Earlier this week, members of the HWS community including the president, faculty, staff and alums, gathered to celebrate what they each attested was a life-altering experience. The group was the featured panel for the Colleges’ celebration of the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Peace Corps.
On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy officially signed into existence the Peace Corps, a simple idea with the potential to change the international landscape. On March 1, 2011, HWS hosted “Practical Idealism,” a panel discussion with returned Peace Corps volunteers. The event featured Peace Corps “alums” who shared their experiences and perceptions about what the Peace Corps really means with students and community members.
President Mark D. Gearan, former director of the Peace Corps, moderated the event and brought a different perspective to the discussion. Early in the evening he shared a story about one of the first organizational meetings after the creation of the Peace Corps, in which Director Sargent Shriver first indicated that the Peace Corps must be an organization driven by the volunteers on the ground. He explained the Peace Corps as an idea that “carried forward all the idealism of the 60s amidst all the ugliness of the Cold War.” This mission has been aided by HWS community members who have volunteered in every decade since the Corps was founded.
The panel was comprised of Professor of Mathematics and Computer Science David Belding, who served in Sierra Leone from 1974-’76; Professor of Art Michael Bogin, who taught secondary math in a small village in Ghana from 1968-’70; Professor of Economics Alan Frishman, who served in the town of Kano in Nigeria from 1966-’69; Associate Professor of Economics Jo Beth Mertens, who volunteered in Mali from 1985-’86; Center for Global Education Program Coordinator Doug Reilly, who spent two years in the Slovak Republic from 1999-2001; Associate Professor of Religious Studies Richard Salter ’86, who served in Dominica from 1986-88; and husband and wife Matt Lyttle ’06 and Jessica Werder ’04, who recently finished serving in Nicaragua from 2007-09.
One of the resounding messages from panelists was what a huge growth opportunity the Peace Corps provides for every single volunteer. Werder explained the overwhelming moment when “you finish with all the meetings and paperwork and get on the plane and then you walk out the door and you’re in Nicaragua.” There is a three-month training period before volunteers begin work in which they are placed with local families to adjust and learn the language. Lyttle described it as “a really intense few days,” while Mertens added that it was those experiences that she thinks are some of the most beneficial aspects of the Peace Corps.
Mertens explained: “We learn more from the failures and the Peace Corps provides plenty of opportunities to fail. You are by yourself. You have to live by your wits and you have to do hard things.”
Part of this “opportunity to fail” is actually built into the system of the Peace Corps intentionally. All volunteers are issued a primary assignment such as teaching or health education that has some basic level of structure. Volunteers are also expected to develop a secondary mission on the ground that is based on what they learn and observe as members of the community. Almost every panelist shared a story about how much this second assignment changed the way that they approached the world.
“In many ways it changed my life,” said Frishman. “I learned patience, tolerance, a new language. I made lifelong friends and it undoubtedly led me into teaching.”
Salter shared stories about having to write and apply for grants to actually complete the projects that had been assigned to him. Looking back he feels that it was “a wonderful opportunity to develop that initiative and taste responsibility that I would never have developed without the Peace Corps.”
Another important aspect of the Peace Corps is the bilateral sharing of cultures. Bogin spoke of the culture shock of living in Ghana, which was actually the first country to host Peace Corps volunteers. “It’s an incomparable opportunity,” he says. “You’re given the opportunity to be a part of another culture and to start to understand that not everyone lives or sees the world like us. Absolutely fascinating.”
Werder recalls the experience of working with a woman on health issues in the community who had been a midwife in that village for decades. She explained “my thinking I, with my liberal arts degree, was supposed to teach her something was quickly changed as I realized how much I had to learn from her.”
“In the Peace Corps you are living, working, dreaming in the Peace Corps,” said Lyttle. “Long lasting sustainable change is actually possible because you become a real part of the community.”
When asked for advice for students and individuals considering joining the Peace Corps, Werder seemed to cover everyone’s opinion when she said “do it.” Reilly added that “if you have studied abroad and felt like you were leaving that culture too soon, then the Peace Corps could definitely be the right place for you.”
All panelists agreed that the experience provided them with a marketable and important career skill, though Gearan pointed out, “the service in the Peace Corps is quite a credential. There are easier ways to enhance your resume but it is definitely appreciated.”
To end the evening, a community member stood up to share her experience. “I waited until I was 52,” she said. “Do it now because it’s easier! Then do it again!”
Recently, six students from the HWS community were accepted to serve in locations around the world. Shanelle France ’11, Lisa Maticic ’10, Kerry O’Neill ‘09, Amanda Slack ’11, Samantha Tripoli ’11 and Cara Walden ’11 will continue the Colleges’ long tradition of volunteerism with the Peace Corps. Within the past few years, the number of HWS graduates serving in the Peace Corps has increased dramatically, and the number of graduates actively engaged in service has more than doubled going from eight to now more than 20. In fact, HWS currently rank No. 17 for “Small Colleges and Universities” on the Peace Corps’ annual rankings of Peace Corps volunteer-producing schools. Since the organization’s inception, nearly 200 HWS students have joined its ranks.