WILLIAMS ALUMNI EXPLORE THE GLOBE IN THE PEACE CORPS
Run on the Williams College Web site, Summer 2008
Mark E. Rondeau
From learning a new language and culture, to meeting your future wife, to finding your true vocation, service in the Peace Corps can open up whole new vistas for volunteers. Even the not-so-positive experiences like catching malaria have lessons to teach. Since 1961, some 266 Williams alumni have served in the program.
Peter Ruggiero ’88 served in the Ivory Coast from 1998 to 2001, first as a small business advisor and then as a volunteer leader. He caught malaria and had a run-in with police, but his experience was mostly positive. In fact, he stayed in the country for a year as a private citizen after his term of service ended. “I had always wanted to go to West Africa and I got my wish via the Peace Corps. I was able to live and work abroad while contributing something,” he says. “I also got to live in a rich culture with people who were caring and involved. Most Americans would probably say ‘nosy,’ but I found a kind of communal society that was similar to the Italian American family and community I was raised in,” he adds.
One of many great lessons he learned is that people in the U.S. have too much. “Certainly, people in the Ivory Coast and other developing nations have important needs that are unmet; however, the amount of wastefulness in ‘developed’ societies is hard to fathom until you travel outside of them.”
John Trapp ’80 volunteered in the Yemen Arab Republic from 1982 to 1984. He worked on a USAID project that utilized a team composed of engineers from a U.S. company, Peace Corps volunteers, and Yemen Ministry of Public Works personnel, to develop water systems in rural villages. “The experience was very positive. The Yemeni people were wonderful,” he says. “I fulfilled personal goals of travel, learning new languages and acculturation.”
One impact he saw from the water projects was that children, especially girls, were freed from the daily task of hauling water and had time to play and attend school.
What was the greatest lesson he learned? “Certainly patience, humor, and tolerance are necessary virtues for any Peace Corp volunteer to learn. The greatest lesson is that culture is important. Trying to define a problem or solution without considering culture is stupid. The Iraq War is a case in point,” Trapp says. “Developing what is ‘right’ within a cultural context is the only way to succeed and make long term positive change.”
Like father; like daughter
John Trainor ’65 served in the Peace Corps in Malawi for three years, 1966 through 1968. He taught several subjects, mostly history, geography and English as a foreign language. He also did some TB testing and census-taking . He liked the experience enough to extend it for a third year, and he also discovered he liked teaching, something he continued in the U.S.
“I was happy and proud when my daughter signed up and served for two years in Burkina Faso,” Trainor says.
Though she majored in astrophysics at Williams, Rebecca Cover ’00 found her true career during her service in Senegal.
Before graduation, she spent hours in the office of career counseling exploring job alternatives hoping to find something that struck her, to no avail. Eventually she attended a Peace Corps recruiting session. She liked the idea of learning a new language and culture and of helping people in the process. The reality turned out to be all this and more.
“The Peace Corps motto, ‘the toughest job you’ll ever love’ sums it up very well. Most returned volunteers will tell you that Peace Corps service is full of physical and emotional challenges,” she says. “But they will also tell you — and this is true — that once you’ve completed two years in the Peace Corps, you have the confidence that you can do anything you set your mind to.”
Cover immersed herself in the Haalpulaar culture of northern Senegal and its language, Pulaar, developing some of the closest friendships she has ever had and learning the true meaning of community. “I figured out my destiny in life: to study and document endangered languages. As a result, I entered a Ph.D. program in linguistics at UC Berkeley,” she says. “I’ve been fortunate to be able to return to Senegal three times since finishing my Peace Corps service.” She is doing fieldwork on Badiaranke, a minority language spoken in southern Senegal, Guinea, and Guinea-Bissau. One of her goals is to thoroughly document and describe this little-studied and endangered language.
Nancy Gannon ’89 served in northeastern Thailand from 1989 to 1991. She worked half-time as a middle-school English teacher and half-time as a community development worker. “It was one of the best experiences in my life, challenging me to find my path and be independent in a very foreign place. It helped me develop leadership and self-reliance,” she says. “Thai culture emphasizes patience and the art of letting things go sometimes. Those skills have served me well in life.”
Ulysses Sherman ’88 served in the Ivory Coast from 1992 to 1994. He met his wife, another volunteer, there and served in a program called Urban Environmental Management, basically “trash management.” Sherman finds it hard to pick just one lesson from his time serving in the Ivory Coast. “The most resonant single image is the laughter. We’re used to seeing images of crisis coming out of Africa, but even in rural Ivory Coast the sound of laughter filled the streets and was an integral part of daily life,” he said.
Laura Ahearn ’82, who teaches anthropology at Rutgers University , served in Nepal shortly after graduating from Williams. She taught English as a second language, math and female literacy, and trained teachers, extending her service an extra year. “As many other Peace Corps volunteers often note, I really did get far more out of the experience than I was able to offer. The only reason I am an anthropologist now is because upon my return from Nepal in 1986 I began to look for a field of graduate study that would enable me to go back there and learn more about the language and culture,” she said.
Williams Director of Career Counseling John Noble says his office has a great relationship with Peace Corps recruiters, who visit the campus five or six times a year. The college has a new fund established by an alumnus on behalf of the Class of 1955 to pay off any kind of loan that students have incurred in coming to Williams when they’ve finished their two-year commitment in the Peace Corps. “That’s been in place now a year-and-a-half and has benefited a number of alumni,” Noble said. “We’ve told the Peace Corps people about this program, and they’ve been helping us get the word out about it.”
Noble sees a trend among college students now to think about an interim project to do when they’re graduating from college, and the Peace Corps represents that kind of an option. “There’s some resistance in just jumping right into a full-fledged career path, or going right to graduate school.”
In 2007, seven Williams alumni were serving overseas in the Peace Corps. In 2008, the number rose to 13, according to Joanna Shea O’Brien, a Peace Corps publicist. This year’s crop of Williams graduates are serving in Bolivia, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Malawi, Morocco, Peru, Thailand, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Zambia. They range from art studio and English majors to biology and physics majors, and they work in agriculture, forestry, health, community development and secondary English and science teaching.
Thomas Gill ’08, a chemistry major from Honolulu, got interested in the program last year. As a pre-med student looking for a break from the books to refocus and recharge, he was also looking for alternative means to focus on medical issues and give back to the community.
“The Peace Corps will be an opportunity for me to apply my health-related background (I am an EMT for Village Ambulance in Williamstown), grow as a communicator and world citizen, and develop some understanding of global health issues,” he said. “Volunteer work has always been a highlight for me, and this commitment is sure to focus me for a medical future while giving me a number of skills necessary to become a contributing world citizen down the road.”
Gill will serve in Jamaica beginning in July, working as an HIV/AIDS educator and counselor in a community “with (sadly) a large number of false beliefs about the epidemic.
“The opportunity is a way to truly get involved with public health on a global level,” he said, “while connecting with people and expanding skills necessary to become a physician later in life. My service will be quite a challenge, but I look forward to it and cannot wait to get going.”