Rhodes Alumni in the Peace Corps
With 91 alumni having served in the Peace Corps and 14 currently overseas, Rhodes ranks 15th among 250 colleges and universities in the Southeast region producing Peace Corps volunteers.
Established in 1961, Peace Corps helps students jumpstart their career and provides graduates opportunities to serve in 77 different countries. Service is a 27-month commitment. Throughout 2011, Peace Corps is commemorating 50 years of promoting peace and friendship around the world.
Some personal accounts of Rhodes alumni who served and are serving in the Peace Corps:
Nyasaland (now Malawi) 1962-64
From Bill Davidson ’62:
Dan Bowen was one of the first from Rhodes to enter the Peace Corps. He graduated in 1962 and reported for training at Syracuse in fall of that year, with 41 others headed for Africa. By mid-January 1963 he was teaching algebra and geometry in Likuni Boys Secondary School in Lilongwe, Nyasaland. He began with 23 classroom hours per week and later added 10 hours of English and one geography class at night. He also was the adviser to the student newspaper. He taught in English in the British colony, but learned phrases in Chinyanja, the local dialect. While he was in country, Dan′s boss and hero President John Kennedy was assassinated, and in July 1964, the east African country gained its independence and became Malawi. It must have been an exceptionally trying time for Dan who was so intense in his concern and sensitivity to the difficulties of others. A major theme that ran through his correspondence was “how simple African life was, but how wonderful were the people.” Dan and my wife exchanged letters monthly and in the one following Kennedy’s death he wrote:
I have never been so shocked by anything in my life and things certainly do look bleak for the USA. I cried over his death as if he were a member of my own family. I have never felt so strongly about a president. He was loved by the Africans, and my students have grieved just as much as I have.
African Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) at the time had 30 days free time at $5 per day. Dan and his buddies visited the nearby countries, Tanganyika, Zanzibar, Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Rhodesias and South Africa.
His two-year PC stint ended in December 1964. He took classes in German at the Goethe Institute in Berlin and hung out in Europe before returning to the U.S. and graduate school at UCLA in African Studies, 1965-66. He had a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship in his pocket—no surprise because his academic record, forever, was tops. At Rhodes he was Phi Beta Kappa, as well as president of ODK, with several positions in student government. Over the summer of 1966 he taught at MUS awaiting return to UCLA for fall semester, but on August 6, a rainy-day auto wreck ended his life.
During October 2010, Jim Curtis ’60 presented the college a painting, a gift from Ethiopia Dan had given him.
Catherine Liddell Skapura ’62
I taught English and biology at St. Rose’s College, a girls’ school. A memorable anecdote I call “Running the Roadblock During the Biafran War:”
I had been to Onitsha to pick up supplies for the school (St. Rose’s College). I had the use of an old VW bug that had belonged to the school’s elderly Irish principal who had gone home on vacation about a year before and was never heard from again. The road was narrow and dusty, and I was sweltering in the heat. There was a long line ahead of me and nobody was moving. The soldiers were hassling the car at the front. Many people had gotten out of their cars and were standing around talking.
The heat apparently affected my brain and I just pulled out of line and drove straight past the soldiers. It was so unexpected that they didn’t even lift their guns. I had driven completely out of sight and was not worried. There were three Nigerian men looking to hitch a ride, so I stopped and picked them up. Farther on down the road, the men in the back seat suddenly started jabbering excitedly. Then they tapped my shoulder, saying, “Stop! Stop!”
I could see the soldiers coming with their guns out the window. I pulled over and the soldiers pulled up behind me. The three men threw themselves on the ground in front of the soldiers, begging the soldiers not to shoot us, saying things like, “She came here to help us. She doesn′t understand.” The soldiers told the men to take off. They told me to drive back to the roadblock, which I did.
When I got back to the roadblock the same line of cars was still waiting. Now absolutely everybody was out of their cars and gathered around me and the soldiers, happy to have some entertainment. All of a sudden I burst out crying. This was the funniest thing a Nigerian had ever seen in his life—a white woman crying. They literally rolled on the ground laughing. We all got control of ourselves and the soldiers decided they should be cautious. They assumed I was the wife of one of the Germans (rather than a lowly Peace Corps volunteer) who was running a factory loom in Asaba. The Germans were no-nonsense people.
The soldier said, “Don′t go tell you Mann and cause a lot of trouble. Just write down why you ran the roadblock.” I did and they let me go.
After PC I wanted to teach, but was no good at crowd-control. I worked in a chemistry lab for 25 years, and have volunteered for the Laubach Society, teaching immigrants to speak English. Currently volunteering for Project Second Chance, teaching illiterate adults to read and write English. My current student is a woman from Afghanistan who had never been to school and could not read or write in her own language.
Janice Baker ’63
Republic of Guinea 1963-65
Peace Corps Headquarters 1998-2001
While riding a bus in downtown Memphis in 1963, I saw an on-bus advertisement for an aptitude test for anyone interested in becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer. I immediately knew that was the job for me! It would combine my interest in helping others and in experiencing non-Western cultures. I took the aptitude test and accepted the first position offered. My training began in July 1963 at Dartmouth College and continued at Columbia University. I arrived in Guinea Oct. 12, 1963.
I taught beginning English to French-speaking students (all boys) in the College Technique of Kankan. In 1964 the school was renamed Lycee Ho Chi Minh as part of the Guinean government’s effort to show solidarity with other developing countries. As a personal project, I studied Malinke, the local language, so I could converse with market women and others.
I learned to view my “American way of life” as one of many ways to live and realized that the American way was not always the best way. I saw that Guinean traditional leaders (not the Westernized ones) received respect and authority from how much they gave away to improve the community, not from how much they kept for themselves. I lived among people who were poor in material goods and had few options for a better future, yet they had a rich cultural tradition and generally enjoyed life. They believed that hospitality and sharing were always possible, no matter how little one had. They taught me that if everyone helped everyone else just a little, everyone would make it.
My students got to know an American who did not fit the image of Westerners, which they learned from the political party line and in their history classes (taught by a North Vietnamese). Because we volunteers lived among and shared daily life with local residents, instead of living in an isolated compound as some foreigners did, the town residents and volunteers got to know each other well and became friends.
The people of Guinea moved a step closer to achieving an ideal of that time: a united states of Africa. French-speaking countries wanted to teach English in their schools, and English-speaking countries wanted to teach French. The goal was to have common languages throughout the continent (and with other parts of the world) and thereby establish closer international ties.
Boubacar’s shirt: Most of the boys (ages 13-18) in my English classes wore clothes that we might consider rags. One day Boubacar came to class wearing a lovely new shirt. When I commented on it, he told me that his mother had made it for him as a gift. He beamed with happiness. A few days later another boy came to class wearing what I thought was Boubacar’s shirt. Then another boy wore it, and another, until most of the class had worn the shirt. I asked Boubacar if indeed it was his shirt that others were wearing. He said, “Yes, they all like it and want to wear it; isn’t that wonderful!” When the shirt finally returned to Boubacar, it was soiled and had a small rip, but he was obviously pleased that his friends had shared his happiness over the precious gift from his mother. I thought of my U.S. friends who refused to let their siblings wear and “ruin” their new clothing.
Cross-cultural communication: A 40-year-old Fulani man named Mamadou worked as my cook and helper. He cooked on a charcoal stove and washed dishes in a tub of cold water drawn from a river. For health reasons I wanted him to rinse my dishes in boiling water. I asked him to do that on several occasions; he ignored me. Finally I tried to explain to him about germs in the water that could be on the “clean” dishes. He took a plate into the light and asked me to show him the germs. I replied that we could not see them because they were tiny, but I knew they were there. He threw up his hands and left the room. He continued to wash dishes in cold water. I gave up trying to explain the germ theory. Some days later we were talking about Fulani culture and his experience living in Kankan, which was a Malinke area. Mamadou was married to a Malinke woman. I asked if he continued his Fulani customs or if he had adopted Malinke ways. He replied that he kept his Fulani customs and that it was essential to maintain his links to his own ethnic group. A light bulb went on in my head. “Mamadou,” I said, “I belong to the American ethnic group and we always rinse our dishes in boiling water.” “Well, why didn’t you say so?” he replied indignantly. From that time on, he rinsed my dishes in boiling water. Once I could explain what I wanted in terms that fit his own view of the world, he was eager to please.
I continued my interest in cross-cultural interactions by getting a M.A. in U.S. History, a M.A. in Comparative World History focusing on Africa and Latin America, and a Certificate in African Studies. During the 1970s I worked as a policy analyst for the Congressional Research Service, specializing in international agricultural trade, U.S. food aid programs and African agriculture and trade. When President Carter set up the Presidential Commission on World Hunger, I joined the research and writing staff. After the commission ended, I moved to Santa Fe, NM, intrigued by the beautiful landscape and diverse cultures (40% Hispanic descendants of Spanish settlers, 40% Anglos, 10% Native Americans and 10% other groups). For a year or so, I worked for both the Historical Society of New Mexico and the Museum of New Mexico Archaeology Division. Thereafter I worked as a writer at Los Alamos National Laboratory and as a management analyst for the New Mexico Administrative Office of the Courts. In 1998 I returned to Washington, DC, to work at Peace Corps Headquarters (2.5 years) in volunteer support and then at the National Science Foundation (3 years) as a researcher and writer. I retired in 2003 and returned to Santa Fe. I continue to pursue personal research on the World War II internment camp in Santa Fe, which housed many Japanese from Latin America. My interest in seeing other cultures has taken me to 37 countries in Africa, Europe, Latin America and Asia—and I’m not through yet! My next trip, if circumstances permit, will be to Egypt, Jordan and Syria in November 2011. A personal goal is to visit every Spanish-speaking country. I have been to seven so far.
Tom ’64 and Eleanor Lawrence Geiger ’64
President Kennedy roused and challenged America to make the world a better place, especially for those living with little or no hope to rise out poverty and neglect. His tragic assassination in November 1963 only strengthened the resolve of those committed to social justice and freedom for all peoples. Graduating in 1964 and having majored in International Studies, Eleanor spent the summer working for a law firm in Memphis. In the fall, she planned to enter Peace Corps training to be a volunteer in Ethiopia. I was headed to law school in St. Louis at Washington U. School of Law.
I too had majored in IS, was interested in the Peace Corps, but wanted to complete law school first. Jay Rockefeller had captivated me when he spoke about Peace Corps at a Rhodes chapel; and a friend, Dan Bowen ’62, was then a volunteer in Africa. Eleanor and I had dated at Rhodes; and I was not anxious to see her go to Peace Corps without me. I asked her to postpone Peace Corps, marry me, and promised we’d join Peace Corps after law school. I fear that if she had not been on her way to Africa in the Peace Corps, her parents might not have given their approval to our marriage. Fortunately, their misgivings about Peace Corps Africa outweighed any they had about me.
In my last semester of law school in January 1967, we applied to Peace Corps and asked for Africa. We wanted Africa because Eleanor had originally been on her way there and because Peace Corps had a law teaching program in countries like Liberia. Instead Peace Corps offered us Panama. Eleanor had studied French and I, German. Wouldn’t you know that the USG would assign us to a Spanish speaking country! We knew little or nothing about Panama. In 1965 U.S. troops had shot and killed a handful of Panamanian students attempting to raise their flag in the Canal Zone. This tragedy doubtless made Panama a priority for expanding programs to improve relations. We accepted the assignment to Panama and entered training in late July 1967 at Camp Crozier in the Puerto Rican rain forest.
Because I had studied basic accounting in law school, Peace Corps trained me as an adviser to Panamanian credit unions. Peace Corps trained Eleanor in rural community development. We had five hours a day of Spanish, six days a week. We were both at the como esta level when we were dropped in Purio, a small village in the Azuero Peninsula about 200 miles west of the Canal Zone. Purio had a credit union with about 29 members and a capital of about $9,000. I worked with the credit union’s manager, Lidia Perez, a single Panamanian woman who had the confidence of nearly all Purienos. Loans helped people buy materials to cover their dirt floors with concrete, build outhouses, start chicken projects, stock a small tienda, purchase calves or piglets to raise, or pay off usurious loans from informal lenders. Only one or two families with large land holdings in Purio had any access to credit through formal banks or savings and loans.
Eleanor was considered by Peace Corps to be the “secondary” volunteer to my “primary” assignment with the credit union movement. In practice the opposite occurred. She and other Peace Corps spouses in nearby communities established the first women’s health education program that dealt with “family planning,” then a controversial topic in rural Panama. This program involved classes for campesina women many of whom learned the basics of reproductive health. Eleanor also launched a breakfast feeding program for malnourished children and organized a bus trip to visit the Panama Canal which no one in Purio had even seen. Eleanor helped several people raise vegetables to introduce more nutritious diets to members of the Mothers Club. She taught sewing to both women and their daughters on a treadle sewing machine donated by CARE. 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.
After Peace Corps we tried living in St. Louis where I worked in a commercial law firm. Soon we both missed living and working overseas. Peace Corps had indeed changed us. It was more than a two-year experience; it became an attitude that you can make a difference wherever you live. I applied to the U.S. Agency for International Development and went to work in the General Counsel’s office where my Spanish and cultural familiarity with Latin America were very helpful assets. We soon were able to go back to Latin America and lived there for seven years, first in Bolivia and then in Peru. We returned to the U.S. for 10 years and then went to Ecuador and Peru for six years where I was director of USAID and worked in allocating U.S. humanitarian assistance in development programs to these countries. The hands-on experience of Peace Corps gave me valuable insights into the complexity of directing U.S. foreign aid where it was needed within the cultural and legal parameters of both Latin America and the US.
In all of the years of working in USAID in Latin America, Eleanor was a volunteer and involved in fundraising for local charity projects organized by spouses at the U.S. Embassies. The years as a PCV helped immensely in meeting with local Latin women at the grassroots levels. Her sewing skills helped the Presbyterian Church (USA) form a nonprofit that taught Peruvians how to make and improve handicrafts which were sold in the U.S. as part of the fair trade movement.
Fifteen years living in Latin America gave both of us a good command of Spanish which has proved helpful in working with Latinos in the U.S. Eleanor directed an information clearinghouse for newly arrived immigrants to Alexandria, VA, from Central and South America. She also enjoyed teaching ESL, remembering the difficulties of struggling to learn Spanish.
So perhaps the most important lesson of Peace Corps is that our common hopes and dreams unite us more than the cultural details that divide us.
Charles Killinger ’64
Sierra Leone 1965-67
Like many of my generation, I was inspired while at Southwestern by John F. Kennedy’s call to service. Professor David Amacker advised me in applying, and I had had the good fortune to be sworn into service by the late R. Sargent Shriver, whose framed letter of acceptance still hangs on my wall.
After training in Chicago, I headed for West Africa where optimism abounded as the region gained independence. I spent two years teaching African history and assisting the Sierra Leone Department of Education in its transition from the archaic colonial curriculum to one that derived from local and regional roots.
As most of us quickly learned, our jobs extended to the limits of our time and imagination and regularly led us into untested waters. I coached soccer and track, worked in construction, building a clinic and a school, and helped set up a CARE program that fed our undernourished students for two cents per day each. I read into the early hours by kerosene lamp and under a mosquito net preparing for class. My parents mailed my old track spikes so that a promising sprinter would not have to compete in bare feet. But for all the effort I threw into my two years, I left knowing that I had benefited far beyond anything I had contributed.
Reflecting on those years, I remember vividly a number of experiences: Turning back in the face of a six-foot green mamba dangling from a tree that overhung my path to school; watching in amazement as a soccer match came to an abrupt halt as all the players and fans chased a cobra with sticks; driving a van across washboard roads toward a clinic as the windshield shattered while the team’s goalie moaned in the back seat with a broken leg; hitching a ride on a bus with Randy Weston’s American jazz orchestra, then hooking them up with African musicians who traded instruments and played until dawn; listening to the students cheering outside my house when the external exam grades came back from Nigeria; camping in game parks in Kenya and Tanzania and on the beaches of the Indian Ocean; body surfing in the Atlantic; trying to walk up Mt. Kilimanjaro in shorts and sandals—unsuccessfully; climbing into the window of a refugee train to escape the civil war in Biafra. Above all I remember my students: Bimba, Albert, Saidu and all the rest. And I hope that somehow, in spite of the terrible conflict that ensued, they survived to enjoy a productive future.
Peace Corps training introduced me to Chicago in the summer of ’65. We were housed on the South Side at 56th and Drexel, just north of the University of Chicago. Each morning I walked through Washington Park, patrolled by the infamous Blackstone Rangers, to Wendell Phillips High School to teach U. S. History to an uninspired summer school class that immediately challenged all my resources. With new friends, I walked past Black Muslim headquarters to the nearest Lake Michigan beach, passing Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robey House and so many splendid Hyde Park homes; took the El train to old Comiskey Park to watch the White Sox play and up to the Loop to visit the Art Institute and its spectacular collection of Impressionist paintings. We played touch football in Grant Park and we ventured north to Rush Street to hear the Paul Butterfield Band (using Howlin’ Wolf’s drum set) pound out the blues, Chicago style.
Those are revered memories, especially because training afforded little free time. At this point in its evolution, the Peace Corps was committed to train volunteers in the U. S. so that they could literally step off the plane, speak the local language and find the culture familiar. Thus each day was filled with intensive language and cultural studies, the best of which were the lectures by the renowned Roosevelt University anthropologist St. Clair Drake. My Temne and Krio language classes were taught by Sierra Leoneans, who engaged us in conversation and beguiled us with cultural anecdotes. Each afternoon we described our teaching experiences to a small group of trainees led by a professor who tried his best to ease our frustrations. And each day ended with physical exercise, focusing on activities that we could expect to supervise, such as soccer (“futbol” in Krio). In a time when soccer was not widely played in the U.S., I learned that 11 players make a side, and finding it difficult to keep my hands off the ball, I decided that any future I might find in the game would be limited to tending goal.
Months of training culminated in the much-feared psychological interview, derived from the assumption that Peace Corps service would subject us to serious stress. We had all heard the stories of volunteers who had not lasted through the first year or had succumbed to bizarre behaviors. It was at this time that we discovered the truth to the rumors that we were being observed throughout training and that the observations had been recorded. “Mr. Killinger,” came the question with a wry smile, “did you find teaching summer school to be challenging?” Apparently my responses did not set off any alarms, because the next week I had had the good fortune to be sworn into service.
As the trainers had planned, I stepped off the plane in Freetown to find the place and the people strikingly and strangely familiar. Arriving in Port Loko, 70 miles into the bush, I was greeted by locals with amused disbelief that a white man could speak their language (apparently few British expatriates had bothered to do so).
As I began my long-anticipated two-year adventure, my expectations soared. Optimism abounded as all of West Africa gained independence. Milton Margai, Sierra Leone’s first prime minister and author of its constitution, was a national hero, much to be valued in a country attempting to overcome both tribal barriers and its colonial past. I hoped to make my own timely contribution by teaching and assisting the Sierra Leone Department of Education. I found my living quarters on the campus of an Anglican school, and began to unpack the exceptional paperback library that the Peace Corps had provided us. Few pages went unturned. Among my favorites was Chinua Achebe’s now classic Things Fall Apart, which inspired a series of exchanges with Professor Dan Ross. Either Professor Ross found my comparisons of Achebe to Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons to be of some merit, or he simply knew that I would appreciate a letter.
To begin our second year, my roommate and I, determined to immerse ourselves more fully in local life, left the campus to live in a mud-walled, thatch-roofed house owned by the local chief and inhabited by him and several of his wives. We managed to pay the rent from our modest subsistence allowance, and the move proved memorable, especially because it regularly exposed us to the rich traditions of West African food, music and dance.
Inevitably, we found our idealism challenged. Some of our students, angry at losing a soccer match, attacked the rivals’ bus as it passed through town, an act that led to suspension of our team. Albert Margai, who had succeeded his brother in power and was faced with the prospect of losing to labor leader Shaka Stevens, called off national elections on a flimsy pretense and proclaimed martial law, something we were made aware of by BBC radio. And violence broke out at the diamond mines near the Liberian border, an omen of devastating civil conflict that would eventually envelop my town and my school.
The disappointments, however, were relatively few in contrast to the many rewards. For all the effort I threw into my two years, I left knowing that I had benefited far beyond anything I had contributed. Teaching history convinced me to continue in grad school, and with John Hemphill’s assistance, I accepted a fellowship to William and Mary’s Department of History. The decision was made more difficult because accepting the fellowship meant turning down an offer to travel throughout the country in a jeep to train teachers to modernize the history curriculum.
As prepared as I had been to arrive in Africa, I felt strangely alienated when I left. As I landed in London, the air was cold, the music, hairstyles and fashions—Mod miniskirts and go-go boots—were unfamiliar. Most disturbing were the questions posed to me as an American: “Why is the U.S. in Vietnam?” I found myself on a train in Switzerland, attempting to answer in French to a student who then translated into German a response that would not have been convincing in any language. It was at that point that I knew that I had to get a grip on my identity in order to readjust, because nothing had prepared me for this ironic form of reverse culture shock.
Above all, I remember my students: Bimba, Albert, Saidu and all the rest. And I hope that somehow, in spite of the terrible conflict that ensued, they survive to enjoy a productive future.
Lisa Meredith VanLandingham ’67
I heard about the Peace Corps from a recruiter who spoke at a Wednesday assembly in the gym.
I taught English and art at an elementary school and did a community development project paving a road in a neighborhood where before there was only a dirt path. The project was accomplished by forming committees, raising funds through local projects, petitioning the government for materials and redirecting the funds by using local labor to complete the concrete gutters and road surface. I’m sure the experience meant more to me than any other individual involved, but I hope I left organizational ideas that have continued.
One of my most vivid recollections is that very soon after our volunteer group arrived in Venezuela, there was an election and Venezuela embarked on its first democratic government. The start-up was halting, as the people were apprehensive, but things finally got into full swing.
I am now a retired Spanish teacher, and my career path was totally influenced by my experience in the Peace Corps. While a volunteer I became fluent in Spanish and am now bilingual. When I returned to the States, I went to graduate school at Memphis State and received my master’s degree in Spanish two years later. I taught Spanish at the college level for three years and at the high school level ever since. As a retiree I volunteer as an interpreter at the Health Department and hope to use my skills in similar capacities for as long as I can. The Peace Corps gave me skills and an appreciation for volunteerism.
Walt Ogburn ’70
My wife, Marlyn, and I had been married two years and had both just finished graduate degrees when we joined the Peace Corps. Marlyn had considered the Peace Corps before we met and one of my graduate school professors gave us Peace Corps recruiting information and encouraged us to apply. I visited several countries while I was in the Navy after graduating from Southwestern but wanted to really get to know people somewhere outside the U.S. and see the world through their eyes. The Peace Corps seemed like a perfect opportunity.
We look back on our time in Chile as one of the most enjoyable and rewarding periods in our lives, even though inflation was too high to measure, there was a nightly curfew, and armed military and police forces were highly visible. The Chilean people and the beauty of their country overcame the negatives of life away from our families and little access to what we had considered basic necessities in the U.S. I worked as an assistant professor in the Department of Marine Biology and Technology at the Talcahuano campus of the Catholic University of Chile, teaching marine and intertidal ecology and participating in research on coastal marine ecosystems. Marlyn worked in hospital administration and rural health education, with a focus on maternal and neonatal care. We both collaborated with Chilean counterparts to help ensure that what we did was relevant and would be continued after we left.
Chilenos are warm and friendly and we still keep in touch with a number of good friends we met through our jobs and our daily lives, including coworkers, neighbors, students and Peace Corps staff. They invited us into their homes, shared their customs and outlooks and taught us to look beyond the United States, to appreciate the differences between cultures that make this such a big world, but also the common values we all possess. When we vacationed in Chile with our three children 15 years later, we were amazed that a waitress at our favorite coffee shop remembered us and our oldest son, who was born while we were in Chile and had been an instant icebreaker with his red hair and blue eyes. A former coworker invited us to an all-day birthday party for two of his children and drove us around our old neighborhood so we could show our son where he lived during his first 10 months.
Many of our coworkers and former students have come to the U.S. for graduate studies and returned to Chile to continue work that we feel connected to because of our links to them. It is gratifying to think we influenced their careers and gave Chilenos a better understanding of U.S. people and culture, but we know that we gained much more from living in Chile than we contributed. My Peace Corps experience did not directly affect my career path in environmental consulting, but it gave me language and cultural skills that have been invaluable on projects in Latin American countries and an ongoing interest in people and events from other countries.
Cecilia “C.C.” Schardt Cannon ’75
South Korea 1975-77
I became interested in Peace Corps because of a deep belief that I had received so much in my life, I needed to give back. I was completly enchanted with John F. Kennedy’s call to ask what you could do. And, like almost all volunteers, I received so much more than I gave.
After graduation from Rhodes with a B.S. in biology, I was accepted into Peace Corps and left in October 1975 for a leprosy control program in South Korea. Talk about life changing! I came back with a career (I’m now a physician assistant in a rural health clinic) and met my future husband. We married, had three children, and our daughter just completed a three-year term as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, W. Africa and Sichuan, China.
While working in South Korea, I saw the real need for mid-level health practitioners. After my service, I pursued a career as a physician assistant. I have always worked in medically underserved areas in rural health centers and thank South Korea for the wonderful experience I had there with the leprosy work.
During my time in South Korea, I struggled with the language and learned smiles go a long way. Early on, I would routinely confuse the word for “rice” with “snake” and would be met by peals of laughter when I would ask for more “snake.” Also, culturally, Koreans only use their right hand. I would be sitting at a bus station, writing with my left hand, and strangers would come up to me, take my pen, and place it in my right hand. This only got solved once I had mastered enough Korean to explain that because our president was left-handed (Jimmy Carter), all Americans were required to be left-handed. It was a pretty dogmatic society and this was something they could understand (of course I had my fingers crossed).
Last fall, my husband and I 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 now and sends volunteers to other countries to help out. It was amazing to see the progress in the country and very humbling for me to visit my original town I had served in.
Elizabeth “Bizza” Nelson Britton ’76
Democratic Republic of Congo 1977-79
I was born and grew up in the Congo (Democratic Republic of Congo) as the child of medical missionaries. At Rhodes I majored in Cultural Anthropology, and wasn’t ready to commit to graduate school right away. I was ready to “go home” for awhile, or at least travel and live somewhere outside the USA, so the Peace Corps was a great fit. I was asked to go to West Africa, to the country of Benin, to work in a health educational program for primary schools. It was a completely different culture and physical environment from where I had grown up: sand storms from the Sahara, Muslim culture, extremely limited water resources, and of course, not the great music of the Congo! But the people were fabulous, the food interesting. I traveled around West Africa and got to teach a little English to high school students on the side.
After an attempted military coup while I was there, which resulted in me being held at local police station for several days with all the other “foreigners” (African or non-African) and the completion of the incorporation of health topics into the primary school curriculum, I accepted a new Peace Corps assignment in DRC, coordinating mobile public health clinics for children under 5, and managing a nutritional rehabilitation program for children.
During that period the DRC was experiencing major drought, and there was widespread malnutrition along with epidemics that greatly impacted the pediatric population the Congolese staff, nursing students and I served.
Those two years in the Kasai Province opened my eyes to the reality that I didn’t want to be an administrator, but would be happiest, and best suited, for a clinical role in health care. After returning to the States in late 1979, I started nursing school at the University of Tennessee, graduating with a master’s in Nursing. During my career as a nurse practitioner, I have worked with many different patient populations in a wide variety of settings: working with veterans, starting up school-based clinics in underserved urban areas, and during the last 11 years serving as coordinator for hepatitis services for the Louisiana Department of Corrections. The first liver I opened was at one of the largest maximum security prisons in the country, Louisiana State Penitenary, known as “Angola”—in some ways, similar to the hospital and clinics I had worked in Congo! I think that my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer, and certainly my parents’ example of serving as medical missionaries for over 30 years in Africa and China, put me on a path of seeking to serve those who are disadvantaged in our society. I feel privileged to have lived, worked and traveled in so many different cultures and settings. It has enriched my life, and I hope, makes me a more opening, compassionate and generous person.
Lisa Lanier Krift ’76
I first became interested in PC when I was about 13 years old (1967!), back in the early days of the agency when there was still a lot of excitement about it. It held a lot of appeal for me: There was potential for great adventure in far-flung places, I loved the idea of helping those less fortunate than I, and I could fulfill my sense of patriotic duty by representing my country. My mom added fuel to the flame by recommending a book, The Zin Zin Road, by novelist Fletcher Knebel (who also wrote Seven Days in May) in which he painted an exciting picture of the lives and roles of PCVs. After reading it, I was hooked, but it was a roundabout road to actually joining PC.
I served along with my husband Tom Krift in the town of Plaridel in Bulacan Province, north of Metro Manila within the area known as the “rice basket” of the country. We were in the Small Farmer Income Generation program. PCVs had different ways in which they worked with small farmers at their site. Our original assignment was to work with a provincial cooperative bank that was set up by the government of the Philippines to provide credit to small farmers for various agricultural inputs. However, once we started talking to the farmers, we realized they were being completely enslaved by the system and there was a lot of discontent about the government program. So, we started looking for alternative ways to work with the farmers and ended up linking with a USAID pilot program that worked directly with the farmers rather than through the government system. Our specific assignment was to work with three farmers’ pre-cooperative groups, about 20 members each, helping the groups manage and repay loans for farm equipment they could then rent out to group members and non-members. Rather than ploughing with water buffalo or threshing rice by hand, small farmers were able to graduate to more efficient, mechanized methods of production at reasonable cost, spreading the credit risk across the group members. After making loan repayments to the USAID program, they were also able to make a small profit on equipment rental that could be re-invested for future equipment purchases and maintenance. We worked with the groups on bookkeeping, equipment management and maintenance, and leadership development.
They say Peace Corps is the hardest job you’ll ever love. 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! All in all, it was very uncomfortable and awkward. Bruised, bitten, sleep-dreprived and hungry for familiar food and modern hygiene, we wondered if we’d made a big mistake by joining Peace Corps. It definitely tested our mettle! But we learned from that experience that we could survive without the creature comforts. Our confidence grew from that realization and we were able to move on from the mundane aspects of village life to more meaningful insights and experiences that the Philippines had to offer.
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!
At the end of our three-month PC training, our Filipino trainers prepared a celebration for our “graduation.” They set up a pavilion with lights and decorations and spent all day preparing food for us. That evening, we all convened for skits (mostly making fun of our cultural bloopers during training) and a ceremony, followed by a grand feast. The PCVs were given places of honor and served big plates of fiesta fare, treated like royalty. Our trainers were so excited to observe our reaction to all of their hard preparations. We tucked in with anticipation, only to find that, as guests of honor, we’d been served the “best” bits of the roasted pig—big chunks of dripping fat. It wasn’t easy, but we swallowed it. And over time, we even learned to love it (as long as accompanied by plenty of cold cerveza!).
In Philippine culture, it is customary for married couples to produce a child approximately nine months after their wedding day. It was jokingly referred to as “family planting” as opposed to family planning. If a couple does not have a child within the expected time, it is also customary for virtually everyone who comes into contact with them to ask “why not?” My husband Tom and I endured this constantly for the entire time of our service. The sequence of questioning usually went: 1. How long have you been married? Our answer: 3 years. 2. How many children do you have? Our answer: None yet. 3. Do you have a problem? (Usually directed to me, as the woman.) My answer: No, we use family planning. 4. What kind of family planning? Our answer: vague, hoping they’d get the hint. One day, at a meeting of farmers, the local agricultural extension officer proceeded to go through the sequence in front of the whole group. We politely tried to deflect, but the ag extensionist would not let it go. It was incredibly embarrassing, but it would’ve been very rude to tell him it was none of his business. We instead turned it around and asked him equally personal questions which he proceeded to answer without any inhibitions whatsoever. One of the lessons we learned early on as PCVs is that we need not only to appreciate the culture in which we are living, but to assimilate in order to survive!
My desire to work internationally was one of the reasons I applied to Rhodes, one of the few colleges that had an International Studies major at the time. After Rhodes, I got my M.A. at University of Kentucky, where I met my husband-to-be. We moved to Washington, DC, after grad school, where Tom worked for the Department of Energy and I had several consecutive jobs working at international consulting firms and an African affairs newsletter. I enjoyed my work but it was more administrative, entry-level; Tom hated his bureaucratic civil service job. Mulling over what course to take, we observed that everyone doing jobs we would like had been PCVs. So, we decided that it was time to take the plunge. Since Peace Corps, we’ve remained in the field of international development. We were lucky enough to both get jobs with Save the Children, a nonprofit relief and development organization and, after a year in the headquarters, were assigned back to the Philippines for three years. (Our eldest son was born there.) Following that assignment, we lived in Kiribati, Tuvalu, Bangladesh, Russia, Malawi, Palestine and Turkey before returning to the U.S. in 2005. So, an emphatic YES, Peace Corps had a tremendous influence on our career paths! (Tom is still with Save the Children as VP for International Operations, while I began consulting after we moved to Malawi.) We still see ourselves moving abroad again—it’s hard to stop checking to see what’s around the next bend! We’ve even talked about joining Peace Corps again someday when we aren’t so tied to kids and parents.
Mary Palmer Campbell ’79
I became interested in joining the Peace Corps when I saw a flier on campus about the same time that I was reconsidering my plan to attend medical school. I had missed the deadline for UT (it was spring of your junior year back then). Having lived in Bolivia for a year in high school as part of an AFS exchange, going overseas seemed easier than interviewing for jobs. I served as a secondary school science teacher and boys’ basketball and girls’ track coach there, which gave me time to recover a sense of self and purpose in a more relaxed atmosphere after some fairly intense years at college.
My students frequently wished that they had an opportunity to “serve” in another country. We can forget that even when we are giving things up to travel to a foreign country we still have opportunities that most of the world will never know.
Being there was the first time I experienced real prejudice. I had never thought of my opportunities being limited by my sex or size before, which is a huge credit to my upbringing. I am short—5’2”—but I played basketball at Rhodes. I am one of four sisters and four brothers, but I never had a clue that some people perceive differences in what women and men can do or achieve. Africa then was a very male-dominated continent. It was an introduction to how different people could see me, that I had not experienced before. The color of my skin mattered so much less to them!
I went to to medical school when I returned. I thought that I would go back overseas, but haven’t yet, except for a brief mission trip. From my overseas experiences, I think you need to live in a place for a while to be effective there, and I haven’t made the time for that. But the day is not over yet.
Alice J. Smith, Edward Wheatley and I were all PCVs from the class of 1979. We did not know that the others were going until graduation, but we kept in touch during our service, and I still correspond with Alice yearly.
Chris Christie ’81
I joined the Peace Corps because I was interested in serving and in the adventure of living in another culture. While at Rhodes I was involved in the Kinney Program. Primarily, I had a little brother through Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Greater Memphis from my freshman year to today. The Peace Corps was an extension of my volunteering during college.
In Cameroon, I taught law (torts, agency and sale of goods) at the University of Yaoundé School of Law and Economics and helped run the Peace Corps training for new volunteers during the school break.
One or two interesting anecdotes of my time in the Peace Corps: Would you rather hear about our being served monkey head in a remote Bamoun village, my being threatened by a soldier with a machine gun for not bribing him, or my wife’s emergency abdominal surgery in a Cameroonian one-story hospital? Or about the lepers and beggars in the open air markets? Or about the college students not registered for the class fighting over the places closest to the open windows so they could listen to my teaching? Or about the handicapped children with whom my wife Donna worked daily?
The experience mostly changes how a returned Peace Corps volunteer sees the world. Most people in the United States only see what is around them, without knowing how others look at them, at the world and at us as Americans. I cannot answer what the experience meant to those I served; I hope they learned as much as I did.
My little brother experience: In 1977, Anthony Brassfield and I were matched by Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Greater Memphis. He was eight years old and I was 18. Anthony was an only child, his father had died years earlier, and Anthony’s mother wanted him to have a male role model. His mother worked hard to provide for them. Anthony became part of my life. My college friends knew him and always treated him well. Anthony and I even had a picture together in the Rhodes 1981 yearbook.
While I was at Rhodes, Beth Simpson was director of the Kinney Program. At times, Anthony and I would be involved in Kinney projects, like cleaning up an inner-city school playground. I also became involved in recruiting others for Big Brothers/Big Sisters, both on campus and off, with Anthony and me even being interviewed on several radio programs.
Once a week, Anthony and I would spend about half a day together, usually doing something fun. Often, we ate together. At times, I helped him with his homework. We went to sports events on campus and off, we went bowling, to parks and to museums, and we just played.
As often happens, my relationship with Anthony started out as a way for me to do something for somebody else, but mostly it taught me about Memphis, about life and about myself.
After I graduated, I left Memphis, but we stayed in touch and have visited. Anthony was in my wedding several years after graduation. When he was considering becoming engaged, he drove his fiancée, Melanie, from Memphis to Birmingham to get my approval. Anthony is still married to Melanie and has a daughter, Shana. He works as a computer technician for a big company in Memphis.
Gregor Turk (’82)
When I was 12 my father took our family to rural Haiti for volunteer work at the Albert Schweitzer Hospital (he as a surgeon and the rest of us with whatever we could do to help out in the wards). I remember being intimidated by the destitution. My perception of the developing world at that time was defined primarily by two extremes: Sally Struthers histrionic pleads to “save the children” and National Geographic’s glossy pages. I had a desire to gain a better understanding of the world by spending time in another culture while helping others. Peace Corps filled that bill.
I was trained in appropriate technology (“small is beautiful”) and was able to parlay my interest and knowledge of ceramics into a project that reduced the consumption of firewood while reducing cooks’ exposure to open flames and smoke. I refined a prototype cookstove for use in rural Liberia, then trained and was trained by my three Liberian coworkers. The four of us worked with families to construct rammed earth cookstoves built to the specific needs of each household. Our program was sponsored by the Lofa County Agricultural Development Project that got funding from the African Development Bank. Upon my departure, one of my coworkers continued the project as a small business.
We worked with termite hills as a source of clay to build the cookstoves. Once, we came across a queen termite —an undulating white blob the size of three human fingers. The family we were working got all excited. The father grabbed the queen and threw it into a pan and sautéed it on the spot. I had eaten many critters while in Liberia (monkey, dog, elephant, bat, civet, rat and even toucan) so I wasn’t afraid to try this supposed delicacy. To this day it is the most disgusting thing I’ve ever eaten—like rancid gelatinous lard. I tired my best to keep a smile on my face, but I doubt I was too convincing in praising its taste.
Debbie Efird ’84 was assigned to the town of Zorzor just 60 miles down the road from Voinjama, where I lived. We overlapped about three months and got together numerous times. It was great to have a friend from college close by.
My experiences in Liberia influenced my career path—as a visual artist I continue to draw on the content and context of much of what I saw and did while there. Gaining insight to another culture has allowed me to better address the conventions and absurdities of my own culture and surroundings through my artwork.
Deb Efird ’84
I was always interested in doing international work because I had an uncle in the foreign service and had always heard about his family’s experiences living and working overseas. I also have always had an itch to travel and see the world.
My Peace Corps job was teaching biology in the local high school in Zorzor. For me the whole experience was about opening my eyes to a whole way of life that I had never experienced before. Although I think my students and others in the town were very grateful for the presence of all Peace Corps volunteers I believe I got more out of the experience than I was able to give back.
I have many fond memories of my two years in Liberia but one of my fondest is of a young boy named “Papa” (real name Forkpa) who was about 5 years old at the time. He lived next door to me and another volunteer and was a perfect example of how children all over the world, no matter what their situation, are still children and want more than anything to make friends, learn and have fun.
A not so fond memory is of 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. I have often wondered if Papa and the other children from Zorzor survived the war.
I had decided to become a doctor before going in to the Peace Corps so I don’t think it changed my career path. However, I have had opportunities to do some international pediatric work (in Guatemala and East Timor) and I think my experiences in Liberia moved me to pursue those opportunities. I hope to have the chance to do more international medical work in the future.
Katy Landis Spurlock ’86
New Guinea 1986-88
I was a secondary school teacher, grades 7-10. I went to teach English and also taught math, social science and even agriculture. (Yes, that is not a misprint. I “taught” 50 7th grade boys, ranging in age from 12-20, about the agriculture in their own country.) The school was a boarding school, and the students had two gardens—one for their agriculture class and one for their own personal use, as they had to feed themselves on weekends. With all my farming wisdom, I accidentally pulled up the carrots that one of my students was growing thinking they were weeds. I gained so much from my two-year experience. I’m not sure what, if any, impact I had on those I “served.” I’m certain they figured I was just another Westerner come to “find herself” in a poor country.
The experience of living in a developing country grounded me more than anything else. I believe the current vernacular is to say that it was a “reality check.” I would also say that it made me see just how many choices I have in my life. I had hoped to give up all the material possessions of Western life and live just like the nationals of PNG, but I soon realized that the two most critical possessions I had were my education and the choices it offered me.
My career path has been a long and winding road since then. I received a master’s in Social Work in 1994, two months after my first child was born. (He is now almost 17 years old, and his younger sister is 14.) Then, in 2006, I decided I needed to get a MBA and did the EMBA program at University of Memphis, graduating in 2008. I can certainly guarantee you that while I was serving in PNG, I would never have thought I would one day decide I needed to get a MBA.
Kellie Lartigue-Ndiaye ’88
During her time in the Peace Corps, Kellie met her husband, Karim Ndiaye. They had three sons. She passed away Dec. 21, 2007, the result of an automobile accident. After her service, she worked with AIDS prevention, testing and counseling projects in Rwanda, Zambia and Mali. She joined the Center for Disease Control in 1997 and served for five years as a training specialist and a public health analyst. Most recently, she was recognized for her role in the formation of the CDC Avian Influenza Group. Additionally, she and her husband established a nonprofit organization, Jef Jel (“Give and Take”) that brings help to the remote village of Ndangane, Senegal.
Kellie received posthumously The Thomas Jefferson Star for Foreign Service Award, which recognizes people who, while traveling or serving abroad on official business, are killed or incur a serious illness or injury that results in death, permanent incapacity or disability.
Jenifer Cushman ’89
As I was completing my doctoral dissertation in German at the Ohio State University in 1995, I was struggling with the notion of becoming an academic at a large research institution. In particular, my upbringing—including my years at Rhodes—had instilled in me an appreciation for community that I simply could not sense at Ohio State, and I was finding it difficult to reconcile my personal values of social justice and practical action with the concentration on theory and intellectual history in the department. With its mission of international engagement, the Peace Corps seemed the ideal transition channel for me in which to re-evaluate my life goals.
I taught English at the Togliatti Pedagogical University, though I cannot say what the experience meant to those I served, beyond noting the Russian students’ curiosity at meeting someone from the U.S. Although I had spent two prior years living abroad (one through the Rhodes-Tübingen exchange), Peace Corps Russia was for me a very difficult time of existential soul-searching, alienation and deep loneliness. In fact, I only served four months total: three months in training and one month on-site. In the end, I left to join my fiancé (now my husband) in Poland, where he was also serving with the Peace Corps. I could say that the experience gave me a certainty in my connection to my husband, a clearer understanding of my desire for community and a glimpse into the complexities and paradoxes of living in Russia.
The Peace Corps does not inform volunteers of their placement until the very end of the three-month training, after which volunteers move immediately to site, at least that was the practice in 1996. My fiancé, Matt, and I were training with the Peace Corps at the same time, I in Russia and he in Poland. Because neither of us had a private telephone or email access on-site, and letters took about a month one way, we spent a whole month not knowing where or even how to contact the other, waiting to receive each other’s first letters after placement.
On the very day I received Matt’s letter with a telephone number where he could be reached, I arranged with a friend to try to telephone Matt that evening from my friend’s apartment. This was no simple process in Russia in 1996, as it involved first calling the local operator to place a call to my calling card company’s center in Moscow, through whom I could then (hopefully) place an international call. I knew the process could take some time, and that the connection could be broken at any moment.
That first evening, I phoned the local operator and asked her to place the call to Moscow. I spent the next few hours trying my friend’s (gracious) patience, hanging around her apartment, waiting for the operator to work her way through the long queue of requests to call out of Togliatti. When she finally called back, she told me she had placed the call, but had broken the connection when no actual person answered. Because she did not speak English, she assumed that the AT&T automated system was an answering machine, and hung up.
Matt had given me his Sprint calling card number, and I knew that there was an actual Sprint operator in Moscow, so I arranged to return to my friend’s apartment the following evening—since it was by then close to midnight—and try again. The second evening I again waited a few hours in the call queue until the Togliatti operator (finally!) connected me to the Sprint operator in Moscow. I quickly read off the calling card numbers and the number of the school dormitory in Poland where my fiancé was living in faculty quarters. In a matter of seconds, the phone was answered in Polish, I read the phrase Matt had instructed me to use, and waited a few agonizing minutes as they went to find him, praying the connection would hold. When Matt suddenly, unbelievably answered, I was careful to interrupt our joyful greetings and insist, “Write down this number NOW, in case our connection fails!” Sure enough, a few minutes into the euphoric reunion, the line went dead.
Since I had given Matt the phone number of my friend’s apartment, I decided to wait another hour or so in hopes he would call back. As it turns out, he was not able to call internationally from the school telephone, so he ran to a friend’s apartment, quickly negotiated payment in Polish (it is worth noting that both of us were speaking broken versions of our respective host country languages through all of this), and called me back. This time the connection held.
A week later, I quit the Peace Corps and moved to Poland.
After two years teaching English at a pedagogical college in Poland while my fiancé finished his Peace Corps service, I opted to pursue a career in academia after all, but definitively and only at small, liberal arts colleges. The anonymity and public indifference of a large university in a Russian city strengthened my conviction of the desirability of community, as did my subsequent encounters with more welcoming colleagues at a pedagogical college in a small Polish town. My first professional position in the U.S. was Assistant (later Associate) Professor of German and (ironically) Russian at the University of Minnesota, Morris -- the liberal arts college of the U of M system. Currently Dean of International Education and Associate Professor of German at Juniata College in central PA (where, incidentally, former Rhodes Provost Thomas R. Kepple Jr is president), I oversee study abroad and international student services, as well as continue to teach German. It is clear from my job title and responsibilities alone how significantly both my academic life at Rhodes and my short-lived Peace Corps experience have informed my career path, and how greatly my entire professional journey has derived from my continuing passion for international education and commitment to intercultural understanding.
Courtney Ward Chavez ’91
I became interested in joining the Peace Corps in the summer between my junior and senior years. I worked at a summer camp, and a couple of my fellow counselors were considering applying. I was looking for an opportunity to improve my Spanish, and combining that with service and travel seemed like a great option, so I looked into the Peace Corps. I served in Honduras from 1991 to 1993 in Adult Education. I worked with an existing World Vision program in the state of Lempira to grow their adult literacy program. My counterpart and I trained volunteers from 12 communities to use a national curriculum and basic adult education techniques so that they could help other adults in their towns learn how to read and write in Spanish. A couple of our volunteers had never studied beyond 6th grade, but they believed in the power of education and wanted to make a difference in others’ lives. Some of our volunteers had teaching degrees from normal schools, and they worked with us to expand World Vision’s basic literacy program to include elementary education classes (1st-6th grade) for adults in three communities.
I lived in La Campa, Lempira, which was close to many of the literacy circles, and as a side project I taught English at a newly-formed secondary school there. My English students liked to hear about the USA and they enjoyed hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but I really didn’t know what to say when they demanded that I sing it in Spanish for them! They had to settle instead for a general explanation of the poem plus a short history lesson.
Serving in the Peace Corps was a wonderful experience for me, and I can only hope that I had some small positive impact on those around me. The people of Honduras are gracious and generous, and they took me in as family when I served there. Going back to visit is always a joy. Living in another country and interacting daily in another language and culture was eye-opening, and it gave me a new perspective on life. It also changed my career focus slightly. I changed my teaching focus from Spanish to English as a Second Language so that I could perhaps bring to others the welcome and the endless patience that the Honduran people showed to me as I learned their language and culture.
Stacey Greenberg ’94
This sounds so silly, but in the movie “Dirty Dancing” the character Baby was going to the Peace Corps after her summer fling with Patrick Swayze’s character. I saw that movie 5 times (!!!) while I was in high school and I guess I admired Baby, because it was sort of ingrained in me that joining the Peace Corps was a good thing to do. At Rhodes, I started volunteering at the soup kitchen (Souper Contact) and from there got involved in hunger/homelessness issues. My friend who was running the program at the time was the child of a Peace Corps volunteer. Talking to her dad and hearing his stories also inspired me.
In the Peace Corps I served as a maternal/child health volunteer. When I was leaving, my neighbor and best friend tried to “give” me her young daughter. She wanted a better life for her and thought that I could provide that. I was incredibly moved that she thought that highly of me.
I met my husband in Peace Corps training. We were in the same group coming in, but were stationed hundreds of miles from each other. We were just friends while we served, but after he came to visit me in Memphis the year after we completed our service, we immediately knew we wanted to spend our lives together. Having experienced a simpler way of life really put us on the same page in terms of starting our family and mapping out our future goals.
When I returned to Memphis I spent a year working with refugee services at Catholic Charities. From there I decided to get a master’s in Urban Anthropology.
They say that you really never know what sort of impact you have on the people because two years is a very short time in the grand scheme of things, but I am forever changed because of my service. Most of all it gave me a global perspective I never would have had otherwise. Also of great importance was learning to survive on my own in another country. I had to learn two new languages, make new friends, try new foods, operate my own household, learn new skills, and so on.
Chris Linder ’94
Mali 1994-97 (2 + 1 year extension)
I became interested in the Peace Corps when a fellow classmate at Rhodes was looking into it. He and his soon-to-be wife decided not to join. I did!
I was a Small Enterprise Development (SED) volunteer. I worked with about four different microfinance institutions (MFIs—banking for the poor) in helping them grow and improve their human resources. I also helped individual entrepreneurs with basic accounting, business planning and marketing their businesses.
It’s cliché, but I learned much more than I gave. And it confirmed the career path I wanted in economic development. I love finance but I did not want to be a stockbroker or investment banker, so microfinance was a perfect fit for me.
I still keep in touch with a few folks even after 15 years. I know that two of the MFIs I worked with are still going well. Probably my proudest accomplishment was working with a third MFI, a teacher’s credit union, that was completely defunct when I came on. We got it back on track, putting systems in place and paying down overdue debt. Several years after I left it was alive and well.
I was interviewing with banks and the Peace Corps at the same time. When I told the people at the bank that had given me an offer that I was joining the Peace Corps, they were dumbfounded and had no idea how to counteroffer since the “salary” would certainly be a lot less then anything they started with.
Some of the best advice before I joined was from Professor Chuck Orvis (economics): No matter how informal or small the business, the business fundamentals are the same—finance, economics, marketing, etc. I always said the kind of accounting I was teaching entrepreneurs who were semiliterate would make Professor Sue Legge want to undo my accounting class grades.
I have stayed in economic development for most of my career in and outside the U.S. My main passion is microfinance in which I am working now in India, especially around mobile (phone) banking and how it can improve financial inclusion for the poor.
Daniel Pellegrom ’97
My dad ran an international NGO and I always had very socially aware parents so I paid attention to what was going on around the world, and because of my dad′s work, there were always international people in my home. I remember a Christmas party as a kid when my dad′s international staff was in town and there were some Nigerian doctors at my house who had never seen snow before. I also studied abroad at Rhodes (European Studies) and then the summer before my senior year went to work for my dad in Uganda and Kenya. That is when I really knew I wanted an overseas experience.
In Ghana, my job title encompassed Water, Sanitation and Health. But if you know PC it can be a little bit of everything—just rural community development. I built latrines, set up a rain catchment system, set up a bread baking project for a small women’s group, taught in the school and put a roof on the local school. Also played a lot of soccer, hung out with the old men, and traveled all over West Africa.
I think about it every day, no exaggeration. When people tell you that the volunteer learns/gets more than the people they are there to help, I think it’s true. I learned how to be persistent, work in incredibly unique situations, and gained a unique world view. I also had a great time and got to go places very few Americans get to go.
One time my toe swelled up really big, and after a week I finally squeezed it really hard and all these eggs came out. I went to the PC nurse and she dug out a sand flea that had burrowed in and laid her eggs. I also ate cat, a Ghanaian specialty. There were also kids in my village who had maybe seen a white person before on TV, or passing in a car on the main road, but never had been close or touched one. Some were scared, others just wanted to touch my arm to see what it felt like. But the one thing I always tried to teach them was that we were a lot more alike than we were different.
I remain close to my friends from Ghana. On my 10 year anniversary of leaving, I went back and showed up in my village unannounced. It was crazy to see how it had changed. I was very proud of what my people there had accomplished since I had been gone.
Unlike most of my friends, I have worked in the private sector primarily. I was in a meeting a few months ago at PepsiCo, where I work in corporate communications, but with a sustainability focus, and one of our NGO partners was there. When I told them what I did in Ghana, I think it completely changed their perspective of me. PC also helped me get into grad school, and I think that it provides a perspective that helps in a variety of careers.
Bryce Ashby ’00
After four years at Rhodes, I knew that I was not ready to step into a typical job. I wanted to help people and challenge myself at the same time. A friend recommended that I speak to Professor Mike LaRosa, from whom as a biology major I had never had the opportunity to take a class. I mentioned to him that I was considering the Peace Corps and, although I had never met him before, he provided me some materials and pushed me to follow my instincts.
I was a Natural Resources/Environment Education volunteer. I was assigned to live in a town of 800 people that lies in the buffer zone of the Corralitos Mountains, a wildlife preserve about an hour outside Tegucigalpa. Originally, the focus of my work was to educate local teachers on the use of a curriculum that incorporated environmental education into the normal subjects of math, reading and Spanish. As I became more a part of the community, I developed a youth group that performed community service projects and participated in environmental camps with other groups from across Honduras. I also worked with three park rangers on protecting a microwatershed from contamination and building the first hiking path/observatory tower in Corralitos. Finally, I played goalkeeper for our town’s soccer team.
I gained far more from my service than I could have ever given. The chance to spend two years immersed in a community that embraced me with such love was one of the most significant and rewarding experiences of my life. I felt that every conversation, regardless of how seemingly mundane or repetitive, and every action was significant because I was learning something or making a connection to another human being. After two years and three months, I built relationships and memories that will last a lifetime. It’s probably impossible for me to say what my time there meant to the community, but I find satisfaction in the fact that I get phone calls, emails and now even text messages from my friends in Soroguara.
When I think of my time in Peace Corps, I remember such a wide range of experiences. I remember the times with other volunteers and think back to playing donkey polo at the Yuscaran fair and driving from Honduras through Nicaragua and Costa Rica down to Panama. I recall standing atop the tallest mountain in Honduras on 9/11 and the complete contrast in the feeling of contentment I felt at the moment with the feelings on 9/12 after learning what had occurred while I was hiking. I remember my community: soccer in the afternoon, laughing with my youth group and hiking 20 miles through forest to visit a one-room schoolhouse in the mountains. But, more than anything, I think of my neighbors and sitting in their kitchen every night and waiting for dinner. Our countless conversations about the world, about local news, about their lives and mine. I remember on my last night in San Francisco when the kids each presented me with a balloon. Inside each of the balloons was a wish for me written on a piece of paper. After I popped the balloons and read each wish, I realized how well they had come to know me—and how they identified goals that I never realized I had articulated. I knew at that point that the last two years of my life had enriched me with friends thousands of miles away. I could/can only hope that I touched their lives as much as they did mine.
My career choice was directly influenced by my time in Peace Corps. I gained a strong respect for the struggles of some of the poorest of the poor. How individuals, who had chispa or an innate spark, were relegated to a cycle of poverty because of a lack of educational and work opportunities. I saw also how hard the campesinos, my friends, worked for $3/day. I returned to Memphis and worked for Latino Memphis as the program director and currently work as an employment attorney where I am fortunate to represent the same type of hardworking individuals in cases of wage theft, work injuries and discrimination.
Ellen Smead Dassaboute ’01
I became interested in joining the Peace Corps through my coursework at Rhodes, as I majored in International Studies. I was particularly intrigued by Political Economy classes and wanted to get out into the world and see what poverty and social justice really meant.
I was a Rural Community Health volunteer in a remote village in Benin, West Africa. I lived without running water or electricity in Pehunco, a village 3 hours from a paved road. It was incredible. I focused most of my time on HIV/AIDS education and prevention, working with different age groups, mostly girls and young women. I also worked on nutrition and breastfeeding projects with mothers and infants. I acquired an appreciation for life in a way that I hadn’t experienced before. It became a joy to spend more time with friends and talk, to learn to be more patient. I learned how to cook more than I had ever before; I had more time to do so, and fewer resources at hand, making it an adventure.
The experience enriched my life. I don’t believe that any other experience following graduation from college would have impacted my life in similar ways. The people I worked with appreciated what we brought to the community, but I think they also at times simply enjoyed a friendship with someone who may have had different ideas or experiences to share. There was one infant, 8 months old, who was severely malnourished and neglected due to the fact that his mother had a mental illness. It was a custom to neglect these children, but I hoped to find a better solution. We ended up finding placement for the child in a regional town in an internationally-run orphanage. The child then thrived. I will remember that as one of the successes shared with my counterpart, a woman who was essentially the equivalent of the community’s social worker.
There were many funny situations caused by communication mishaps. Language is an interesting tool, and I am blessed to have learned another language and bits and pieces of local languages. However, some of my pronunciation was never quite right! I would go for walks in the morning and often pass villagers coming back from their fields. I would greet them and ask in the local language how their farming was going. Unfortunately, the word for fields and the word for the female anatomy are very similar in this particular language. For days, I would get this response of laughter and odd looks. Finally a neighbor of mine heard the joke and let me in on it. She teased me about that for over a year.
My career path since has been very much tied to my time there. I moved to Washington, DC, after returning home to work in international development and public health. I worked on projects in various developing countries throughout the world, specifically in HIV/AIDS and maternal and child health. While in the Peace Corps, I also had a desire to become a nurse, so that I could provide clinical skills and feel at times that I was providing something more concrete to those in need. I went to nursing school in ’08, and am finishing my graduate degree in nursing this year as a certified nurse midwife. I will be working in rural Tennessee following graduation, providing care to populations that are generally underserved in this country.
Rebecca Held ’03
I wanted to live in a developing country for an extended period of time so that I could become truly integrated in the culture. I also wanted to go to a French-speaking country so that I could use all of the French that I had learned in high school and college.
I was an environmental education volunteer—I worked with the elementary school in my village (drafting environmental lessons and running an environmental youth club), and worked with people in my village on environmental awareness and conservation activities (such as planting tree nurseries, building mudstoves to conserve wood while the women cook, and building microgardens that grow plants with limited water).
Peace Corps influenced my career path by confirming for me that I wanted to work in the environmental field. I have recently graduated from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment with a master’s degree in Environmental Policy and Conservation Biology.
After I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to have a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience before I settled down with a “real” job. I decided to join the Peace Corps so that I could see what it was like to live in a developing country—where life would be so different from what I had known—and where I could hopefully use some of my knowledge and skills to help the people there. I went to Senegal, on the west coast of Africa, and first spent two months training with other Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). We learned the local language and went through health, cultural and technical job training, which was a nice way to become acclimated to the country while still being around other American PCVs. After the training, each volunteer was placed in a different site, which was to be our home for the next two years.
I was placed in Lalane, a village of about 700 people. I lived in a little mud hut with a palm-leaf roof, with no electricity or running water. It was a bit terrifying at first to be placed in a community of strangers whose language and way of life were still quite foreign to me, but I soon came to love my host family and the sweet, generous people in my village, who welcomed me with open arms.
My job was to be an environmental educator, and I split my time between working with the local elementary school on environmental lessons, and working with my villagers to implement environmental conservation measures. Deforestation is one of the primary environmental issues in Senegal, so I initiated activities such as planting tree nurseries and building mudstoves for the women to cook with (which use less wood than a traditional open fire). In my free time I’d wander around the hot, sandy village visiting with people, or read/take a nap (the two were almost always connected), or go for a run in the beautiful fields behind our village, or help my host mother with the cooking (our staple dish was delicious chebugin—seasoned rice with fish and vegetables on top—and even though we had it almost every day I never got tired of it since it was so good!).
One of my favorite memories was when my parents came to visit me, and were brave enough to sleep in my hut on a borrowed mattress beneath a borrowed mosquito net. My mom was trying to talk with my host family in a few broken words that I had taught her, and kept referring to me as “Rebecca”. She was surprised to learn that they didn’t recognize my English name, but instead knew me simply as “nDella,” my adopted Senegalese name. I had become so integrated into my life in the village that I had forgotten my villagers didn’t know my real name; in fact, nDella had become as real for me as Rebecca.
Peace Corps is a fantastic opportunity to really become immersed in another culture and way of life. I learned so much from my Senegalese villagers—how to slow down and relax, speak a new language, wash my clothes by hand, balance a tub of water on my head, strap a baby onto my back and so much more. It was also a great way for me to give some of my time and energy to help others, since I have been so fortunate with the opportunities I have had in my life. I also made lifelong friends with the other Peace Corps volunteers who were in Senegal with me—it was always a treat to meet up with them in the city to speak English, drink a cold Coke and check my email! If you are looking for a challenge, a little adventure, a way to expand your worldview and a way to help others, becoming a Peace Corps volunteer is one of the best opportunities to do all of these things.
Alison Stohr ’03
I was teaching in New York City, and a few of my fellow teachers who I greatly respected were former Peace Corps volunteers. I took a trip to Peru one summer with one of them, my friend Kristy, and a few of her friends who had also been PCVs, and had a fantastic time. That trip cemented both my interest in travel and my interest in the Peace Corps. I was 25 at the time, and I felt that if I didn’t do it then, I would probably never do it.
I worked as a teacher trainer with the TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) project. My main assignment was to give seminars to Ukrainian English teachers who came from across the region in which I lived (Crimea) to be recertified in English.
I honestly think I got so much more out of Peace Corps than I gave, but I think most volunteers end up feeling that way. I learned a lot about myself, about how much of my identity is shaped by the fact that I’m an American, and about how a culture’s values play out in everyday life. It’s hard to say what my service meant to those I served, though the teachers I worked with were incredibly grateful, though a bit confused as to why I would choose to come live in their country for two years. For many of them, I was the first native English speaker they had ever met, and, for teachers who have made a career of teaching the English language, it was pretty delightful. I’m also pretty sure that, were you to go into a high school English class in Crimea, there’s at least a fair chance that they’ll be playing Jeopardy, and I like to think I had a small part in that.
I had just arrived at my site a month before my birthday, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it. In Ukrainian culture, if it’s your birthday, you prepare a large meal for your coworkers to enjoy at lunch, complete with wine and vodka. I was still living with my host family at the time, and I wasn’t sure, logistically, how to make this huge celebration happen. So, at my father’s suggestion, I decided I would try to use my birthday to introduce the American tradition (well, at my dad’s office, at least) of bringing in doughnuts to work on your birthday. So, I stopped by the grocery store in the morning and bought a few boxes of pastries and brought them in to work. When my coordinator arrived, I explained that it was my birthday, and in America people bring in something sweet to celebrate at work. She looked a little panicked and told me we would save my pastries to enjoy at lunch. I thought that was a little odd, but went along with it. As the day went on, I noticed the other methodologists (people in charge of giving seminars on other subject areas) popping out of the office, and then returning with various packages tucked under their arms. (There were about 12 methodologists in our one-room office.) As lunchtime rolled around, people started moving tables and setting out dishes of food. Before I knew it, I was drinking a vodka toast to my parents (a typical Ukrainian birthday toast) at lunch. Ukrainian hospitality at its finest.
I taught for a year at a charter school in Philadelphia after I got home, and then decided to go to law school. I’m not sure in what area of law I’ll end up practicing, but international law is definitely an area of interest, which I credit to my time in the Peace Corps.
Richard Johnson ’04
Dominican Republic 2005-07
I became interested in the Peace Corps through a Rhodes alum who was serving as a volunteer in Honduras. I served in environmental education.
After I was done, I thought: “I got through Peace Corps. I can get through just about anything.” Also, I formed a lot of great relationships while I was a volunteer, both with Americans and Dominicans. There are actually some people from my community who still call me to see how I’m doing, which has meant a lot to me.
I learned that there will be some naysayers when it comes to making a difference, but sometimes you just have to try. During my service, I noticed a big trash problem in my community. People threw their trash in the street, and/or would burn their trash before they would have it collected. Lots of people said that there was nothing that could be done. I found that the youth, however, were open to the idea of keeping their community clean. So, I got the local youth group to write a proposal to an organization in order to buy more trash cans. The proposal was accepted, and we used the grant to purchase new trash cans to go along the main street in town. The youth painted the trash cans, and they became a great source of pride for them. When I went back to visit my community a year later, one of the first things that happened was that a youth dragged me over to one of the cans and demanded we take a picture with it. The can was full, and they told me that the trash was getting picked up by the town’s one and only trash truck each week and hauled off to a landfill, safely out of range of the community.
Also, in my remote, Dominican community there was a child named Jackie Chan and a dog named Kobe Bryant. I guess you can never underestimate the pervasiveness of American pop-culture .…
I now work for a nonprofit in Philadelphia, still doing community development. I don’t think I would have gotten as far in the nonprofit field if it weren’t for my Peace Corps experience.
Moss Driscoll ’05
My wife and I (Merritt McMullen Driscoll ’06) are currently serving in the Peace Corps in Tanzania, and the experience seems to be flying by.
We are living in Mtwara, a small town on Tanzania’s southern coast, near the border with Mozambique, where I am serving in the Research & Monitoring Department of the Mnazi Bay-Ruvumu Estuary Marine Park (MBREMP). This assignment is somewhat unusual for environmental volunteers in Tanzania, and I almost certainly would be serving in a small, rural village somewhere were it not for my wife’s placement. Yet I feel very fortunate to have this opportunity, as working in the field of fisheries management was actually what I hoped to pursue after leaving Rhodes.
As a biology major, I spent most of my final two years at Rhodes focusing on issues related to natural resource management (e.g., conservation biology, ecosystem management, fisheries management). After Rhodes, I spent a year and a half in Colorado working as an environmental educator, where I became interested in water management and particularly the Colorado water law. From 2006-09 I attended law school, finishing at Tulane University, where I had the opportunity to work in the environmental clinic, dealing with issues surrounding levee reconstruction in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. After passing the Colorado bar exam, I worked for a year as a solo practioner in the public service sector (www.elkmountainconsulting.com), as Merritt and I knew we were headed overseas in June 2010.
MBREMP was gazetted in 2000 as an innovative approach to marine resource management and dealing with the issue of overfishing. Altogether, a third of the park is terrestrial land (unusual for a marine park), with over 30,000 residents, living in 17 villages, who are highly dependent on the ocean as a primary source of food and income. The park includes parts of the Ruvumu River (forming the border with Mozambique), the river’s estuary, the adjacent mangrove forests, Mnazi Bay and three small, coral-bound islands. Most of the fishing is artisanal, using traditional fishing vessels and gear (e.g., dugout canoes, dhows, handlines, woven basket traps). Despite the low level of technology and capital, the level of fishing effort is high, and as a result, many of the nearshore and reef fisheries are degraded and overexploited. The purpose of the park is to develop locally-supported sustainable fisheries management, which both benefits the park’s fish stocks and the long-term livelihood of park residents.
My work primarily entails trying to develop a long-term research and monitoring program for the park that: (a) is practically feasible (given the limited human and financial resources), and (b) generates reliable, adequate information on which to base fisheries regulations. Not only does this assignment pose a very interesting example of natural resource management, but it requires being very strategic and practical about what I can accomplish with limited resources. This is also a job that probably should be in the hands of someone with a master’s or Ph.D. in fisheries science. In a year, I will return to Colorado to resume my legal practice, but I know I will take many of the professional lessons I have learned here with me.
Outside of work, I truly value the opportunity of getting to travel and live abroad with Merritt—it’s been an adventure, and it has tested us and made our relationship stronger. Until you experience it, you can never imagine what it’s really like to live in a foreign country, with a completely different culture and language. The experience has allowed me to see life through the eyes of people outside of America, which is really one of the fundamental goals of Peace Corps.
Merritt McMullen Driscoll ’06
I became interested in joining the Peace Corps after hearing my Sociology/Anthropology professor, Dr. Peter Ekstrom, talk about his Peace Corps experience in class. He told us a number of stories about his service throughout the semester. He spoke about his involvement in building a road, working with his community, reading by candlelight in his hut at night, and about the many cultural differences and practices that he experienced. I took his class about 8 years ago, but I can still remember the very first time he told us a little about his service. Immediately after that class, I went to the computer lab and started doing my research on how to join the Peace Corps. However, it was not until 2007, when I was interested in going to graduate school to get my master’s in Public Health, that the possibility of serving in the Peace Corps became a reality, as I decided to apply for the Master International/ Peace Corps program at Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine.
I am a health education volunteer placed in Mtwara Town, on the southern coast of Tanzania. My role as Peace Corps Volunteer is different compared to the rest of my training class, as I was placed at my site to work directly with an organization called International Training and Education Center for Health (I-TECH). I-TECH is working in collaboration with U.S. Center for Disease Control and the Tanzanian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare to strengthen the training of healthcare workers in Tanzania. I am working in the Southern Zonal Health Training Resource Center and assist in the coordination and facilitation of training activities for health workers in the area, while also teaching health courses to the medical students in the training institution. I-TECH’s website is http://www.go2itech.org/where-we-work/tanzania if you are interested in finding out more about the organization.
Currently, I teach 3 courses at the training institution to students who are studying to become clinical officers (health care workers who will work at the village level in the health clinics and dispensaries around the country). The courses I teach include “Health Promotion,” “Communication and Counseling Skills” and “Entrepreneurship in Health.” Additionally, I recently completed a library needs assessment of 8 health training institutions in southern Tanzania, and I am working to get books and shelving for a number of the libraries.
So far, my time in the Peace Corps has been an amazing experience. Of course there are ups and downs, but overall, the lessons that I have learned about myself and others will last a lifetime. I have had the opportunity to see the world through a new lens, experience life from a new perspective and learn and grow along with my community. It is my hope that once I am gone, my community, coworkers and students will remember me and think of the many lessons about life and health that I worked so hard to teach. However, I hope they also know how much I have learned from them in terms of their culture and about the importance they place on relationships in life.
I guess you could call the Peace Corps part of my career path as I am currently doing the Master Internal/Peace Corps Program. After graduating from Rhodes I worked at Tulane’s School of Medicine for two years in the Psychiatry and Neurology Department. I then returned to school at Tulane’s School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine to get my master’s in Public Health/Master International Degree. I completed my course work in May 2009 and focused on Community Health Sciences, specifically Health Education and Communication. I then worked in the area of health program planning before my Peace Corps service.
Currently my time abroad is considered my practicum experience for my master’s degree. I don’t know exactly what my future will hold, but I know that my experience in the Peace Corps and my opportunity to work for I-TECH will definitely influence my future career choices.
Moss and I have a blog: www.merrittandmoss.blogspot.com.
Aizaz Tareen ’06
I graduated from Rhodes in 2006 with a degree in International Studies. Following graduation, I took a year off and traveled to Tanzania for three months to work as a volunteer teacher and work with the country director of an agricultural nongovernment organizations (NGOs). Although I was fortunate enough to travel throughout the country and do touristy things like climb Mt. Kilimanjaro and camp in the Serengeti, a majority of my time was spent in the rural southwest portion of the country. While working in this area, the people I primarily interacted with, outside of Tanzanians, were Peace Corps volunteers stationed close by. In traveling around the region and seeing different villages and people, I was struck by the difference between the Peace Corps and other international organizations. Whereas one large multinational organization would declare a disaster area, put up signs announcing their presence, and ultimately not obtain any meaningful goals to help the community, the Peace Corps quietly and efficiently worked with the community to accomplish something, no matter how small. I liked how the community treated the PCVs as their own, and how at the end of the day the volunteers embraced a legitimate sense of accomplishment.
After coming back to the States, I studied for and took the LSAT, and eventually began law school at the University of Memphis. Going in I knew that I was more interested in using the degree as a means of furthering my goal to work for the federal government, so during my second year when post-law school plans started really taking shape, the Peace Corps was a very real option. It was something I was interested in doing, I was still young, and it would also serve to bolster my future goals. I applied toward the end of my second year and shipped out to Kenya about two weeks after my graduation.
I am currently serving as a public health volunteer, which means my work is pretty broad ranging. I live on a compound in Western Kenya, a few km. from the Ugandan border along the north shore of Lake Victoria in a community called Agenga, just outside the town of Funyula. The compound houses a nutrition center that serves to feed AIDS orphans, provide growth monitoring activities for them, and refer them to the community dispensary when necessary. I’m attached to a communtiy based organization (CBO) called Malezi Bora Self Help Group that oversees these activities, and most of my work in the community involves them directly. My main project is implementing the President’s Malaria Initiative, which is a joint U.S.-Kenya program designed to combat malaria through community education. I and two other PCVs in Western Kenya are part of Peace Corps’ pilot program. The three of us were trained in the program, and we in turn trained 5 teams each (coming from our respective CBOs), who go out and conduct the sessions in the community. As PCVs our roles are strictly supervisory, as we float between sessions to ensure they are carried out as efficiently as possible. The actual sessions are handled entirely by the two-person teams, who are also members of the community.
The other project I’ve been working on is a voluntary male medical circumcision project I started with another PCV. Following a CDC report stating VMMC can reduce HIV transmission by 60%, we collaborated with a NGO to bring services to our area. We set up 6 sites throughout the district which have been able to provide services for 200-500 boys per weekend thus far.
Peace Corps has been a great experience. I’ve made some great friends here, both Kenyans and fellow PCVs, and I feel good about the work I’m doing. In the span of a week I can speak to someone in the local dialect, Swahili, and English, walk along Lake Victoria, and then go to a sanctuary where I can pet a cheetah. It’s tough being away from home and the people you care about for two years, but time is flying by. Aside from the projects I described, which I’m really happy about, during my time here I’ll have been to most parts of the country, petted cheetahs, lions and elephants, white-water rafted and bungee jumped on the Nile, climbed Mt. Kenya, and swam in the Indian Ocean. To have the chance to do meaningful work while also getting to do all that other stuff is a pretty unique experience.
When I’m done here there are a few different paths that I can take. My primary focus/interest is work in national security matters. That ranges from counterterrorism work as a federal law enforcement officer, to policy work in the Department of State. Obviously, I’m also very interested in international development work, so working for USAID, Dept. Of State, or any number of NGOs in that capacity are also options. Practicing law is another choice, but my interest is limited primarily to prosecutorial work (either local or federal).
Sarah Brooks ’08
I first began to be interested in Peace Corps when I would stay after my 10th grade high school history class to hear stories from my teacher who had served in the 1960s. My interest was furthered by the study abroad opportunities I had while at Rhodes, as these experiences taught me about myself, the world and how I fit into the world.
My assignment was that of Community Based Organizational Development Volunteer. I was assigned to assist the local government office of a village with its community development needs. In actuality I ended up working on development projects with teachers, youth groups and the local hospital.
Looking back on my experience, I can hardly find anything wrong with it. The Peace Corps afforded me the chance to test and challenge myself, learn a new culture and help the development of a community that became my home for two years. More than the training that comes with projects and the personal development, Peace Corps service fosters lasting relationships with people from another country and culture. The best part of my experience was living and working with Thai people, who often commented on how meaningful it was to live and work side-by-side with a young American female. After two years, I had experienced marriages, births and deaths with my Thai friends and family. We were truly living together.
One of the most interesting experiences I had during Peace Corps was that of a professional nature. People often join Peace Corps to figure out what they want to do with their life, or to figure out the world. While I still cannot claim to know either, a Peace Corps experience helped to set me on me on my next path of life. Here is the story:
About 18 months into my service as a Peace Corps volunteer, I was chatting with a teacher I had worked with in many capacities in developing and managing an all-girls youth group. I learned that the group had been given an award for our recycling initiatives and the local government officials had approached the group about funding a new agricultural project. Absorbing this information, I suddenly felt a wave of emotions.
As I pedaled home on my bicycle, I tried to sort through my mix of emotions. I was happy for my friends, those involved in the youth group, but I was sad for myself. Finally, I realized that to dwell on the disappointment of not being included would be a mistake. The group to which I had believed I was so essential, was standing on its own. They had needed me when they started out. They had needed me to help them write grants to start projects. But they had not needed me to accompany them to an awards ceremony and they had not needed me to consult with the government officials. That work could be done without me. The group was making a transition. They were becoming sustainable. My feelings of sadness were replaced with feelings of accomplishment. In that afternoon I had seen the goals of development come to fruition. I saw a group of disadvantaged people I had helped, trained and empowered become a viable and sustainable entity.
Upon completing Peace Corps, I realized that I want have a career in international development. I will soon start a master’s of Development Practice at Emory University. In the future I hope to do aid or development work either stateside or abroad.
One of the most interesting and fun aspects of my time as a volunteer in Thailand was serving with fellow Rhodes alum Beau Gambold ’08. Whenever we got together and felt a bit nostalgic we would talk about our days in Memphis, particularly where to get the best barbecue! I’m sure it drove the other volunteers crazy when we would go off on one of our rants, but it was sure nice to talk about Rhodes and Memphis when we were feeling homesick.
Ethan McClelland ’09
I trained rural farmers in improved agriculture techniques. It was an incredible period of personal growth and an eye-opening experience for me and the many friends I made in my village.
We are all blessed to live in a country that has so much financial and cultural wealth to offer. I want to continue to work in international development to stay connected to current affairs and remain aware that there is a world beyond what we see every day.
Dara Chesnutt ’10
After I studied abroad during my junior year, I became interested in living in another country after I graduated. I wanted to immerse myself in a different culture, learn a new language and be productive at the same time. Peace Corps provided me the opportunity to do all of those things, and most important, it allows me to help people in another region of the world.
I am a Teaching English as a Foreign Langauge (TEFL) volunteer and teach English to 5th-11th graders. I also have a couple of different English clubs at my school, during which we play English games, have debates and discuss cross-cultural differences. I planned a three-week long, English intensive summer camp at my school.
Even though I’m still a new volunteer, I’m quickly learning that teaching English is a very small part of what I get to do here. I get to serve as an example of volunteerism, the value of cross-cultural exchange and the future possibilities that exist for my students. As a young, single woman who chose to leave her family and friends to move to a foreign country to teach English, I am a daily reminder to my students (especially my female students) that there is more to life than our coal mining town. I also get to better their understanding of America. They have a lot of ideas of what America is, but most are based on films and politics. I get to introduce them to everything else about our country, and in the end, I’d like to think my students will have a more positive view of America after I leave.
One or two interesting anecdotes of my time in the Peace Corps—where to begin? I could tell you about my bus mishaps that have resulted in multi-hour tours of the Ukrainian countryside. Or there was the time I tried holodets, a traditional Ukrainian dish, which is basically jellied pig fat, for the first time. And I butcher the Russian language on a daily basis, which has resulted in some very unfortunate, confusing situations.