Peace Peace Corps Proves to Be Rewarding Option for Centenary Graduates

Historically, 29 Centenary graduates have signed up for the Peace Corps, averaging one volunteer per graduating class for the last three decades. However, in recent years, there has been a steady increase of volunteers with a record four joining from the Centenary Class of 2005––the same year the Peace Corps celebrated its 45th anniversary.

Follow the firsthand accounts of some of our own Peace Corps volunteers, who secured posts in developing countries to build friendships with fellow citizens of the world and work on issues ranging from AIDS education to community development.

Abby McMurry ’03

Nepal: Urban/Youth Development

I was in Nepal one year and one day. Myself and 36 other Peace Corps volunteers were evacuated due to the escalated Maoist rebel insurgency in September 2004. They were bombing government offices, trying to overthrow the king and establish a democracy. Up until the evacuation, the Maoists hadn’t been targeting Americans. But, after several traveling Nepalis were killed among civilians in Iraq, anti-American sentiment grew, and the Peace Corps perceived the volunteers to be in danger.

It disappointed me that we had to leave. I had grown to love Nepal and had just founded an arts and music club for youth in the southern part of the country near the Indian border. Because youth are not taught art and music in the school system, some teachers and I had great success in attracting youth to this unique program. Ninety-seven kids showed up for the first meeting!

I worked in urban youth development at two posts, helping with HIV/AIDS education and girl empowerment programs. It was amazing. The Nepali youth will admit to problems that the country, their city, their village has. They recognize that HIV/AIDS and drugs are real problems and are willing to address them, unlike some of the adults.

My advice to those considering joining the Peace Corps is to start the application process early because it’s lengthy. Also, try not to be disappointed if you don’t get one of the countries you request to serve in. I requested Guatemala or somewhere in Africa. When they placed me in Nepal, I was disappointed at first. But I absolutely loved that country. It exceeded my expectations.

Erin Hatch Neal ’93

Cameroon: Math/Science Education
During my service in Cameroon, Central Africa, I taught high school physics and algebra. Having majored in physics at Centenary, I considered my undergraduate studies good training for my Peace Corps specialization.

When folks ask me if I enjoyed the experience, if I am glad I did it, or if I think it was a worthwhile experience, I always say “yes.” But, I usually follow it closely with a comment like, “but it was much, much harder than I expected it to be.”

Looking back, I know I was somewhat ignorant and definitely naïve at the time I joined the Peace Corps. But, I am really glad I did it. It was definitely a life-changing experience for me. The things that were most difficult for me were:

  • separating myself from friends and family back home;
  • being somewhat isolated without a lot of American peer support;
  • experiencing cross-cultural differences; and
  • realizing that my presence there ultimately did not make much of a difference.

The thing about my Peace Corps experience––and everyone’s is very unique—is that I realized pretty quickly after going to my post that this was going to be more of a cross-cultural exchange, and less of a “making a difference, saving the world experience.”

Coming to that realization, and letting go of my original idealism, was very difficult for me. Those at Centenary who knew me when I was there will understand this.

In fact, I think Peace Corps does itself a disservice by billing itself as “the toughest job you’ll ever love” because I think it makes folks think that they will be saving the world during their experience.

In my country of service, most of the volunteers simply felt that they were having an amazing and intense cultural exchange, in which they were assigned a job to ostensibly legitimize their time there, and maybe, possibly, they were making a very small difference in a few folks’ lives along the way—most notably, their own.

But, that was merely my experience in Cameroon, which, by the way, continues to be one of the most corrupt countries in the world. The experience of a volunteer, for example, in South America, Eastern Europe, or elsewhere may be very different. And, the experience of the volunteers in my specific program—math/science education––was very different than those in the agriculture/forestry program, health education program, etc.

Lessons Learned

The best thing I gained from my Peace Corps experience was a more global perspective. I learned more about foreign policy, the way Americans are perceived abroad and what works and doesn’t work in international development. My experience in the Peace Corps helped me learn about myself and what really matters to me more than any experience state-side could have given to me. I feel much more able to tackle whatever obstacles face me in my work now because I survived, and indeed––eventually––flourished during two years in the Peace Corps.

One of the things that is still difficult to recover from now is the time I spent away from my family and loved ones. During the two years of my absence, I missed more weddings, funerals, births, divorces, and other life-changing events than I thought I would. That was very hard. That, and the lack of reasonable communication with home, made it very difficult. I understand, however, that at least in Cameroon, communication with the States is much easier for volunteers now than it was when I was there (1995–1997).

Ultimately, I got the most out of my Peace Corps experience by creating my own environment in which to flourish. The first post I was assigned to was at a religious private school at which the teachers hadn’t been paid for almost three years. That, combined with corruption at the school, and the fact that I myself am not religious at all, made the work environment very difficult.

After that experience, and realizing that the Peace Corps administration in country was not going to help me in transferring to a better post, I moved myself, found a new post and a new place to live. My second year was spent at a public school teaching higher-level physics classes. I also spent a couple days a week at the regional teachers’ resource center developing physics teaching curriculum, serving an unmet need that made me feel like my time was better spent. In my second post, I was near a paved road, which made it much easier for me to travel to see other Peace Corps volunteers, get to a phone, to the bank, to buy supplies, etc. In fact, I was so much more comfortable in my second post that I seriously considered extending for a third year, having felt that my first year was a bit “wasted.” But, ultimately, I decided against it as I felt I had already missed too many significant family events while I was gone and needed to get back to catch up.

This level of independence was not only very rewarding in itself, but it also helped me to grow more confident in my ability to take care of myself no matter what country or situation I live in and through.

Robert Savage ’04

Azerbaijan: Teaching English as a Foreign Language

Living here has been an incredible experience so far. I’ve been working in Azerbaijan for more than 22 months, and I’m scheduled to complete my service in October.

My original assignment landed me in a mid-size city in the middle of the country, but last summer I was transferred to a small village in the northwest. The region is called Zaqatala, and it’s best known among Azeris for two things: the abundance of walnuts and the enormous mountains that seem to hover over the city.

A snow-covered peak, which marks the border with Dagestan, is visible from my front porch on clear mornings, and if you look east and south you would see the rolling plains that fade off into Georgian grape land.

Being situated where it is (north of Iran), Azerbaijan is in the middle of a wide array of historical and cultural affairs. Those influences have dug their way into all facets of life. Most of my day-to-day interactions are in Azerbaijani, but it’s rare for a conversation to pass without a smattering of Russian, Persian and Arabic. Throw in the vast deposits of oil in the Caspian, and this becomes a truly dynamic place.

A Day in the Life
My primary project is English education. On any given weekday, I bounce from class to class teaching my students, while sharing the fundamentals of teaching foreign language with my local counterparts.

The salary of teachers in Azerbaijan is desperately inadequate, so, as one would expect, teachers often must choose between the demands of making a living or opportunities for self-improvement. I haven’t been able to do anything to raise their salaries, but I’ve implemented a number of programs to boost their interest in all things English.

In one instance, I was able to allocate a collection of books. We used the books to establish a school library, which, in turn, the teachers used to bring color to their lessons. English language learning before consisted of a poorly written text and a black-and-white picture of Big Ben. Now it’s an interactive activity, complete with colorful posters, practical conversation exercises and games. The students have become significantly more engaged as a result.

I also do some work outside my primary project. Last December, I helped coordinate an English pageant. Since it was the holiday season, one student volunteered to sing “Jingle Bells” to the beat of traditional Azeri folk music.

More recently, I helped my school write an application for the Peace Corps Partnership Program. We are raising money to fund the installation of a computer lab for the school. If realized, the school will begin offering a technology course in the fall for older students.

Representing America, Celebrating Diversity

At the transitioning of the winter season, I went to a remote church with another volunteer early in the morning to participate in a commemoration to St. George. As we journeyed to the church, we witnessed a scene of near chaos at the base of the mountain with people cooking kebabs and selling drinks everywhere we turned.

We joined the ranks of Azeris and Georgians making their way up the mountain and did our best not to muddy up our pants. Most people walking with us kicked off their shoes and walked barefoot. From above, we were greeted with the sounds of Georgian chants echoing off the temple walls.

The church itself had been carved into the side of the mountain in the 13th century, and since then, Christians and Muslims alike have celebrated the seasonal change by lighting candles at the mount and sticking the wax against the walls of brick and stone. For them, the church transcends any religious differences, and is, more than anything else, a spiritual celebration of the departure of winter.

As I stood on a rock overlooking the crowds, I saw Christians praying next to Muslims. A group of bearded men stood at the edge of a cliff sacrificing chickens, while several others sang anthems of thanks.

So often, Peace Corps volunteers are charged with representing America and its people in ways that are hard to imagine. Because volunteers are among a limited number of Americans living beyond Baku, we are often the first people to discuss American attitudes with Azeris.

That day at the church, a number of people wanted to know where we were from and if we enjoyed the celebration. They also wanted to know how we, as Americans, perceived the holiday, considering the unusual makeup of the audience.

The answer was simple. We explained that not only do we Americans celebrate diversity, America was founded on that value. Days like this have become the nature of my life and work in Azerbaijan.

Si Sikes ’93

Côte d’Ivoire: Community Development

I served in 1996, spending three months in Senegal and nine months in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast), both French-speaking countries. I was a Community Development volunteer in a program titled “Urban Environmental Management.” I lived in a town called M’bahiakro with a population of 10,000 or so just west of Boauke.

I worked with a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, an engineer, designing and building latrines for all the town schools. We also developed and began work on the refurbishment of a large area in the middle of town, which would eventually become a sports complex, complete with soccer fields, basketball courts and more.

I felt very prepared for my Peace Corps experience, due in large part to Centenary. Centenary prepared me through excellent academic work and faculty support (Drs. Dana Kress and Rodney Grunes, in particular), as well as through opportunities to participate in a wide variety of activities across campus.

Erin Hatch Neal, who served in Cameroon, actually came to the Ivory Coast around the Fourth of July. She stayed with me for several weeks. We had a great time reflecting on our time at Centenary and laughing that we were doing so on the other side of the world.