their own Facebook page to help each other out, which is where I found the love of my life. We started talking and I just knew things could only go up from here. So the next year of my life was spent doing projects in my village and being with Ben. We would try to see each other at least every other month, which was especially hard in a country where being gay is illegal. But, we made it work and we are doing exceptionally well.

Back in my village, I worked with mothers with HIV, built new water sources for the maternity wards to keep moms and new babies healthy year round. We were also in the process of building twelve wells in our village, which is based on a 12-week rotation to ensure the wells last longer. I was able to teach about gender equality, sex education and the LGBT community as well.

KH: That sounds absolutely incredible. I can’t believe that all of that was over the course of a year. Obviously you are home, so did your term end?

DS: Well, that’s where things get a little fun. It was during one of my LGBT training classes that I noticed my pupils were different sizes. The onsite doctor attributed it to my life-long battle with migraines, but suggested an MRI just to be safe. Another doctor came in and told me I had to go to South Africa to have a follow up MRI, which is when I found out I had a brain tumor.

KH: That had to have been quite the shock, especially since you were in a different country.

DS: Right. So I flew back to America, had a bunch of tests done, had a biopsy and discovered I had a grade two astrocytoma brain tumor in mid-June. Matter of fact, the pupil dilation had nothing to do with the tumor, but ended up being from my migraines. I was told that the chances of finding a brain tumor of grade two status is under 2.5%. Finding my tumor was by complete chance, we were beyond lucky. Ben came back to be with me during the biopsy, which was fantastic. After the biopsy, I had brain surgery on July 28th. They are pretty sure they got it all out, but I will go back for another MRI to double check before I fly back to Tanzania. Dr. Asfora saved my life, he is an excellent doctor and a really amazing person.

KH: Wow. How are you feeling? What is next?

DS: My memory is a little foggy, which will improve over time. Otherwise, I am doing really well. I miss Ben and my dog, but I also miss my village and the work I’m doing in Tanzania. I’m so excited to go back and resume my life in the Peace Corps. I have so much left to accomplish in my life, that I never had the time to think there was a chance the tumor would win.

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