Pepperdine alumni recall their experiences abroad as the Peace Corps reaches a milestone.
By Gareen Darakjian
Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy stood in front of 10,000 college students at an impromptu presidential campaign speech in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and proposed a unique opportunity never before suggested to the youth of America: to live, work, and promote peace in developing countries around the world. A few months later, on March 1, 1961, Sargent Shriver established the Peace Corps and college graduates lined up in droves to volunteer in countries such as India, Ghana, Burma, and Tanganyika.
After five decades of dedication and service, the program has drawn approximately 200,000 volunteers who have served in 139 countries and influenced progress and change around the world. Today there are 13 Pepperdine alumni serving overseas with the Peace Corps, with nearly 150 having served since the organization’s founding. As Pepperdine University celebrates its 75th anniversary, it recognizes those alumni who have lived out the cornerstones of purpose, service, and leadership in the Peace Corps. Here are some of their stories.
- John Payne (MPP ’06) – Letlhakane, Botswana
- Ryan and Lindsay Dapremont (both ’07) – Saramacca, Suriname
- Mike Anderson (’92) – Chatrakan, Thailand
- Douglas Tyson (MPP ’12) Banjul, The Gambia, West Africa
- Christopher S. Collins (’02) – Vanuatu, South Pacific
- Troy (’02) and Tabitha (’03) Snowbarger – Muapitane, East Timor
- Brittany Krake (’07, MDR ’07) – Malawi, Africa
- Elizabeth Austin (’08, MA ’09) – Mbabane, Swaziland
- Tiffany Riendeau (’05, MA ’07) – Mali, West Africa
- James C. (Chip) and Sharyn Moore (both ’67) – Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia
- Travis (’05) and Harmony (’06) Weber – Kamwatta Village, Guyana
I ran Boteti GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) Camp, an experiential learning and life-skills education program for adolescents, both regionally and at two national GLOW camps as a secondary project. I focused on teaching kids about HIV, child abuse, and familial relationships in an exploratory and participatory way.
Our concept of Africa is much different than reality. Botswana is more developed than other countries. Everybody has cell phones and I had Internet in my office during my service.
After the Peace Corps, I interned for a consultant evaluating the Ministry of Education’s national life-skills curriculum. In 2010, I was an HIV/AIDS missions officer in Zambia for Life Restoration Partners, a Christian nongovernmental organization. I also began a one-year Peace Corps Response assignment in July 2011 as an HIV program specialist in the Limpopo Province Department of Health in South Africa.
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Ryan: You have to be very culturally sensitive so as not to criticize the culture, but still let the girls know that this isn’t how it is in all parts of the world. The reality is that they’re not going to get that if they stay in Saramacca, but they’re aware that they can figure out their own path for themselves.
When we got back home after our first training session, our host father and brothers were tearing down an interior wall in the house and expanding another room so we would have enough space to stay with them. They wanted us to be there so badly that they rebuilt their entire house in one day to accommodate us.
Lindsay: The Saramaccans conduct church services in the street language that the Bible is printed in, not the one language that I’m learning, so it’s a lot harder for us to understand what’s going on. Maintaining our spirituality is challenging because we can’t take quiet time very easily, but I think that puts more of a responsibility on ourselves to try to take time whenever we can.
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After Peace Corps, I worked at Pepperdine, where I ran the physical education program from 2001 to 2005 and was able to start the first International Programs study abroad trip to Thailand. Four out of 10 of the first-year students are now living and working in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Middle East.
I went to my site with the unrealistic expectation that I was going to do a lot of work and that things were going to happen quickly. But, the first eight months were about developing relationships with people. There was iodine deficiency within some
schools, because they didn’t use iodized salt.
The government’s public health department would hold youth health education camps, where adolescent leaders in the community would attend our workshops to become more aware of health issues.
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I was posted in a town of 500 people, where I lived in a little hut with a tin roof that got up to 120 degrees. There was no running water or electricity. I took showers in the backyard with a bucket and had a little pit latrine. I was miles away from civilization, but was later relocated to the capital city and lived in a simple apartment with intermittent electricity and running water.
Some days would consist of teaching at the Gambia YMCA, where I would teach a Photoshop class in the morning and go to a tertiary school after lunch to teach print media, Photoshop, and web design to educators. In the evening, I would work with an ecotourism group to create graphic productions and do marketing, advertising, and consulting work.
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I was expecting to go in being an expert at something, but it was primarily a learning experience for me. I was fascinated by their ability to use sustainable materials for construction, to farm, and raise livestock. Global views of development will erode these practices, but I was blessed to be able to see communities in villages where no one was poor or homeless.
My very first night in the village was tough because my host family didn’t speak English and I did not speak Bislama, their local village language. I sat down with my host family to show them pictures of my family, and upon turning to the first photo, my host mother made an “uh-uh” noise. This is a synonym for “no” in American English, so I had no idea what her objection was. Months later, when I had a grasp of Bislama, we shared a hilarious conversation about how “uh-uh” in Bislama is a parallel to “uh-huh” or “yes” in American English.
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Tabitha: We were really interested in reducing poverty and helping people in third world countries. I was interested in seeing firsthand that through relationship building, we can create peace and mutual understanding.
There was an attempted coup in East Timor in 2006 and we had to be immediately evacuated to Thailand. We had 20 minutes to pack and were on a plane in the next 24 hours. The political climate in Timor was too unstable for us to go back. It was a pretty traumatic experience. We taught English with the Thai government for seven months and met the international director of a nongovernmental organization called Partners in Progress, who invited us to come to Cambodia and later offered us a job. We now serve as the organization’s development directors. We’ve been in Cambodia for about four years.
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The most challenging aspect was adhering to traditional gender roles. They didn’t understand why, at my age of 24, I wasn’t fulfilling the traditional role of wife and mother. Through strategic communication and educational opportunities, however, my community eventually came to view me as a professional, an intellectual, and an agent for progress.
I wrote a letter to the vice president of Malawi, Joyce Banda, requesting that she come and speak with the young women attending Camp GLOW about the challenges of asserting herself as a woman in Malawi. We thought it was a long shot, but she joined us and delivered an inspiring speech, surely bestowing those young women with the honor of a lifetime.
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I deal with issues of gender inequality, conflicts of traditional beliefs, communication breakdowns, and general loneliness. The most challenging encounter I face is trying to take a backseat position and find other community members who are motivated and work with them, teach them, and empower them to implement the things they see a need for within the community.
Watching as the kids show sudden understanding of issues of poverty, HIV, and gender roles never fails to give me a terrific feeling. I also love it when the teacher shares that I’ve given her the confidence and knowledge to try a new idea.
My favorite memory is when I met my host mother, who promptly grabbed me in a bear hug, threw me over her shoulder, and jumped up and down with me. She doesn’t speak more than a few words of English, but she wouldn’t let go of my hand for the rest of the day. My nervousness and fears were quickly transformed into a satisfying feeling of belonging.
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I wanted to live with people, learn their language and culture, and be with them. I wanted, at the deepest level, to understand their needs, ambitions, and desires and help them achieve those in any way I could.
We all owe two years of our life to something bigger than ourselves; to service. Maybe not because the changes we are responsible for are that enduring or substantial, but because the change that happens to our souls is enduring and substantial.
Mali is the second poorest country in the world, but it really became a home for me. It’s surprising to find that home is less about climate and showers and food and more about living and loving people.
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Chip: Our travel plans to revisit Lahad Datu became the occasion for a 25th reunion with our students, many of whom had not seen each other in almost as many years. How amazing it was that these students, many of whom had been the first in their families to attend any school, were now shopkeepers, medical and financial professionals, contractors, and politicians. We were all so proud and thankful for the opportunity to acknowledge how much we had learned and taught each other.
The Peace Corps was the reason I ended up in human resources at Pepperdine. I had always looked forward to trying to duplicate the experience, where you were just a little out of culture and expected to talk to everybody around you from all levels of society. I found that HR was exactly that.
Sharyn: Chip and I left for Peace Corps two weeks after we graduated. I found that I loved teaching and came back to a now 37-yearlong career teaching international students. Peace Corps made a difference, and so do we all.
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Both of us are lifelong members of the Churches of Christ, and were shocked to see one in our community. It has been neat to worship with the Amerindians and see how similar and yet how different the worship experience is here.
Guyana is hoping to partner with developed countries in the exchange of carbon credits, which will allow them to continue their development while keeping the rainforest pristine. We’re excited to see how these policies will develop over the next two years.
As a married couple, we always have an understanding companion by our side. It’s nice to always be able to share our challenges and successes with each other.
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My primary duty was to assist a government official who was the AIDS coordinator for a rural district in the Kalahari desert with a population of approximately 60,000 people. My job was to build his capacity to conduct research and improve their policy/program planning, so I was given training by the Peace Corps and the government. My job not only involved training him, but also other government officials and even some Nongovernmental Organizations. I worked in the multisectoral AIDS committee, a coalition of representatives from different sectors, to supply them with information about trends in the district and strategies for improving programs in their workplace. HIV testing was a big one.
I think the most challenging aspect of my work was being an outsider, a foreigner. It was frustrating because there were things that I didn’t understand and things I wasn’t used to. When you work in a different country for two years, it’s long enough to get adjusted and acclimated, but it’s not long enough to become proficient in the local or professional cultures.
I became interested in AIDS education during graduate school at Pepperdine. I had friends who were from Africa and played rugby with Kenyan expatriates while in Washington, DC, for an internship. I realized that not only is HIV one of the greatest health problems in Africa, but also one of the biggest development problems. I was fortunate to come across a job at UCLA and was so inspired by the people I worked with there. A lot of them had been doing this work since the ’80s. They encouraged me to go to Africa and were cheering me on to join the Peace Corps in Africa. It hasn’t become an experience that has burned me out, tired, or depressed me, but the more I do it, the more hopeful and inspired I feel.
My expectations of Africa were much different prior to my journey. They warned us about that. They warned us that our concept and perspective on Africa is going be a lot different than reality. We Americans shape our views around the media and the media usually shows us one side. It is also not very international. We don’t really cover global issues from other countries from their perspectives; we just cover it from the American perspective. My assignment was in a large village. It was more like a town, so I was in a place that was more developed than I actually expected it to be and that ended up being a good thing for me.
Most Peace Corps volunteers really love to travel, and I was one of them, but I didn’t really cover the typical tourist places like the beach or South Africa. I most enjoyed seeing villages and journeyed up to Zambia several times, which is how I got to my next job in Zambia where I worked after Peace Corps. I covered Botswana a lot with work. I also played rugby in a men’s league and coached a women’s rugby team in my free time.
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Lindsay: The most difficult aspect of being a Peace Corps volunteer is that it’s day after day and it’s constantly up and down. As much as I participate in cultural activities (funerals, birthdays, burials), at the end of the day, I’m never going to be one of them. I’m just a “white girl” and I think just knowing that and continuing to have the motivation to get out of my house and talk to people everyday, and just keep going for the 27 months that I’m here is challenging. A lot of times, people from the Western world go in and think, “It would be better if they did it this way,” or “While you’re doing that, just do this.” You can’t bulldoze a culture like that and you can’t tell people to change before you understand them.
Lindsay: There are definite pluses to serving with your spouse, but there are also negatives. It’s a very different experience than everyone else’s. The positives are that you have company, somebody else who is American, someone you can communicate with in English if you’re frustrated or upset. We’re obviously a lot less lonely than the other volunteers. One of the negatives is that my role in my community and their expectations of me are so different than other people’s, because I’m a married woman. In Saramaccan culture, my purpose is to serve my man and to produce children. We don’t have any children yet (you can’t serve if you have young children). I’m 26 and they think that I should have had five children by now!
One of our counterparts in our village just started speaking to me about projects and just in general. Before that he would only speak to my husband, really. Whereas, if you’re a single female volunteer, they have no choice but to speak to you, take you in easier, and integrate you into their culture.
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I had always known that I wanted to live abroad after traveling for a little bit. Initially, I was in the Heidelberg program as a sophomore at Pepperdine. My decision to join the Peace Corps involved a combination of things: first, living abroad for that year. Secondly, I had done a lot of traveling in Central America over summer and Christmas break during my college career. One of my roommates was from Guatemala and, at one point, he just suggested that we go to there for Christmas. I ended up going back to Central America in the last years of college. I also always liked traveling when I was younger. My family went to Mexico when I was seven or eight years old, and I loved the idea that things were different. I loved learning new languages. I was one of those ppl in high school who actually learned how to speak Spanish! I didn’t take any foreign language before I went to Germany, because I applied to the Heidelberg program last minute. I felt so incapacitated when I landed there, that I studied really hard and did very well. I didn’t know I had that capacity to learn languages, and when it came time to learn Thai, learning languages and speaking to people were very helpful. Thirdly, my freshman advisor at Pepperdine was a returned Peace Corps volunteer. There was another student in the Heidelberg program who was applying to join the Peace Corps. I wanted to travel and live and work abroad, and I thought that was a really great way to do it.
When you tell people about your experience, there is a very small percentage of people in the population that can say, “I was in the Peace Corps, too.” In a group of 10, invariably six or seven of them will say they’ve thought about it. One of the most common reasons why people don’t go is because, when you’re 22 years old, two-and-a-half years seems like such a long time. When I think of what I gained from being in the Peace Corps, it seems like I didn’t sacrifice anything at all. Looking back on it now, two-and-a-half years years is nothing.
I didn’t feel like I was a volunteer. I was volunteering, but I was being paid enough to live. It’s just like any other job. I worked independently in a rural village where no one spoke any English. They were all Thai of Lao and Mong ethnicity. I was an individual living in a town of about 3,000 people. I lived with a family in which the mom and dad were both teachers, so in terms of income, it was upper class living, but everyone kind of lives the same. It was a stilted house, but they eventually built walls around the downstairs area. In most houses, the second floor is the main floor and underneath is an open area. But, as people get a little more money, they concrete the underside of the house, so it looks like a two-story house. I woke up every morning at sunrise and made breakfast–the main meal for the family–with my host mom.
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The country itself is peaceful in that it has so few natural resources. They have next to nothing that the world is interested in: no oil, no fantastic environment–most of the world has kind of left it alone. People are humble and are not really a part of what’s going on around them. I was able to open up pretty effectively to the locals, and at first, wasn’t really sure what to expect. The Peace Corps doesn’t send you to places that are very tense. They want Americans to feel comfortable and safe.
Gambia is a country based on the Gambia River. They don’t have bridges over the river–there is a ferry. The Gambians don’t form lines, so when getting onto the ferry, the passengers just push their way forward. Those recognized as foreigners are targeted during the pushing and shoving, those recognized as foreigners are targeted by pickpockets. I was really careful about what I did in those situations. The Peace Corps teaches you safety tactics, so whenever I was getting into these highly active public areas, I’d take everything out of one pocket, put all of my things in the other one, and put my hand in my pocket.
I told myself to not have any expectations. I hadn’t been to Africa before, so when I considered Gambia, I figured it was really just tiny little villages with huts in them. When I was placed in the big city, it’s wider and sprawling and encompasses about one million people. It surprised me that there was a big city. It’s just small little half-completed buildings. I guess I was expecting more of a country feel.
The Peace Corps directed me to the Masters in Public Policy program that I’m in now. Since I joined the Peace Corps not knowing what I wanted to do, then going to Gambia, I feel like it made me want to go and help developing countries and their people abroad. It was the start of my education in the public policy and international relations areas of study. I think that for anybody considering going into the field, it will teach you a lot about foreign cultures and the people in them. I want to work for NGOs that work with the Arab-Israeli conflict. What I’m hoping to take out of it and perhaps hoping to contribute to the organization is seeing the effects on the people and why they feel the way they do. A lot of people in Western countries find it hard to understand why actions are taken by certain people and why they do the things they do, and you can learn so much just by living in a foreign culture. You really start to understand why people feel the way they do.
I came back to the States and felt like the entire country had changed. All of my favorite restaurants and stores had closed, I came back to everyone having internet on their phones, and TVs were digital, but I found that I didn’t really care. It seemed like everybody was talking about different things and you feel out of the loop. But, for me, after Peace Corps, I spent a year teaching English in South Korea, and that’s pretty much a developed country. Going from a developing country to America is an interesting adjustment. The people are completely different. One of the hard things is that when you join the Peace Corps, you’re leaving your friends and your family and you’re going to spend two years abroad. It’s hard to sink in. I felt some homesickness, but I was able to deal with it better than some. When you leave your host country, it’s like leaving America in that you’re leaving your close friends/family. The difference is that there’s a decent chance that you will never see these people again.
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I have been working at Pepperdine as the Assistant Provost for Assessment and Institutional Effectiveness. In August 2011, I am starting as an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Hawai’i, Manoa. My experience in the Peace Corps has shaped my research interests in globalization and higher education. This year I published my first book, “Higher Education and Global Poverty: University Partnerships and the World Bank in Developing Countries.” I used experiences from the Peace Corps as an anecdotal preface to many of the chapters to show how my experience shaped my thinking about the function of education in developing countries. The online platform for my research interests related to these areas is: www.globalhighered.com. My work, my faith, and my relationships are shaped by my Peace Corps experience, because it cultivated a deep desire to understand and promote justice.
I was in Vanuatu, and island country in the South Pacific, about 500 miles west of Fiji. My assignment was to support a Rural Training Center (RTC). These were facilities designed to educate students in practical skills like woodworking, speaking English, and other trade related activities. Primary school is mandatory and free, but secondary school requires families to pay tuition. RTCs were a much less expensive option than formal secondary school.
There are a few Peace Corps volunteers I still keep up with. More importantly, the host family I stayed with is still very special to us. I brought my wife back to the village in the summer of 2009 for an amazing trip. We stayed in the village and had a wonderful time catching up on how things had changed in the last few years. The biggest change was that everyone had a cell phone—even though there was no electricity.
What most surprised me about my host country was ending up at a Church of Christ potluck on my very first Sunday on the island. It is amazing how church culture commonalities diffuse around the world.
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At first, the village we were living in didn’t know we were coming, so when we pulled up, they were shocked to see foreigners there. The village chief knew, and he had tried to spread the word. Timor has a very recent past with genocide due to relations with Indonesia and any foreigners are looked at suspiciously. We sometimes even had rocks thrown at us by kids. After a while, people started warming up, specifically one young woman who in the area of Timor where they have a caste system, royalty, etc. She was a member of the royal part of the tribe—a princess—so when she accepted us, then other people started being more open to interacting with us. By the time we left, we had more friends than skeptics. They told us they thought we were spies, because the Peace Corps required us to use a really big satellite phone with a long antenna. They thought it was some kind of strange gun or device.
After we were evacuated from East Timor, they cut the program. They gave us the opportunity to go to a different country or wait to see if Timor opened back up. We chose to wait, but after six months, we got tired of waiting and they still haven’t opened up East Timor to the Peace Corps. It was too traumatic to move to another place.
We both worked in community economic development. It was kind of whatever way we saw we could help the village, help people partner with other organizations, or do anything we saw we could do. I partnered with the communication chief of five villages and they were working on some eco-tourism ventures, so we helped him with some ideas for that. We taught English there for a while in the local primary school and helped our community write a couple of grants through USAID (the development arm of the US government), one for eco-tourism development, and another for a community center for a library and a place for the community to come and have meetings.
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I became interested in applying for the Peace Corps for several different reasons. 1) I studied abroad in high school for a year and I developed a love for travel, different languages, and learning about various cultures. 2) Having studied political science at Seaver College and dispute resolution at the Straus Institute, I was interested in serving our country in foreign peace, specifically in a region which I had spent a lot of time studying throughout my academic tenure at Pepperdine. 3) The most effective changes in a community’s standard of living will be inspired at the grassroots level. Peace Corps focuses on enabling effective community partners at the grassroots level to create those changes. 4) I believe(d) that, as an American, I am truly privileged to access basic human rights and higher education. With those privileges comes great responsibility to share what you have with those without access.
A typical work day would consist of at least one stakeholder or project management meeting, which usually took place in a rural village 10 km from my home or at the health center nearby. I would ride an hour to Sompho village on my bicycle and then meet with my counterpart, the chiefs, and project committees about the work we were doing. Meetings would sometimes take up to four or five hours, but sometimes a lot less. In the afternoon, I would allow myself at least an hour to go to the local market to buy produce (mangoes, bananas, tomatoes, and onions). Going to the market is a very social event; you are culturally expected to great everyone you see and this can take quite a while. While it was still light outside, I would light another fire for cooking dinner. During the beginning of my projects, I would spend the evening hours researching or writing grant proposals. As the projects were being implemented, however, I had more free time to relax. After sunset, I would get into bed and tuck in my mosquito net where I could work, read, or relax for another hour. I would be sleeping by 8 or 9 p.m.
By volunteering overseas, I gave up being present for the developments in my friends’ and family’s lives. I gave up the momentum that my education and professional experience was creating. I gave up water and electricity. And I certainly gave up a few thousand dollars by allowing my student loan interest to accumulate. But, my family and friends still love me. Peace Corps offers a new dimension to my professional resume. Living without water and electricity helped me to appreciate what I have. And service to others is much more meaningful than money. I wouldn’t take it back for the world.
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I have always had a heart for service, courtesy of my family, and an upbringing focused on acts of service as a way to live out my personal faith. When I was a freshman at Pepperdine, I participated in a trip down to LA’s Skid Row where I served Thanksgiving dinner and washed the feet of the homeless people living there. Jesus often washed feet, and doing the same act of service profoundly impacted me. To sit down and serve others while letting them just share their lives with me gave me a new perspective on my own existence, and I will carry that experience with me forever. Later, I remember wandering through the campus career fair and seeing giant posters for the Peace Corps and thinking that maybe this experience would be similar to the Skid Row service. I heard amazing stories from fellow students about what Peace Corps was like, and it appealed to my adventurous nature. After graduation, I did some more research, and during the spring of my graduating year, I decided to apply as a “back-up plan” if I didn’t find a job. Well, I didn’t really find a job, and Peace Corps called with an offer I couldn’t refuse!
The three goals of my project framework are: improving health behaviors, strengthening organizational capacity, and strengthening technical capacity in order to fight HIV/AIDS. My official job description set me up to work in the area of HIV/AIDS education and mitigation in partnership with the people of my community. I have needed a high degree of flexibility and adaptability to do my job here! Some of my usual duties include: assisting kaGogo Center Managers (social centers in communities acting as bases for organizing grassroots HIV/AIDS efforts) in the development of coordinating community-level responses to HIV issues; assisting teachers in educating youth on reducing the risk of HIV (in whatever form that may take); supporting community rural health motivators and local clinics in their efforts fighting HIV; empowering girls through encouragement and development of youth groups; or working with NGOs to build their capacity on HIV/AIDS work.
I have been tasked with an enormous responsibility to act as a catalyst of real behavior change in the face of some real difficulties, and every time this reality hits me, I must admit to freaking out a bit. But I think for me, the most challenging encounter I face here is trying to take a backseat position and find other community members to partner with and drive every project. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, my role is to build capacity and develop PEOPLE. But I want to come in with a vision and start planning projects, planting gardens, building libraries, holding events…and I can’t do things that way. I have to find people who are motivated, and work with them, teach them, empower them to implement the things they see a need for within the community. It’s really hard! And it is an active decision that I need to make each and every day.
The way I see it, I stand to gain far more from my service here than I gave up back home or could ever hope to give my community. Personal benefits so far include an opened perspective, long-lasting deep relationships with fellow volunteers and Swazi community members, lots of great travel opportunities (I spent Christmas in Mozambique), and the satisfaction of helping people. Professional benefits of volunteer service include gaining experience working with different cultures and types of people, gaining leadership experience, great Peace Corps training opportunities, and hopefully, connections and recommendations back in the corporate world in America. Volunteering always gives me a chance to dive deep into a project, discover my passions, learn new things, and gain a valuable perspective on the world around me.
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I wanted the adventure. I’d always wanted to live in a hut in Africa. Strange ambition to have, but I wanted it. I felt like it would help me really understand life. I wanted to get outside the American construct of life and see it from another angle. As an English major I craved what Thoreau talked about when he said “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” What better way to reduce life to its lowest terms than to move to one of the poorest countries on earth and see what came of it? Besides, it would make a great story. My ambitions from an early age always revolved around making sure my life made a good story for my grandchildren. Someday when I’m a granny, I’m going to have some pretty cool stories.
There was no such thing as a “typical workday.” But, if I had to pick one, I’d say I spent most of my time talking to people. I’d wake up, go greet people in town. Later, I’d go teach English. After lessons, often students would stick around and ask questions or as me to their homes, etc. I also spent a lot of time doing nothing. Life is slower when there is no electronics and no malls or movies. I read a lot. Sometimes we’d go rock climbing or play a game of soccer.
I’m not sure what was most difficult about my Peace Corps experience. Learning new languages is always hard, because you are at such a disadvantage when you can’t communicate. Also, it was sometimes lonely; I missed my family. The food was terrible at first, but you learn to get used it. Perhaps the biggest change is a loss of idealism. I started to realize how foreign aid has good intentions but often fails because it comes with first world expectations and a desire to create another country just like the country it came from. I guess you realize the world is a lot more complicated than it seems. That is a hard lesson.
My most rewarding experience was making friends. My best Malian friend Muhammod taught me French. Spending time with him and exchanging cultures and languages and ideas and beliefs was life changing. I may not have changed the world, but I think we both changed a lot from the meeting of the minds that happened. It was that way with many people I met and befriended. They changed me.
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Chip: The political climate in our second year in particular, was difficult in our town. The Marcos regime in the Philippines decided that the area that we lived in belonged to them and there was an actual newspaper war going on at the time over the area we were living in. One of the most difficult political decisions was what to do when the school is involved in political activity, like marches against the idea of belonging to the Philippines. We actually decided not to be part of that because we wanted to stay out of local politics.
My expectations were that we would learn a language, learn a culture, and get to know some people we wouldn’t otherwise. And I ended up doing exactly those things! I don’t think there was any dysfunction there at all. We were on a small town as far as you can get from the country itself, on the coast. There was just one boat in per week and you could also fly out, but it was pretty expensive. We took two trips, one to the other coast where we visited friends, and one vacation trip to Thailand and back on the train, which is an experience in itself.
Most of the people there were not married, so we had a couples experience. We got to met people as couples. We were in a different environment than the single people in terms of social range. One nice thing about that was that there was another couple on the other side of the island with whom we became friends and have been ever since. We get together every year.
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Both: We live in the Teacher’s Quarters, which is far nicer than anything we could have expected. Most homes are wooden homes with trulee palm leaf roofs, but our home is the only concrete home in the village. We are blessed with several niceties, otherwise not found in our village, including a flush toilet, an indoor shower, running water from a rain tank, and a gas range with an oven. Our home is two bedroom with a small living room. Our furniture is limited, but we have come to love and appreciate our hammocks!
Harmony: In the States, we were vegetarians, but in Guyana, we quickly adapted, becoming “flexitarians.” During our initial two months in country, we lived with a host family so that we could acquaint ourselves with Guyanese culture. The first meal our host mother served us was chicken curry. We also experienced cow hoof, chicken feet, and tripe, among other meat dishes. Overall, I enjoy Guyanese cuisine, but now that we’re living on our own, there are some things I won’t be eating again, especially “the parts.”
Both: Just as we do not think of ourselves as “taking time off,” we don’t necessarily think of ourselves as “giving up” anything in particular. Although we did sell or donate most of our possessions, including our car, our furniture, our computers and electronics, etc., we have found ourselves quickly and easily adapting to a more simple lifestyle. We miss being around our families and spending time with our young nieces and nephews.
Travis: It has been fun to share some cultural experiences with the locals. We taught our neighbors one of our favorite card games, “Hand and Foot.” It was fun to see their excitement as they learned to play the game. They came back the following night requesting another round! Another night, we made some pizza from scratch and shared with with a local family. The family loved the pizza and suggested that we sell slices in the regional market. Since then, another family who must have heard about the pizza has requested lessons on pizza making.
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