Teacher and adventurer
Mu, Simpson College, 1996
Less than Zero: The Dishwasher Diaries
In Africa, Jill Fox went running when it was more than 100 degrees in the shade. At the South Pole, frost formed on her eyelashes when she went outside each day to get supplies. From teaching community health in Mali to washing dishes in Antarctica, she has lived life to the extreme.
Since she graduated from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, in 1996, Jill hasn’t been afraid to experience the new and unfamiliar, or to roll up her sleeves and work hard.
A new name
A bachelor’s degree in French in hand, Jill joined the Peace Corps and headed to Mali. There, she spent her days talking to villagers about family planning, disease prevention, vaccinations, and nutrition. “I wanted to go to West Africa because of my French language background,” she says. “But I also wanted the experience to be as different from what I’d known before as possible.”
She got her wish. For two years she lived in a mud hut, with no electricity or running water, and regularly found scorpions and snakes in her tent. Getting to the closest post office involved a two-hour bike ride; the nearest phone was a two-hour bush taxi ride or 5-hour bike ride. She was the first Peace Corps volunteer to ever live in her village, and she formed a close bond with the community. When she returned to visit nearly a decade later, she was greeted with the nickname they’d given her: Doubahan, which translates as “Blessed Woman.”
Grunt work on a glacier
After the Peace Corps, Jill became a teacher in inner-city Chicago. She got a master’s degree in education from the University of Tennessee, and taught English to immigrant and refugee children in Knoxville, Tennessee; North Slope, Alaska; and Fremont, Nebraska.
And then another, colder adventure beckoned: Antarctica. Her boyfriend Daren is a scientist and had spent two winters at the South Pole. She was substitute teaching, and it seemed like a good time for an adventure.
Jill interviewed at a job fair and got the position of a lifetime: dishwasher. She flew in October over the white sparkling expanse of the Transantarctic Mountains, into a life of extreme temperatures, close quarters, and washing dishes after the science station’s four meals a day.
Antarctica is the coldest, windiest continent, with temperatures during the warm season ranging from 50 below to a balmy minus-20. The work was hard, and quarters were close. Two showers a week for two minutes each adds another level of challenge. “I adapted well—it is refreshing to know that I can do manual labor and be a hard worker, that I’m not too soft,” Jill says.
The skills she learned in Alpha Chi Omega were critical to her enjoyment of the Antarctic experience. “When I was president of my chapter, I learned the importance of balance, managing friendships, and leadership at the same time,” she says. And of staying the course in difficult circumstances: “If you make a commitment, you do it.”
One stint of sub-zero hard labor would be enough for most people. But Jill signed up for a second South Pole sojourn, this time getting a promotion to “materials person.” That meant she was in charge of lugging food from outside—aka nature’s freezer.
“A lot of my Antarctica friends know me as a certain kind of person,” she says. “And when I revealed to them that I was in a sorority, they were shocked. I felt like I helped them see sororities in a different way. I was willing to wash dishes and haul food around, which was sort of a revelation for them.”