‘There isn’t an app for this’
By Martha Hunter Shepard ′66
Hard to believe, but this year is the 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps, the program President John F. Kennedy first suggested on the 1960 campaign trail. He envisioned people living and working in developing countries while promoting peace and a positive image of the U.S. Making good on his plan, he launched the program in 1961 as a federal government agency. Inspired by the youthful, charismatic president and a strong desire to make a difference in the world, young people flocked to join. Since 1962, 91 Rhodes alumni have volunteered for the program, and 14 are currently serving around the world.
The Peace Corps—you can volunteer for it, train for it, but no one can tell you exactly how to do it. “There isn’t an app for this,” says a Peace Corps ad. Charley Killinger ’64, who served in Sierra Leone from 1965-67, backs that up: “As most of us quickly learned, our jobs extended to the limits of our time and imagination and regularly led us into untested waters.”
Plying those waters for five decades, they’ve propelled Rhodes’ ranking to the top 10% of colleges and universities in the Southeast that produce Peace Corps volunteers.
Signing on for a 27-month commitment, they’ve worked in some of the neediest places on the planet, serving in villages, towns and cities, and countries that may surprise you: C.C. Schardt Cannon ’75 worked in a leprosy control program in South Korea; Jen Cushman ’89 taught English in Russia; and Alison Stohr ’03 and Dara Chesnutt ’10 taught English in Ukraine. All volunteers must be invited by the host countries, and demand far exceeds supply.
Rhodes alumni have brought, and still bring practical assistance to those striving to build better lives for themselves and their communities. Volunteers teach in secondary schools, universities and law schools and are involved in adult literacy programs and environmental education. They coach student athletic teams, advise local credit unions and entrepreneurs on microfinance and work with citizens on health care issues, these days with emphasis on AIDS prevention and education. They’re involved in programs ranging from building basic cookstoves from—and for—sustainable materials, to marine resource management. Some live in mud huts, eat native “delicacies” (at least once), learn the language and win the enduring gratitude of those they came to serve.
To a person, they’d agree with Tom Geiger ’64, who served in Panama: “It was more than a two-year experience; it became an attitude that you can make a difference wherever you live.”
The Early Days
Dan Bowen ’62 was the first Rhodes alum to go. From 1962-64 he taught at a boys’ secondary school in Lilongwe, Nyasaland. The assassination of his boss and hero, President Kennedy, in 1963, broke his heart. During his second year, Nyasaland, a British protectorate, gained its independence and became the Republic of Malawi.
Other volunteers have witnessed political change and military unrest in countries around the world.
Catherine Liddell Skapura ’62, who taught English and biology in Nigeria from 1965-67, faced—and got through—a roadblock of soldiers during the Biafran War.
The name of Janice Baker’s ’63 school in Guinea was changed from the Collège Technique to Lycée Ho Chi Minh “as part of the Guinean government’s effort to show solidarity with other developing countries.”
Sierra Leone had gained independence from Great Britain the year before Charley Killinger ’64 arrived to teach African history and assist the country’s Department of Education in transitioning from its colonial curriculum to one with local and regional roots. However, violence erupted at the diamond mines near the Liberian border, an omen of devastating civil conflict that would eventually envelop his town and school.
When Lisa Meredith VanLandingham ’67 arrived in Venezuela to teach English and art, the country had held an election and was embarking on its first democratic government. The start-up was halting, the people were apprehensive, but things finally got into full swing.
Walt Ogburn ’70 and his wife Marilyn volunteered in Chile, where he taught marine biology at the Catholic University of Chile, an enjoyable experience, he says, notwithstanding high inflation, a nightly curfew and highly visible armed military and police forces.
Bizza Nelson Britton ’76 began her service in Benin, but after an attempted military coup resulted in her being held in a police station for several days, she transferred to Congo, where she coordinated mobile public health clinics and managed a nutritional rehabilitation program for children.
Deb Efird ’84, who taught biology in Liberia, experienced an attempted but failed coup in the latter part of 1985. The ensuing unrest led to a horrible civil war that lasted almost 20 years, she says.
Yet they’ve kept going.
The Hardest Job You′ll Ever Love
“They say Peace Corps is the hardest job you’ll ever love,” says Lisa Lanier Krift ’76, who with her husband Tom served in the Philippines from 1981-83, helping groups of small farmers transition from their reliance on water buffalo and hand threshing in the rice fields to mechanized farm equipment through a microfinancing program. Her experiences were similar to those of other alumni:
“It’s not just finding a fulfilling assignment and feeling like you’ve been able to make a difference in people’s lives—it’s having the opportunity to test one’s own limits. Can I learn this language (Tagalog, in our case) well enough to make friends or be understood on the job? Can I really live in a tiny hut without air conditioning in the 100 degree heat? How will I eat another meal from a well-meaning neighbor or friend that has strange (to us) ingredients, like fermented duck egg or buffalo brains? Can the flying cockroaches really be this huge? And do they bite? (The answer is ‘yes.’)
“During our first month of training, we had to live for three days with a poor family in the barrio. The family gave us their only double bed—a wooden frame, no mattress or pillows. We brought our own mosquito net, but were embarrassed to use it for fear we’d insult the family. The hand pump and pit latrine were out back where the pigs and chickens ran. The meals were meager—rice flavored with pork fat and some bitter gourd or greens, very typical of most villagers’ fare. We didn’t yet know enough of the language to communicate with words, only by charades. And flies were everywhere. Bruised, bitten, sleep deprived and hungry for familiar food and modern hygiene, we wondered if we’d made a big mistake by joining the Peace Corps. It definitely tested our mettle! But we learned from that experience that we could survive without the creature comforts.
“I can’t say what our service meant to those with whom we worked, but we went to visit our site several years later and found that two of the three farmers’ groups were still going strong with their projects. And our friends and neighbors were so happy to see us, happy that we thought enough of them to come back and visit them. Can we measure the impact in dollars and cents? No, only in smiles and hugs.”
There are successes, failures and— perks—in any job. For Peace Corps volunteers, they come in many forms.
When Tom ’64 and Eleanor Lawrence Geiger ’64 served in Panama from 1967-69, Tom was assigned as an adviser to Panamanian credit unions. Eleanor, who was in rural community development, helped establish the first women’s health education program. She taught a 40-year-old mother of six children how to read, and the day Victorina wrote her name for the first time they were both in tears.
Mary Palmer Campbell ’79 served as a secondary school science teacher and boys’ basketball and girls’ track coach in Swaziland in 1979-82. Her students frequently wished that they had an opportunity to “serve” in another country.
Chris Christie ’81, who taught law at a Cameroon university from 1985-87, remembers the students not registered for his classes fighting outside over the places closest to the open windows so they could hear him teach.
Serving in Liberia from 1983-85, Gregor Turk ’82 refined a prototype cookstove, then trained three co-workers to build them. When he left, one of those coworkers continued the project as a small business.
Ellen Smead Dassaboute ’01 was a community health worker in Benin from 2001-03. An 8-month-old baby whose mother suffered from mental illness was severely malnourished. The custom was to neglect such children, but Dassaboute placed the baby in an internationally-run orphanage in another town, where he thrived.
Richard Johnson ’04 served in environmental education in Dominican Republic from 2005-07. He got the local youth group to write a proposal to buy more trash cans, which they got, and which became a great source of pride. When Johnson visited a year after his service was up, one of the youths photographed him by one of the cans, explaining that the trash was now being picked up each week and hauled off to a landfill. Also in Johnson’s remote Dominican community there was a child named Jackie Chan and a dog named Kobe Bryant.
Aizaz Tareen ’06 currently serves as a public health volunteer in Kenya. His main project is implementing the President’s Malaria Initiative, a joint U.S.-Kenya program. During breaks, he’s been able to travel throughout Kenya, pet cheetahs, lions and elephants, go white-water rafting and bungee jumping on the Nile, climb Mt. Kenya and swim in the Indian Ocean.
Sarah Brooks ’08 served in Thailand from 2009-11 as a community based organizational development volunteer. She helped develop and manage an all-girls youth group, which received an award for its recycling initiatives. When local government officials approached the group—not her—about funding a new agricultural project, she felt happy for her friends, but sad for herself. Later realizing that the group was standing on its own, any feelings of sadness were replaced with feelings of accomplishment.
Dara Chesnutt ’10 teaches English as a Foreign Language in Ukraine. She believes her presence there is a daily reminder to her students that there’s more to life than their coal mining town. She says she’s also able to give them a positive understanding of America beyond what they see in films and politics.
The ultimate payoff for the majority of volunteers is highly personal. Moss ’05 and Merritt McMullen Driscoll ’06 currently serve in Tanzania. Moss works to develop locally supported sustainable fisheries. Merritt is a health education volunteer who, she says, values the opportunity to see the world through a new lens, experience life from a new perspective and learn and grow along with her community.
Katy Spurlock ’86 taught secondary school in New Guinea from 1986-88. The experience of living in a developing country was like a “reality check” that made her appreciate the most critical possessions she had: her education and the choices it offered her. Ethan McClelland ’09 served a year in Senegal from 2009-10, training rural farmers in improved agriculture techniques. While his time was short, it was a period of profound personal growth. His advice to volunteers: Understand that you are providing perhaps the only friendly interaction some person may ever have with an American, and realize that while the Peace Corps lifestyle may not always be a happy one, it is something much more beneficial—it is fulfilling. He wants to continue to work in other areas of international development.
What inspires people to volunteer for the Peace Corps? President Kennedy was the spark for Dan Bowen ’62, Charley Killinger ’64 and C.C. Schardt Cannon ’75. Dan Bowen, in turn, inspired Tom ’64 and Eleanor Geiger ’64. Rhodes faculty played their part too—Chuck Orvis advised Chris Linder ’94, Mike LaRosa counseled Bryce Ashby ’00, Merritt Driscoll ’06 was enthralled by Pete Ekstrom’s tales of his time as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Rhodes course work played its part. Ellen Dassaboute ’01, like many Rhodes alums, majored in International Studies. She says she was intrigued by her political economy classes and wanted to get out into the world and see what poverty and social justice really meant.
Some had studied abroad and already knew what it meant. Many more were involved in volunteer work at Rhodes. Campus posters, speakers, recruiters, high school teachers, camp counselors, even movies helped light fires. Stacey Greenberg ’94, who served in Cameroon from 1994-96, credits one: the character Baby, who was going to the Peace Corps in the movie “Dirty Dancing.” Greenberg says that after seeing the movie five times while in high school, she thought joining the Peace Corps was a good thing to do. At Rhodes, she volunteered at the soup kitchen and became involved in hunger and homelessness issues. She was also inspired by a friend’s father who had been a Peace Corps volunteer.
Some alums had direct contact with the needs of the world. Bizza Nelson Britton ’76, the child of missionary parents, was born and raised in Congo, where she later served from 1977-79.
When Gregor Turk ’82 was 12, his father, a surgeon, took his family to Haiti for volunteer work at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital. Intimidated by the destitution he saw there, Turk says he developed a desire to gain a better understanding of the world by spending time in another culture while helping others. Later, serving in the Peace Corps in Liberia from 1983-85 would fill that bill.
Deb Efird ’84, whose uncle was in the foreign service, grew up hearing about his family’s experiences living and working overseas. Efird served in Liberia from 1984-86, 60 miles from where Gregor Turk was assigned. They were able to get together from time to time.
Daniel Pellegrom’s ’97 father headed an international nongovernmental organization, so he paid attention to what was going on around the world. The summer before his senior year he worked for his dad in Uganda and Kenya, where he decided the Peace Corps was the way to go. He worked in water, sanitation and health projects in Ghana from 1997-99.
Returned Peace Corps volunteers don’t leave their experiences at the door. They travel with them back to the States, and forward into careers. Some examples:
Catherine Liddell Skapura ’62 wanted to teach, but says she wasn’t good at crowd control. She worked in a chemistry lab and is now a volunteer adult literacy teacher.
Janice Baker ’63 did graduate work, was a policy analyst at the Congressional Research Service, served on Jimmy Carter’s Presidential Commission on World Hunger, worked at New Mexico cultural organizations and at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, DC, and at the National Science Foundation, and is currently researching World War II internment camps in Santa Fe.
Tom ’64 and Eleanor Lawrence Geiger ’64 lived in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, where Tom was with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the conduit through which all U.S. foreign aid flows and which President Kennedy also established in 1961. Tom’s last post was as country director for Peru. Eleanor volunteered as a local fundraiser and helped Peruvians market handicrafts through the fair trade movement.
Charley Killinger ’64 says teaching history in Sierra Leone convinced him to make a career of it.
Lisa Meredith VanLandingham ’67, a retired Spanish teacher, now volunteers as an interpreter for the local Health Department.
C.C. Schardt Cannon ’75 is a career physician assistant at a rural health clinic. Her daughter recently completed a three-year term as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali and China.
Bizza Nelson Britton ’76 realized she was best suited for a role in clinical health care. She is a nurse practitioner, currently serving as a coordinator for hepatitis services for the Louisiana Department of Corrections.
Lisa Lanier Krift ’76 and her husband have lived all over the world working with Save the Children.
Gregor Turk’s ’82 experiences in Liberia influenced his career path—as a visual artist he says he continues to draw on the content and context of much of what he saw and did there.
Deb Efird ’84 had decided to become a doctor before joining the Peace Corps; however, she’s done, and plans to do more, international pediatric work.
Kellie Lartigue-Ndiaye ’88 joined the Centers for Disease Control after her Peace Corps service in Senegal, serving as a training specialist and public health analyst and helping form the CDC Avian Influenza Group.
Jen Cushman ’89 has continued to teach and is currently dean of international education and an associate professor of German at Juniata College.
Courtney Ward Chavez ’91 changed her teaching focus from Spanish to English as a Second Language.
Chris Linder ’94 is now pursuing his passion, microfinance, especially with mobile (phone) banking and how it can improve financial inclusion for the poor in India.
Bryce Ashby ’00 worked as program director for Latino Memphis, and is now an employment attorney representing people in cases of wage theft, work injuries and discrimination.
Ellen Smead Dassaboutte ’01 worked in international development and public health after the Peace Corps. She is now a certified nurse midwife for underserved U.S. populations.
Rebecca Held ’03, who came home knowing she wanted to work in the environmental field, recently got her master’s in Environmental Policy and Conservation Biology from the University of Michigan.
Alison Stohr ’03, who is in law school, is interested in international law, which she credits to her time in the Peace Corps.
Richard Johnson ’04 now works in community development for a nonprofit in Philadelphia.
Sarah Brooks ’08 wanted a career in international development and has begun working on her master’s of Development Practice at Emory University.
Keeping in Touch
Many volunteers made lasting friendships with the people they served, which they cherish to this day. They keep in touch, they visit, certainly they think of them often.
Fifteen years after their service in Chile ended, Walt Ogburn ’70, and wife Marilyn vacationed there with their three children. They were amazed that a waitress at their favorite coffee shop remembered them and their oldest son, who was born there. Many of the Ogburns’ coworkers and former students have come to the U.S. for graduate studies and returned to Chile. Ogburn says that while it’s gratifying to think he and his wife influenced their friends’ careers and gave Chilenos a better understanding of U.S. people and culture, they’re convinced they gained much more from living in Chile than they contributed.
Last fall, C.C. Schardt Cannon ’75 and her husband traveled back to South Korea with other former volunteers at the invitation of the South Korean government. South Korea is the only Peace Corps recipient country that is now a donor country—it has its own volunteer program and sends volunteers to other countries to help out. She says it was amazing to see the progress there and very humbling to visit the town where she had originally served.
Says Daniel Pellegrom ’97 of his time in Ghana: “I think about it every day, no exaggeration.”