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March 2011

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How My Peace Corps Experience Changed Me

I was part of a Rural Community Development contingent in Turkey 1964-66 (named Turkey V), during which time Turkey was embroiled in its struggle with Greece over Cyprus.  Although we were greeted with open arms by many Turks, including a reception with Prime Minister Ismet Inonu (Ataturk's former Chief of Staff); President Johnson had just sent in the Sixth Fleet to prevent Turkey from invading Cyprus, which ruffled many a Turk's feathers, needless to say.

Watching from the perspective of a larger Turkish village that had once been a sub-county seat, I saw the transformation from Republican, secular urban elite-led (Ataturk's party), to the more rural and religious Democratic Party of Suleyman Demirel, an American-educated engineer who promised to develop the countryside. Turkey has historically had a top-down political system, with provincial governors and even town mayors appointed by the current government regime.  From that perspective and being trained as a community developer (similar to President Obama's experience), I had to learn how to organize a village community to get something they wanted done by themselves, rather than wait for government aid.  In this case it was mainly agricultural--drilling water wells, raising more productive livestock, crops, and teaching skills in their vocational schools.

Acquiring those community-organizing skills opened my eyes to economic development possibilities in my own country.  After acquiring a Masters Degree in Film/Public Communications on my return, I made films for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, organized and made films for Cesar Chavez's United Farmworkers Union, and implemented a redevelopment plan to restore an Old Town center in my Santa Barbara community, among other things.  So from being a very apolitical UC Berkeley economics graduate in 1964 (really?), I became very aware of the social/political forces that both create or prevent change.  I am currently President of a local Rotary Club, which is implementing both local volunteer community projects as well as Congo Women's Projects that benefit women abused by the Congo's ongoing wars.
-Harlan Green, California      

I am pleased to be given this opportunity to reflect on what Peace Corps meant to me. I served in Rwanda from 1984-86, one of only a small handful of volunteers in the country at that time (there were months when I was actually the sole volunteer in Rwanda). Our affairs were handled through the embassy whose very caring personnel provided us with both practical and emotional support during the inevitable “ups” and “downs” of service. They gave us a place to stay when we needed to visit Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, and a good meal and hot shower to boot. When I was viciously attacked by a pack of wild dogs a few months after I arrived in country, it was the support of the embassy personnel that helped me make the decision to stay in country rather than leave the service. The other factor was that I had no desire to move back in with my parents in Mississippi. It was absolutely the correct decision. Peace Corps taught me that I could persevere through incredible difficulties and not only survive, but thrive. That lesson in resilience has paid off numerous times in my personal and professional lives. A true anecdote: when I was trapped in a partially collapsed building at the epicenter of the Northridge earthquake in 1994, I thought to myself, “This is horrible, but it’s not nearly as bad as being attacked by a pack of wild dogs in Rwanda. And a wild dog attack isn’t half as bad as living with my parents in Mississippi. So all in all, a 6.8 earthquake only ranks third on the list of awful things that have happened to me.” Peace Corps gave me perspective.
-Donald E. Hall, Chair, English Dept., West Va. University

I had to travel halfway around the world and into a primitive culture to discover who I was.

Under the auspices of Marine Fisheries Development in Madang, Papua New Guinea, I emerged form the whirlwind experience solidified as to my place as an American and citizen of the world.

Being an American of Chinese ancestry (3rd Generation), I was constantly searching for my place in society. College only magnified my wanderlust, and, upon graduation, I already had plane tickets to a Peace Corps Service in the South Pacific.

There, I met the kindest people and most breathtaking scenery. We built boats and caught fish together, but the more important lessons were going on in the margins. Although I was the "Answer Man," I ended with more questions, like:

Is it wise to teach a subsistence culture a cash economy?
Did building a boat for one village upset the delicate harmony among previously warring tribes?
Do I intervene in a situation that, in America, but not here, would be considered child abuse?
Is our increased fishing pressure sustainable?
In a growing cash economy, who will mitigate the social growing pains of theft, rape and unemployment?

In spite of the ambiguity at work, the Peace Corp's goal of creating understanding was an absolute success. From the American GI's that stormed their shores in WWII, they figured all Americans are either white or black. I had some explaining to do. I learned that, even in a primitive island village, we are pretty much alike in dreams and aspirations, good and evil. Their version of Hatfield and McCoy mentality has created a nation of only three million people speaking over 700 distinct languages.
-Lyle John Young, Papua New Guinea, 1981-85

My Mom was an amazing woman. She was interested in so many things… when I was a child, she got me interested in everything from archaeology and astronomy to zoology. By the time I was 8 or 10, I knew a lot about Ur of the Chaldees and Babylon; I could identify most of the constellations in our night sky, and I knew all the different kinds of primates — apes, gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos, etc. She always wanted to try something new. She visited me on my first two diplomatic assignments — London and Madrid. Then, Pres. Kennedy formed the Peace Corps in 1961-62. Mom applied in late 1962, and was accepted in early 1963. Since my father's early death, she had gone back to work as an X-ray technician. They wanted her to be part of a medical team being sent to Ethiopia. They sent her for 2 months to UCLA to study Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. But h er team was assigned not to Addis Ababa but to a town in the north named Makele, where the language was Tigre. Despite the language problem, the team did a lot of good work, both treating people and training Ethiopians in medical skills. Mom really enjoyed it. She became a world traveler, not just visiting me in South America, New Zealand, etc., but visiting many other places on her own before she died at age 86. Elizabeth Parker Williams, RIP.
-Ed Williams

My husband and I, Phil and Linda Johnson, were the first group of PC volunteers sent into the Fiji Islands in 1967.  We spent 3 months on the island of Hawaii training intensely in language and culture for the two cultures inhabiting the islands.  There were the native Fijians living in the village environment and the Indian population living in urban areas and running most businesses.  The island was a British Colony at the time, so there were also native British there.
My husband's job was at the Kornivia Research Station at Kornivia. He worked with all three cultures studying ways to feed livestock with local available food, saving on the cost of imported food supplies.  He also taught at the research station school of agriculture.
I was assigned to teach at a Muslim school.  I taught a combined 3/4 class the first year and 4th grade the second year.  I also was in charge of the Red Cross club at school and assisted the headmaster teach English composition to the 7th and 8th graders to prepare them for their testing to determine whether or not they would go on to high school.  All schools were private and well attended by both populations.  A family would go without food and other necessities to insure their children got an education.  Private schools are supported solely by tuition from the students.
I learned much more than I gave as a teacher and volunteer.  I know the value of friendship given freely, expecting nothing in return.  I learned the importance of welcoming everyone into your circle of friends.   I understand the unimportance of material goods.  I came to appreciate the USA's school system where all children can and must attend; where textbooks are had by all; and where supplies are always available.  I taught 50 children in a classroom with a chalkboard and a curriculum that was merely an outline to be filled in by myself every week.  We had no books.  My mind was challenged to create a curriculum appropriate to children who spoke English only as a second language.  I am a much better listener.  When being spoken to in a language learned in 3 months of training, I had to listen to every word to get the message.  WE do not listen well when hearing our own language spoken.
I learned it is not what you have but how you use what you do have:  your time and talents.   I made lifetime friendships not only with other volunteers but with some of the children I taught and Fijians we lived near.  I would make the choice to volunteer again in an instant.  Coming out of college and going directly in the PC was the best thing Phil and I ever did.  WE grew into responsible adults with knowledge of a culture much different from ours that we admired and respected.  It affects every part of your life in ways that will never be forgotten and always be appreciated.  It was a life of simplicity, free of stress, full of happiness and a true sense of loss when the 24 months' service ends and it is time to return to the states.

Happy Birthday Peace Corps and thanks for the memories
-Phil and Linda Johnson

In 1966 I had hardly traveled outside the state of S.C much less the USA, but I knew that I wanted to. As soon as my education was secured I volunteered to work in a warm seacoast area… I was posted to Nepal.

After a strenuous 4 months of training in Seattle and Hilo all 74 of us flew across the Pacific via Midway Is., Bangkok, and Calcutta to Kathmandu, all very exotic to me.  It was winter and there is no heat in Kathmandu.

I lived the first year in a tiny village in the flat Terai region of this beautiful country with the snowy peaks of the Himalayas as the northern frame of my daily landscape and the second year in Kathmandu in the tight streets with overhanging windows and overhanging snowy peaks.  I learned to speak Nepali until I even dreamed in that language.  Coming back to the USA proved as difficult as settling in Nepal had been for me.

Even today, I no longer look at the world the same as I did before my tour of teaching duty.  I now know that most of the people of the world eat two meals a day, not three, and that most of that meal consists of rice.

I have raised my children to go into a foreign, underdeveloped country with wondering eyes, taking in and appreciating the resourcefulness of people who have very few assets with which to live in the world.  We wondered at the natural beauty of the countryside and at the friendliness and hospitality of the people whom we met. As a family we have traveled in the Caribbean, Central and South America, and one son has been to Madagascar. We have not seen Europe.

Each year I have tried to teach school children about the country in which I lived and traveled and taught in 1966 and '67...  there have been hundreds since I continued to teach and direct a school for 24 years after I returned.  I interrupt conversations with friends and even presentations in meetings to inject a perspective of the world that was forever changed by my years as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

I think that this is exactly what John F. Kennedy and Sargeant Shriver had in mind as they planned the Peace Corps fifty years ago.
-Anne C. Politzer

I served in the Peace Corps in Fiji from 1970 to 1971 at the University of the South Pacific, and in Western Samoa in 1972 with the Samoan Department of Fisheries. Serving in the Peace Corps changed my worldview greatly and helped me decide the course of the rest of my life. I think that most of us volunteers gained at least as much, or more, from the experience as the countries in which we served. We all learned to see the world, and our own country, from a new, global, perspective. The Peace Corps was my first experience away from the society I grew up in. The people of Fiji and Samoa grounded me in my belief that most people in the world are good, friendly, and want to live in peace. I continually contrast this with the xenophobic, hateful, paranoid world views that bombard us every day from many media spokespersons and politicians: none of whom ever served in the Peace Corps or lived independently abroad. My Peace Corps experience helped shape my desire to serve, not just my country, but the world community; and to help make the world a better place.  I still desire to ‘give something back’ to Fiji, Western Samoa, and the Peace Corps: a feeling that is shared by most of us who had the opportunity to experience those early days in the Peace Corps.
-Lance Craighead

I am now a physician and officer in the US Navy, serving as ship’s doctor aboard the submarine tender USS Frank Cable, based out of Guam.  It seems a long way from being a public health worker with the Peace Corps in West Africa, but most of what I am now has had its origins in those few and happy years.
Graduation from university saw me as a chemistry major not wanting to be a chemist just yet (or ever).  I joined the Peace Corps as a science teacher in a sort of delaying tactic, hoping to remain productive, international, and uncommitted.  Little did I know how committed I would become.  My training group was sent to Niger, an African country mostly in the Sahara Desert boasting crushing heat, mind-numbing poverty and being annually named “Least Favorite Country That Doesn’t Have Amputating Militias”.  Then the education system collapsed, and we jobless teachers were moved around to several other programs, including one showing local masons how to build domed and vaulted houses because there were no more trees.  Recuperating from a motorcycle accident in the capital I met the man in charge of Niger’s Guinea Worm Eradication Program, and he asked if I’d like to be his liaison in the far western part of the country.  Guinea Worm is a parasitic disease wherein the victim drinks dirty water contaminated with larvae which mate and grow inside and eventually emerge a year later, three feet long, full of more larvae to be pumped into the next lake through the victim’s skin when he or she enters to collect water.  It is fantastically gross and afflicts the poorest people of the poorest countries in the world.  It was also the most rewarding work I had ever done.  Even better, I was riding motorcycles around the Sahel with my future wife.  Our years together in the Peace Corps laid the foundations for our entire lives so far in international public service as clinicians and health educators.  That brief time permanently jammed open our minds to the possibilities of international work, later sending us to Ivory Coast, Haiti, Nigeria, Togo, South Africa, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Indonesia.  It has also repeatedly sent us back to Niger, for work, but most importantly for the friends we made and will never leave behind.
-LT Michael Kinzer, MC, USN

I grew up in the Eugene-Springfield area of Oregon’s Willamette Valley. When I graduated from the University of Oregon in 1963 I had almost never been further from home than Seattle, Washington. The one exception was a trip made with an aunt when I was about 12 to visit another aunt (and uncle) who at the time lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico. (The two aunts were sisters; the uncle was in the Navy.)

I was not well travelled but I avidly read my father’s National Geographic magazines. I knew there was a wider world beyond the Pacific Northwest and I wanted to see some of it. Accordingly, as college graduation approached, my top priority was to get as far away from the Eugene-Springfield area as I could. I did not really care where I went; I just wanted to go.

As chance would have it, one spring day in 1963 a Peace Corps recruiting team visited the University of Oregon campus. A friend asked me if I wanted to go hear their pitch. I said, sure, I had no class the hour the recruiters were scheduled to do their thing. To make a long story short, my friend went to graduate school and I went to Nepal – a Nepal III volunteer.

I was assigned to teach at a boys’ high school in Dharan, a market town in the southeastern corner of the country. It lies at the foot of the first ridge of hills that eventually become the Himalayas. There was a road to Dharan from the Indian border about 25 miles to the south. Trucks would bring goods up from India. The goods were offloaded and reloaded into baskets carried by porters several days’ trek into the hill country to the north.

As a regional entrepôt, Dharan was populated by a fabulous mix of people – Mongoloid tribesmen and women from the hills of eastern Nepal, the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley, aboriginal Tharus from the Terai region, assort Brahmins and Chhetris (the Nepali version of the South Asia’s warrior caste, the Kshatriya), an occasional Tibetan or two, Bhojpuris from northern Bihar and Marwaris from Rajastan in India. These peoples, the goods they dealt in and the work they did were truly National Geographic material. I was fascinated by it all.

I learned a number of critical lessons in Dharan. The first was that I was not cut out to be a teacher. I did my best and I suppose some of my students may have felt they learned something from me. But I did not count myself a particular success in terms of what I believed I was in Nepal for – i.e., to assist in Nepal’s development by educating its young.

A second thing I learned was that I could actually endure fairly serious hardship. Dharan, a thriving place by Nepali standards, had no electricity or much in the way of modern amenities, including doctors. And like everywhere in South Asia, disease was always just a sip of contaminated water away (and virtually all water, if not boiled or otherwise treated, was contaminated). Within two weeks of my arrival I was at death’s door with serious case bacillary dysentery. I survived but went on to multiple subsequent bouts with intestinal parasites of one sort or another. As they say, if it doesn’t kill you, it probably makes you stronger.

And a third thing I learned was that there was something called the Foreign Service. Now, had someone asked me about the Foreign Service while I was growing up in Oregon, I probably would have asked in reply, “Did you mean the Forest Service?” But thanks to the U.S. Ambassador to Nepal at the time, Henry Stebbins, and his able deputy, Harry Barnes, Peace Corps volunteers in Nepal were not only made aware of what the Foreign Service does, they were encouraged by these men to think seriously about making careers in foreign affairs.

I took their encouragement to heart, took the Foreign Service written examination in Kathmandu in 1965 and in early 1966 took the oral exam when I returned home to the United States. Later that year I was sworn in as a Foreign Service officer and served as such for the next three decades. In some respects, although retired from the Foreign Service for more than a decade now, I am still involved in foreign and national security affairs: For the last decade I have worked as a consultant shaping the content of the U.S. Pacific Command’s military exercise program so that exercises reflect the real world political and social milieu in which wars are fought these days.

In my various Foreign Service assignments inter alia I met my wife of the last 41 years, was taken hostage in Iran and had the privilege of serving as the United States ambassador to Laos. In retirement, I have been called back by the State Department to work at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe in Zagreb, Croatia and Vienna, Austria. Along the way, I had a son and daughter, learned several exotic languages and won a number of honors, including from the U.S. Government, the King of Thailand for my contributions to U.S.-Thai bilateral relations and my alma mater, the University of Oregon (the latter given to an alumnus in recognition of distinguished accomplishment in a chosen profession).

None of this would have happened had I not been a Peace Corps volunteer. It was without question the most formative experience of my life.
-Ambassador (Retired) Victor L. Tomseth

Who I am today, a recently retired professor of linguistics at the University of Hawaii, and where I have lived for the past 38 years — Maui, Hawaii — was entirely influenced by my three years of Peace Corps service in Micronesia, Chuuk District, of the then Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. My dearest and closest friends of 40 years or more, people who still make major social and ethical contributions to my life, people who continue to shape my moral-ethical-social-and political views, are former Peace Corps Volunteers as well. My Peace Corps experiences, as both a volunteer and then trainer in Sri Lanka are as much a part of me as is my blood, my muscles, my mind — the experiences are inseparable from my totality, and because of them, they continue to mold and shape who I am as I live in an increasingly globalized world. The seeds and roots of my "world view "were indeed planted during my service in 1968-71, and continue to bear fruit as I value the importance of "service" to community. I can't imagine what my life would be like today, and or how I would view service, and or the world and its peoples, without my PC experiences 43 years ago!  Simple as that — I was profoundly changed in every conceivable way by the totality of the experience, and to my mind, this influence has never abated — for it is at  the core of who I am and have become. 

To teach is to hope…

"There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but one must take it because one's conscience tells one that it is right."
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

- Vincent R. Linares, Professor Emeritus, Univ. of Hawaii

Summer 1969:  Dropped into a squatter settlement outside Panama City, Panama, after a few months of cultural and language instruction, I quickly began learning and adapting more than I’ve ever done before or since. Working side-by-side with people new to the area, as was I, provided daily lessons in the strength of the human spirit. Poor but determined to improve, these recent migrants from the countryside rarely faltered. We worked communally, building humble houses and digging latrines. As my Spanish improved, so did my abilities shoveling, pounding nails, and swinging a machete.

More than a dozen other urban community development volunteers were spread out over adjoining settlements, so we cooperated to build wider networks. The government of General Omar Torrijos supported our efforts, and soon the 70,000 squatters had their own community assembly. Beyond the tangibles, such as roads and potable water, came the pride of self-empowerment. Together, people of meager means, can achieve a great deal — a powerful lesson for them and me.

Traveling through South America during our vacation days, we witnessed two things. Our Panama neighbors were hardly alone in their poverty and marginal living conditions. We saw it everywhere. Second, we experienced the vitality, diversity, and richness of Latin America’s many different cultures and places. Now, more than 40 years later, it remains my favorite region to visit.

My time in the Peace Corps put many human faces to the economic and social problems that I would later study in my doctoral program. Fellow volunteers became life-long friends. The experiences remain vivid and rewarding. Like many returned volunteers, I took up a career in education. Also like many volunteers, I have a sense of guilt about all I learned and how little I could actually contribute to bettering lives in Panama.
-Richard W. Slatta

In 1964, I was assigned to develop agricultural marketing cooperatives in the mountainous area around Cajamarca, a small town in Colombia. One day, I rode out to meet a campesino leader helping me with the formation of a cooperative. He lived on the steep slopes of a mountain community. Socrates, my fickle and contrary mule, quickly climbed the incline until we approached a locked gate. The path was extremely narrow. I reined in Socrates close to the sheer wall of the mountain on my right. I needed all of the space I could in order to dismount. When I swung my leg over, he moved laterally to his left toward the open, downward slope! As I dismounted, I fell backwards head first, with nothing to stop me except the road far below. My whole life went before me. Luckily, the tall grasses on the slope stopped my free fall and I summer salted to land on my feet. In that split second, I thought that Socrates got his final wish. The obituaries would read: Peace Corps Volunteer fell to his death while his mule, Socrates, snickered in delight.

That was history. I survived. The PC experience influenced the rest of my life.

When I returned for graduate school at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I focused on economic and social development internationally, but with a deep understanding that the theoretical underpinnings applies to the U.S as well both in its underserved and impoverished rural areas well as major urban centers. On graduation, I started my career with a stint at the newly formed Office of Economic Opportunity and worked in the community economic development office. I worked on agrarian reform in Lee County, GA; and on urban Community Economic Development Corporations in Hough in Cleveland and Bedford Stuyvesant in New York City.

The experience of working in the mountains in rural Colombia was always subliminally on my mind. When I got married in 1968, it became, along with my wife, a passion to seek Colombia in America.

My personal quest was not far removed from this seminal experience in Colombia. In 1972, we purchased a farm and began experimenting with Beefalo cattle. Initially, the operation started by importing beef and livestock from North Dakota. This led us to a local plant that was making summer sausage. After working for the Public Health Service for ten years I resigned, and devoted myself full time to the marketing all natural beef in Safeway stores gave way to marketing shelf stable meat and cheese products.

Highland Beef Farms, Inc. was incorporated in 1978. Thirty-five years later we are still raising all natural beef and our corporate mantra is selling healthy meat snacks. We have created a business with current annual sales of $5.0 M +.

The farm led to other related activities. We worked with local ranchers to participate in the Beefalo experiment. We were 20 years ahead of the curve. Coleman and Laura’s all natural beef became popular in 2000. We knew the opportunity was there; we did not have the operating capital to go full blown with contract beef, feed protocols, marketing of all cuts of beef instead of just the primes.

All of these personal facts led to the why?

Why did I buy a farm in the first place? Peace Corps — the indelible experience of living and working with rural farmers for two years.

What did I learn when I was setting up agricultural marketing cooperatives? The creating of Highland Beef Farms, Inc. in 1978, a marketing company dedicated to producing healthy snacks directly derived from the experiment with Beefalo — the generic cross between bison and beef cattle.

Why did I help set up community development corporations?
-Jay Hersch, Highland Beef Farms

The Peace Corps experience
Serendipity and choice--Both have been at play. However, it is the psychological and sociological impact of Peace Corps that contributed to this duality of fate and choice. Peace Corps has influenced choices and shaped my life to the present, 45 years after serving in Colombia. And it has influenced my wife and family of three grown sons.

The Peace Corps changed my perspective on the world because I experienced a different way of life. I gained a better cross-cultural understanding and a new appreciation for education.

Cross-cultural understanding
I lived with a Mozambican host family for 10 weeks of training and continued to visit them frequently throughout my service. We started as strangers who did not speak each other’s language, but grew to become genuine family. Although surface things were different than how I had grown up: how they bucket bathed instead of showered, how they killed their chickens and cooked them over the fire instead of buying them frozen and baking them in the oven, and how they went to a Pentecostal church instead of the Presbyterian one I was raised in; fundamentally we were the same and came to understand that. We laughed, cried, ate, danced, worshiped, and experienced all the human emotions and feelings together.

I learned that our education system, though far from perfect, is such a gift because every child must attend school until age 16 and we have teachers that consistently show up in the States. We generally have enough desks, pencils, classrooms, and even provide free lunches for children of poorer families at school. I watched many schools meet in make-shift tents or under trees because there were no classrooms. The students sat on empty sacks because there were no desks, and often lacked writing utensils. I was exposed to widespread corruption in schools — I was shocked at the amount of students sleeping with teachers to improve their grades and how often teachers changed grades to make their schools look better. Little integrity was preserved in the classroom. I have a new passion for fighting against corruption in the schools and for education because it is essential for development of a country.

My service in the Peace Corps affects my thinking daily now that I have returned, and I am so grateful for all the invaluable lessons I learned.
-Gracey Uffman, RPCV, Mozambique, 2008-2010

It taught me about silence, about listening more than I speak, and about making the words that I say more meaningful and helpful. It taught me about service, about focusing on others, and about how helping others is a choice, not a profession. Peace Corps taught me about the kind of person I wanted to be and how I need to work at that every day. It involves exercise and nutrition, projects and grants, kindness and smiles, relationships and love, friends and strangers, both foreign and familiar. Peace Corps gave me the time and space to be the kind of person I knew I needed to be, the quiet I needed to hear myself and others for the first time, and the resources to make a change in my own life and from there the world.

Maybe most of all, Peace Corps taught me that people, perfect strangers, want to love us. I learned that we can choose to hide from that all of our lives if we want, but if we choose to open to it instead we are allowed an opportunity to grow. When we admit that we are good enough to receive that, we start to give more deeply than we did before. We start to care about actual people, not numbers or ideas, titles or achievements. We start to become part of the solution. We start to do what Gandhi asked us to do, "Think of the poorest person you have ever seen and ask if your next act will be of any use to him.” This is a volunteer responsibility we can all accept everyday, and it’s how Peace Corps has changed my life forever.
-Travis Hellstrom, Peace Corps Volunteer Leader, Mongolia(2008 - 2011)

Pre- Peace Corps Thoughts
College students in Rio de Janeiro frequently asked me to join their clubs, teach English, discuss democratic goals and spend more time on campus. Fresh out of graduate school in the US and the Marine Corps I was a junior officer in Brazil with the United States Information Service to learn about our overseas information programs in 1956/57. Field trips to rural Brazil evoked campesinos complaints about shortage of potable water. Outhouses were often located next to groundwater wells. I started thinking America’s young people could make a noted service to themselves and overseas communities by spending a year or two teaching English at colleges or helping solve basic hygiene issues working with villagers. Next assignment in Nicaragua congealed some of these thoughts about overseas service for college kids. Again English teaching at the universities and shortage of simple housing along with rural water issues cried for attention. Colleagues agreed with me that fulltime American young people could make a difference. By 1960, posting in North Sumatra prompted me to send a proposal to Jakarta and USIA recommending young Americans volunteer one or two years to serve in universities and rural areas with USIS or USAID-type organization.

President Kennedy’s Peace Corps initiative by luck and fortune came to life in 1961. And in 1962, Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver came to Indonesia. President Sukarno asked him for about 30 Peace Corps athletic coaches to train Indonesian athletes for the upcoming Asian games. They were outstanding in their positive influence before the Peace Corps was evicted in 1964 due to a Sukarno misunderstanding.

Today the Peace Corps is back in Indonesia, mostly in English teaching. Doing great!
Fred A. Coffey, Jr. (FSO - Ret.)

As Americans, ranging from educated middle classes to elites to people on welfare, we are granted basic access to food, water, education, information and human rights.  It’s easy to say and intellectualize that the majority of the rest of the world does not enjoy access to these basic rights but it’s another thing altogether to be immersed in an impoverished community and integrate yourself as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  You become friends with people who have to make tough choices between paying public school fees for their kids or just putting food on the table once a day — and you don’t judge them when they don’t send their kids to school because as an integrated PCV, you learn to understand their circumstances, and gain an appreciation for the fact that education comes in many forms.  Most average Togolese could run circles around me in terms of basic survival knowledge. So I learned to be grateful and humble — I shared what I could with my friends in Togo but I also returned home to the U.S. with a greater appreciation for the life I had been provided by my family and by virtue of my American citizenship. 
In more tangible terms, I picked up another language — I had studied French all the way through University in the U.S. but serving in a Francophone country allowed me to practically apply the language.  I gained other skills that are attractive to potential employers: public speaking, resourcefulness, initiative, follow-through and determination. 
For me Peace Corps absolutely lived up to its “Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love” slogan. I was stretched to my limits emotionally and physically on a constant basis. Finally, my Peace Corps experience fostered ability to respect and work with people who come to the table with a perspective completely different than my own.  
-Elizabeth Ategou, Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Embassy Bangui

Perspective. I had been back in the States for 20 minutes when I walked in the front door of my childhood home. Of the 1,002 days before this moment I had passed exactly 12 in Eugene, OR. All of which, were before I ever set foot on Paraguayan soil. So many of the little things; the location of furniture, the pictures on the wall of the stairwell, the hood over the woodstove and the woodstove itself, had changed. Prior to serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer I would have been fixated on these physical, surface differences. Yet, something had changed in me. I quickly found myself shrugging off these cosmetic alterations and noticing the things that had not changed.

My God! I could sleep in that fridge; it’s huge! I thought to myself. Oh my, we have shelves that are full of plates, cups bowls, smaller plates, and mugs! There were pots and pans hanging just like there always had been. A four-burner gas range with automatic lighters and the cupboards were stocked with food. A sink, a dishwasher! Most amazing of all, this entire kitchen was situated indoors and in the same building as the house!

Over two short years I became accustomed to living without a refrigerator, without running water. I washed dishes in the same buckets I used to bath and do laundry and transport manure; I ate dinner off the same plate I had eaten breakfast; the kitchen was in four different places. All of this I was taught by my new family, my new community around me. I ate like them, drank like them, slept like them. I lived a life I had never known. I found a lifestyle and culture I had never seen nor experienced prior to my Peace Corps Service.

Now, surrounded by what I have I am humbled and slightly overwhelmed. At times I want to use all of it and just spend the whole day cooking things I never could have back in Paraguay. Other days I feel sick about it, I want to pack up the excess and ship it down to Paraguayan friends and family as soon as possible. Regardless of these emotions, I know that I am a more complete individual with the perspectives I gained by serving in the Peace Corps. For that, I am forever grateful.
-Nathan Forster, PCVC Paraguay

I heard my name called just as I stepped outside my tent and looked up to see three young men rapidly walking toward me across the dusty field. The one in the lead was waving a newspaper and carrying an expression of anxious concern on his face.

It was early August of 1966, the halfway point of my two-year Peace Corps assignment in Iran, and I was teaching English for the summer at a training camp for young men who, in lieu of military service, had joined the country’s Literacy Corps to teach children in remote villages that didn’t have schools or teachers.

Instructors and trainees all lived in tents in an encampment adjacent to a tiny agricultural village about six miles outside the central-Iranian city of Esfahan. A small group of trainees would often come to my tent during free time in the afternoon to chat, particularly to ask me about life in the United States. Girls, politics, university admissions, and our growing involvement in Vietnam were among their interests. I tried as best I could — in simple English or my limited Farsi — to be informative and to dispel what I considered to be misperceptions and prejudices they had developed about American society and lifestyle.

On Fridays, the Moslem holy day, most of us, instructors and trainees alike, would take a a bus into Esfahan. We would stroll along the city’s central promenade, visit its bazaar and cultural sites, and get a good dish of chelo kebab (rice and marinated lamb) at a restaurant.

Most recently many of us had gone to the cinema to see a John Wayne film. The next afernoon a few of the regulars came by my tent to talk. They asked why Americans were so violent. Knowing that they had just seen the movie, I struggled to explain that the violence they saw in American westerns exaggerated a frontier lifestyle that long ago had disappeared.

By the end of our conversation — which also touched on the assasination of John F. Kennedy, whose portrait woven into Persian carpets could be found in bazaars throughout the country — I felt confident that I had dispelled their most negative impressions and had convinced them that Americans were not the Texas cowboys they were accustomed to seeing galloping, six-guns ablaze, across the silver screen.

But now, a few days later, here came the threesome with the newspaper that had been delivered that morning. What did I have to say about this?, asked my chief interrogator as he pointed to the lead story. It reported that on Monday, Aug. 1, Charles Whitman had gone on an hour and a half shooting rampage on and around the University of Texas campus in Austin before police fatally shot him.

In addition to killing 16 persons and wounding 32 others,* Whitman shot down my credibility with this impressionable group of young Iranians. During my later career with USIA and the State Department, recollection of my tent-side chat would often remind me that events beyond control or anticipation could undermine the messages we were carefully trying to craft for our foreign audiences and contacts.

*Among the victims, I later learned, were two Peace Corps trainees preparing to come to Iran. One was killed; the other recovered from his injuries to complete his Peace Corps service.
- Guy E. Olson , FSO (ret.)

I grew up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, then matriculated at the University of the South, a small liberal arts college, in Sewanee, Tennessee. Life in the south was comfortable, but in those years the region was struggling with racial issues. I yearned to see a bigger world beyond, meet a different set of people, find out more about myself and my role in life. One summer I signed on to a church work camp in Tanzania. That experience convinced me to apply to the Peace Corps. Although I truly wanted to go, I also thought that an African experience would be preferable to a Vietnam sojourn. So when my colleagues went into the military or home to run the family business, I flew to Bismarck, North Dakota for Swahili training. Immediately my world changed - not only with immersion in an exotic language, but also surrounded by fellow trainees from diverse backgrounds. We shared idealism and a disdain for conventionalism, but were apprehensive about what the next years in Kenya would bring. Two months later, with more than a smattering of Swahili under our belts and growing confidence in our technical expertise, off we went.

I had passed through Nairobi two years earlier so it did not surprise me, but the beauty of Kenya did have an impact — sweeping vistas, huge lakes, hulking mountains, verdant rangeland and millions of small farms. The people too, as I would soon come to know, provided that new window on the world. It was true that the world of rural Kenya was indeed smaller than that of mine at home. But contrasts were striking. How people approached family, work, education, time, responsibilities and religion differed. And as I began to understand their values, I also understood mine better too. We volunteers have hundreds of cross-cultural stories about communications that went awry or that struck a solid note of shared humanity. For example, one of my counterparts came to me in tears of grief to report his mother had died and that he had to return home (with a loan- read gift). I sympathized and complied. Two months later: more grief and “my mother has died” (and the need for another loan). I asked about his previously dead mother. He assured me that mother was my “father’s other wife, this was the mother who bore me.” So in sadness, I learned about Luo family relationships.

My assignment was to build a rural water system that would provide clean piped water to 1500 small farms. We built a dam, a head works and laid a hundred miles of pipe to communal watering points. Nothing was as exhilarating as to hear the water rushing into the tanks. I am proud to say that the system functions well today — forty years later. It’s impact on health and education of girls (who previously had to fetch water, but after piped water could go to school) was immense. It was the type of grassroots development that works.

My two years in Kenya changed me. I matured. I became more tolerant, more understanding that differences provided opportunities. I developed management and leadership skills and became committed to economic and social change in Africa. Also, I met a Peace Corps teacher that I later married. At the end of my service, however, I still had the travel bug — so three colleagues and I bought an old Land Rover and drove to England. Ultimately, I went to graduate school in international affairs, joined the Foreign Service and spent the next forty years working in Africa or on African issues in Washington. I credit my Peace Corps time as the inspiration for my vocation.
-Bob Gribbin (Kenya 1968-1970)

With only three months left until my service here in Thailand is finished I find myself thinking about how this experience has changed me quite often. I can see that I am now a much more patient person than I was before I came here. I have gotten used to simple things taking a very long time. Late bus, no problem! Teacher comes to school an hour late, no problem! I have learned to “cool my heart” as a Thai would say. I can go with the flow. I have also noticed that I am a much stronger person than I was 2 years ago. I remember feeling really scared about a lot of different things. Scared to the point of not being able to do whatever it was that I needed to do. I still find myself feeling scared now, but unlike before, I am able to push myself to do what needs to be done. Maybe that means figuring out how to get the huge snake out of my bathroom, or maybe it is means me going down stairs in the middle of the night because I think I hear someone in my house. Whatever the scary situation may be, I now feel like I am strong enough to handle it. I am sure that once I am back home with my family and friends I will begin to see many more changes that have happened within me that I haven’t necessarily been able to see yet.

If I had somehow not grasped it after months of training, I understood clearly as I stood with my duffel bag in the plaza of a Colombian village named Junin and watched as the Peace Corps jeep disappeared over the horizon that my life had just changed. It was still early enough in the life of the Peace Corps that sites for volunteers were chosen via what I used to call the dartboard approach, i.e., some Peace Corps official sat before a map of Colombia and tossed darts at it. Where they landed was where the next crop of volunteers, nearly all of them “BA generalists” like me, would be sent, to engage in something known in those days as rural community development. This is only a slight exaggeration.

Junin was to be my home for the next two and a half years. It’s been almost a lifetime since I left there, and I still find myself sorting out what it all meant; what, if anything, I accomplished; and how it changed me. I would like to be able to say that I went from being a callow and self-centered graduate student to a world-aware and sensitive sort, but that, too, would be an exaggeration. I do know a couple of things, though: I got much more out of those years than the dear people of Junin got out of me, and that still makes me feel guilty. And I emerged unable to look at the world or my own country’s place in it in the same way. I recall one early incident that, along with other experiences, ended up changing me in those very ways. One evening, a few weeks after I arrived in Junin, my Spanish ability still embryonic, I wandered into a little café. I was introduced to the local judge, a man from Colombia’s Caribbean coast and therefore as different from the Andean people of Junin as he could be. He was dressed in a suit, his hair slicked down and his shoes shined, and he wore glasses. “So you’re the gringo,” he said menacingly. “What are you doing here? Spying for the CIA?” He went on for a while about the American imperialists and so on. I wanted to — but with my spare Spanish couldn’t — tell the fellow that if I were working for the CIA, I sure as hell would not have come to Junin. But I just had to take it. I was furious, mostly at myself for not retaliating, despite what we had been told in our training about avoiding “political discussions.” But, unexpectedly, I realized that I felt mostly defensive, and, of all things, for my own country. Later, I came to realize that the nasty judge had actually done me a favor. From the perspective of some 44 years later, this is going to sound naive, but, surprisingly so given the strong feelings that I harbored toward the U.S. government during those Vietnam years, the guy unwittingly helped me understand that I felt something for the United States, something like love, or was it tough love?
-Joe O’Connell, VOA & FSO (ret.)


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