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Volume 11 Edition 4: December 2011 Emily Holmes, Editor

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The Peace Corps!

Peace Corps Logo

The United States Peace Corps was established on March 1, 1961, making this year the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps service around the world.  In those fifty years, more than 200,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in 139 countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and the Pacific Islands.   Current and Returned Peace Corps Volunteers are made up of a diverse blend of people from numerous backgrounds and cultures who have serve in a variety of areas including education, health, business development, environmental preservation, agricultural development, and youth development.  Currently there are more than 8,500 active Peace Corps volunteers serving in 76 countries.  Serving in the Peace Corps can be a life-changing experience and as the celebration of 50 years of service draws to a close, we would like to share the experiences of some of our IPC Staff who served in the Peace Corps—Michael Elliott and Emily Holmes.

Michael Elliott
Director of International Student & Scholar Services

Mike Elliott

Michael Elliott

Peace Corps Service: Kenya, Africa, 1989-1991. Served as a high school science teacher in the town of Kasidi and also taught English classes.

Why did you join Peace Corps:
I decided before completing my Bachelor’s degree that I wanted to live and work overseas.  After exploring different options, I decided to join the Peace Corps because it is a program invited by the host country and is one of the best equipped as a development organization to train volunteers for outreach into the developing communities.  My personal goal was to help enrich the lives of students in a developing country and to better understand the needs, wants and situations of people outside of the U.S.

What are your memories of people and places?
One of my favorite activities was joining village families on weekend evenings for dinner or other activities.  This was a great way to learn about the culture and build relationships with individuals in the community.  I particularly remember two different families, one quite different from the other in regard to subculture and socioeconomic levels.  The first was an extended Arab Swahili family who managed the village market, brick yard and farm equipment.  This family had a phone, electricity and indoor plumbing which was unique in that village.  As this family was originally from Oman, traditions, food, behaviors and conversations were quite different than with the remainder of the community.  When I was at their home for dinner, we watched Arab and Kenyan videos, especially music videos.  We talked about life in the village, in Kenya, and the U.S. The other family lived a very modest lifestyle in a small, dilapidated mud hut.  When visiting their home, we would generally sit outside, partly under the palm thatched roof awning and partly under the stars.  One night while talking about our families, school and happenings in the village, we saw what must have been an international, commercial jet in descent for a Mombassa landing  – an incredible sight when juxtaposed with this small village of mostly mud huts and little subsistence farms and gardens.  All of my visits with community families were special in their own ways.

What was the toughest part?
The toughest but also one of the most rewarding parts of Peace Corps service was learning how to live with very little, a much different lifestyle in than in the U.S.  Without phones (now volunteers carry cells), electricity, or plumbing, one learns to use simpler methods like paraffin lamps and stoves and to depend more on other people, which in turn results in the building of close relationships with others.

Kenyan Classroom

The Kenyan classroom

What was the most rewarding part?
The most rewarding experience for me was the transformation I saw in myself.  Through my experiences in the Kenyan classroom, engaging in community projects, and building relationships with neighborhood friends and families, I came to understand how much more I was learning, changing, and receiving from others than I could ever have given.  In a biology class that I taught, for example, students one day initiated an in-depth discussion about the meaning of life from their own perspective as students in a Kenyan village. The dialogue was powerful, particularly coming from teenagers. The students were quite introspective as they shared philosophical ideas, hopes, fears and goals. As you imagine, I walked away at the end of the class stunned but also deeply impacted by the experience.

What is your most vivid memory?
My most vivid memory would have to be related to the everyday life of Kenyans in a small village, particularly the children and youth.  Children and youth, while typically very serious about their education and spending lots of time studying, enjoyed many activities that might be considered modest in the U.S.  For example, a high school youth might have a cherished novel they carry and read during any free time.  Or for younger children, a simple bike wheel rim and a stick would provide hours of enjoyment.  Of course a soccer ball was one of the best recreational items of all and would bring together a large part of the community on Saturdays.  However, most children, especially girls, also worked very hard.  Some did not have time for many recreational activities as their time was spent cooking, cleaning, gathering fire wood and water, or taking care of younger siblings. 

What was the most important thing you learned from your Peace Corps service?
One of the most important things I learned in the Peace Corps was flexibility.  For instance, when I arrived at the school where I would be teaching, there was not an English teacher.  Beyond teaching biology and physics, I was asked if I would attend an English teacher training program to prepare me to teach all of the English classes at the high school.  I, of course, accepted and was on my way to understanding the English language in a totally new way.  Other examples include adjusting to water not being available some days from the community water tap, washing clothes by hand, and using an outhouse on a daily basis.  Also, the concept of time was very different, particularly outside the classroom.  This sometimes became an issue when scheduling activities.  Since the culture was very much built around a sense of being – relationship building and maintenance – you had to be careful not to schedule too many activities in one day.  Just spending time with people in meaningful conversation, for even hours at a time, was important to building trust with others and becoming part of the community. 

What has been the impact of Peace Corps on your life?
First the Peace Corps impacted my professional direction.  I joined the Peace Corps after finishing a science related degree and ended up after my teaching experience in Kenya wanting to work in international education.  I returned to the States to study international affairs and education, and shortly after entered the field of higher education.  Furthermore, my Peace Corps experience helped teach me the importance of incorporating learned values, traditions, practices, and beliefs of other cultures into my own personal and professional life as well as my family life.

What advice do you have for others who are considering going into the Peace Corps?
While the Peace Corps is a challenging experience, it will certainly be one of the most rewarding, not only in regard to what you are able to give to others, but also what you learn from others and about yourself.  Be open-minded to what you can learn from your experience and you can gain perspective to teach others and impact their lives.  Be willing to practice sustainable, collaborative, and humble leadership through a variety of goals and methods accepted and developed by local people.

Emily Holmes
E-Newsworthy Editor and M.Ed.S. Counseling, (’13)

Chad Students

Holmes with her students at the local high school, Lycée de Kélo

Peace Corps Service: Chad, Africa, 2004-2006.  Served as a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) volunteer at a high school in the city of Kélo.

Why did you join Peace Corps:
I have always been passionate about service, and I have enjoyed travelling and learning about new places ever since I spent a semester abroad in France during my undergraduate studies at Western Carolina University.  The Peace Corps was a great opportunity to both serve and travel, while diversifying my perspective before entering a professional career.

What are your memories of people and places?
Chadian people are some of the strongest people I have ever known. Chad is one of the most undeveloped nations in the world, so poverty and lack of resources was a real problem. Despite this lack of resources, people persevered and relied on their faith and their community to help them through difficult times. Sharing and generosity were a way of life, and simple joys were cause for celebration. The landscape was mostly desert-like, scrubland, and it only rained about three months out of the year, so it was very hot and dry most of the time and extremely dusty.  I remember the first time it rained after months of dry heat, I ran out into the rain and just stood there to feel it on my face.  Rain was definitely a cause for celebration!

What was the toughest part?
Leaving.  Due to an attempted coup d’état in April 2006, I was prematurely evacuated from Chad after having lived there for a year and a half.  It was a very difficult time because I had to abruptly leave all of the people I had come to love and the home I had established there in the community. Also, being the only female teacher at the local high school and having classes of 80-100 students, mostly young men, was a real challenge.  I learned to manage my classes by adopting a zero tolerance policy for misbehavior and by using humor and creative teaching styles to engage the students. Also, I learned to laugh at myself despite the many challenges.

What was the most rewarding part?
The relationships I formed with the local children were by far the most rewarding parts of the experience. Despite many language barriers and cultural differences, I bonded easily with the children because of their curiosity and forgiving nature. I especially enjoyed teaching beginning English classes to the neighborhood children. With them, I could play games, sing songs, and act silly in a way that I couldn’t with my high school students who were learning grammar and verb conjugations. Also, the young students were extremely motivated to learn and came to class faithfully even though it was not required.

English Awards for Chad Students

Neighborhood children from Holmes’ beginning English class after receiving their “English Awards” at the end of the course

What is your most vivid memory?

Aside from the children, the sunsets and the night skies are very vivid in my mind. In the flat desert landscape of Chad, the sunsets were amazing!  Also, with no electricity, the stars were bright and beautiful. It is almost impossible to see stars like that in the U.S. since we are rarely in the dark.

What was the most important thing you learned from your Peace Corps service?
Serving in the Peace Corps changed my perspective on life and taught me to see the world differently. It made me really be able to appreciate my own blessings and to recognize the suffering that others endure. I also learned to trust my own inner strength and the power of the human connection to overcome barriers.  Living without modern technology (no running water or electricity) gave me time to reflect on myself and the world around me in a way that I wouldn’t have done amid the distractions of life in the U.S. I appreciate all of my experiences, good and bad, as they have shaped who I am today.

What has been the impact of Peace Corps on your life?
On a personal level, the new perspective I gained in the Peace Corps has made me a stronger and more compassionate person, and professionally, it has shaped many of my decisions.  Although I have an undergraduate degree in Interior Design and practiced design for a few years following my Peace Corps service, I found that it was not the right fit for me. My time in the Peace Corps had inspired me to make a life-long commitment to service, so ultimately I changed my career path which led me to pursue my current graduate studies in Counseling. 

What advice do you have for others who are considering going into the Peace Corps?
Do it!  Be aware that there’s a reason why they call it “the toughest job you’ll ever love” because serving in the Peace Corps can be physically and emotionally demanding, but if you stick with it and keep an open mind, you will find rewards that far outweigh the struggles. 

To read about other UNCG students and their Peace Corps adventures, visit:

Visit http://www.peacecorps.gov/ to learn more about the Peace Corps or apply to join!

Previous editions:
- Vol 11, ed 3: November 2011
- Vol 11, ed 2: October 2011
- Vol 11, ed 1: September 2011

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