Hard Lessons Learned

Service in the Peace Corps proves challenging, rewarding path for alumni
- by Brian J. Bowe

Andrea Rice

In its famous advertising slogan, the Peace Corps has, for years, touted itself as "the toughest job you'll ever love." Grand Valley alumna Andrea Rice is learning firsthand how tough life as a volunteer can be.

Rice teaches science at Biakpa Junior Secondary School in the West African nation of Ghana. She arrived in June 2004 after graduating from Grand Valley with a degree in biochemistry.

"Peace Corps hasn't been easy," she said. "Although I have never been seriously ill, I am never really completely healthy. I don't have running water or an inside toilet, and the electricity is on as much as it is off. Between my house and my toilet, I have run into snakes, swarms of fire ants and scorpions."

And those are just the personal challenges. Her school is impoverished, which creates massive professional difficulties.

"We only recently got desks for the students, and there are still no textbooks. All the information the students get in science comes from my notes," she said. "The school has brick walls, but the doors and windows are just large holes in the wall. The ceiling is just a metal sheet, and when it rains the noise is so loud that I cannot talk over it."

Rice is one of a growing number of Grand Valley alumni joining the Peace Corps after graduation. The university is ranked on the top 20 list of Midwest schools for the number of graduates who are Peace Corps volunteers.

The Biakpa Junior Secondary School provides Andrea Rice with a massive challenge.

Since the beginning of the Peace Corps, 107 Grand Valley graduates have volunteered. An additional 15 are currently serving, and there are more in the pipeline. Scott Roskelley, public affairs specialist in the Peace Corps' Chicago regional office, attributes the increased numbers to stepped-up recruiting efforts at Grand Valley over the past couple of years.

"We weren't going there before, but now we are. We're starting to reap the results," Roskelley said. "You were a fertile source for volunteers that was untapped."

Roskelley added that there are more Peace Corps volunteers in the field now than anytime in the past 30 years. More than 7,800 Peace Corps volunteers currently serve in 71 countries. Since its inception in 1961, 178,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps.

Meaghann Myers, coordinator of program services and outreach at Grand Valley's Padnos International Center, said her office often refers interested students to Grand Valley faculty who have served in the Peace Corps. While the Padnos International Center doesn't have a formal connection to the Peace Corps, it does field questions from students considering volunteering.

"I think there are all kinds of different motivators," Myers said. "It's a program that's got a household name, and that brings a comfort level to people. They know about the Peace Corps, their parents have talked about it."

Volunteering holds an appeal for graduates who aren't sure what they're going to do next. "It's a good stepping stone - but it's a serious one," Myers said. "It's a frustrating process for a lot of people. It's not an easy thing even before they go. There's so much that needs to be done."

Mike Willcox and Liz Smith

Liz Smith and Mike Willcox understand those difficulties well. Smith, 24, graduated in 2004 with a liberal studies degree, and Willcox, 26, graduated in 2005 with a degree in psychology. The couple is scheduled to leave for their post in Senegal on March 13. Smith will work for the Senegalese government as a health liaison and educator specializing in women's health issues; Willcox will be an environmental educator traveling to local schools and interest groups teaching them about pressing environmental issues in the area.

The screening process for volunteers is grueling, they said. It includes disclosing academic history, previous volunteer work plus detailed medical, dental and psychological histories for the past 10 years.

"I think they're creating a patience within the both of us that I didn't possess before this process began," Smith said. "Even the application process is stressful and unpredictable and you kind of have to surrender control - and that's exactly what they want you to be like when you go."

Smith and Willcox have been working hard to prepare for Peace Corps - including getting married earlier than planned. They registered for wedding gifts at outdoor-megastore REI, selecting lots of gear to take with them to Africa.

Doing this kind of service work is important to both of them.

"Both of us were raised in very socially conscious homes," Smith said. "We were both raised doing community work, and, at Grand Valley, I was required to do volunteer work for a couple of classes. It seemed like a good fit. This just seemed like a natural progression of what we wanted to do."

And, while they hope to make a positive difference in the community where they will work, they also know that they will receive more than they give.

"An opportunity like this to assimilate into a completely different culture, a completely different idea of life, love, destiny, religion - we're going to learn so much," Smith said.

Tales from the field

James Goode

One of the Peace Corps' best recruiting tools is faculty members who were volunteers. Smith said James Goode, a history professor who served in the Peace Corps, "was a pretty large influence in my decision to go."

Goode volunteered in Iran from 1968-71. He taught English in a little mountain town called Tuyserkan in western Iran. Goode said he taught middle-school boys - up to 70 in a classroom.

"I had my good days and my bad days with them," Goode said.

When Goode volunteered, he didn't have much knowledge of Iran. "I probably just knew where Iran was when I went into the Peace Corps," he said. But his experience in the corps dramatically changed his career. Goode is an internationally known expert and has written books on Iran. He is also the coordinator of the Middle East Studies program at Grand Valley and oversees the Area Studies programs. He credits his time in the Peace Corps with giving him access to Persian culture that most outsiders don't see.

Goode taught English to middle-school boys in western Iran - up to 70 in a classroom.

"I got to see Iranian society and Iranian culture from the inside. In many ways, I wasn't an outsider," Goode said. "In that society, they tend to be a little bit xenophobic or suspicious of outsiders, particularly in small towns. I was able to interact and engage with Iranians in a way that most foreigners cannot do."

Roy Cole, a geography professor at Grand Valley, had served in the corps in the West African nations of Mali and Senegal during the Sahel drought, which killed as many as 100,000 people.

"Mostly it is the old and very young who die. I saw so many things close up that I can't even begin to describe to you in a way that you would understand as I did," Cole said. "I was just a kid when I landed in Dakar. But I think I grew up very fast after having been plunged into village life."

When his service was completed, Cole spoke three African languages and had a desire to pursue graduate studies in African history. He did graduate research in Mali on drought. He has recently returned from a semester teaching and a research sabbatical at the University of Cape Coast, Ghana.

Roy Cole in Mali.

"On a personal level, the change was profound," he said. "I think that living in the village for as long as I did as the only outsider, being socialized into the local culture, and speaking the languages as fluently as I did transformed me - humanized me in a sense that only became apparent to me long after I returned to the United States."

Another faculty member who counsels students about Peace Corps service is Steve Blair, an assistant professor of mathematics education. Blair served in Nepal from 1992-94. While pursuing a master's degree in mathematics at the University of Michigan, Blair found himself at a career crossroads. He was cooling to his initial goal of becoming a mathematician and decided not to pursue a doctorate in math. The corps' roots in Ann Arbor inspired him to volunteer. "It's part of the culture there," he said.

He was based out of a little village in eastern Nepal that had no electricity. It was a two-day walk to the nearest road, which was the trekking trail to Mt. Everest; it was then a torturous 10-hour bus ride to the capital, Katmandu.

Redefining success

Tales of hardship are ubiquitous among Peace Corps volunteers. Before volunteering, Christine Hoovler, '98, heard some of those tales from her parents, both of whom were volunteers. Her mother, Nancy - a Grand Valley alumna - warned her that she'd hate it, Hoovler said.

"She told me I'd be at times harassed and treated like a second-class citizen. She told me that I would never really be accepted in a Muslim culture, and that I would not like the inevitable loss of rights that I had been raised to expect," Hoovler said.

Undeterred, Hoovler served as a volunteer from 1998-2000 in Urgench, the regional capital of Xorezm in western Uzbekistan. She couldn't wear what she wanted, walk unescorted at night, or date freely.

Hoovler said she sometimes lost her temper, but also she said that she understood the occasional mistreatment she suffered. "I do understand many reasons why I was sometimes treated badly - for example, 75 years of Soviet ideology telling people that all foreigners were corrupt and Soviet threats that people communicating with foreigners would be imprisoned," she said. "My students' textbooks talked about the capitalist American pigs.' Of course, this must have impacted the way I was treated."

Zach Brevis, 29, had just graduated from Grand Valley with a bachelor's degree in business administration/finance when he joined the Peace Corps.

"At the time I thought it would be a good experience and it couldn't hurt me career-wise," Brevis said. "I wasn't interested in taking an entry-level corporate finance job."

Brevis was assigned to a brand-new site in southern Armenia and worked as a business consultant. There, he taught a Western business principles and concepts course at the local university, consulted with small business owners, facilitated community development training and helped start an English-language center.

Some unwelcome lessons included learning how to cope with infrequent electricity, heat and running water.

"There was one point in the summer where I went without tap water for two months," Brevis said. The problem was solved by banding with neighbors and forming a bucket line to the apartment building from an outside spigot, where each tenant would fill plastic garbage pails of water for storage.

He lived a spartan existence, but he found that the biggest difficulty was the frustration that comes when youthful idealism crashes into stark reality.

"Aside from the hardships of not having running water and electricity all the time, you learn that change is incremental," Brevis said. "You have all of these expectations and hopes going into this with fresh idealism. You learn to redefine success and recalibrate your goals. You change the way you look at things so you accept smaller victories. You learn to say I can only do this little bit, but this little bit is all right.'"

Debbie Barnum majored in criminal justice at Grand Valley. She taught English as a foreign language to middle and high school students in a little Romanian town called Pecica. She also taught some adult English programs.

Debbie Barnum in Romania.

"I never thought about the Peace Corps, but I was always fascinated by National Geographic magazine," Barnum said. She knew she wanted to travel, and said, "You can't learn as much about a place if you're just there for a couple of weeks on vacation."

In her last year at Grand Valley, she saw a Peace Corps poster and took a reply card.

"I figured that the Peace Corps offered some sort of security," she said, noting that it took all the guesswork out of living, working and travel arrangements. "They offered so much. I felt safe for my first experience out of the country."

It's axiomatic among Peace Corps volunteers that they want to change the world, but often it's the volunteers who change the most. Halfway through her service in Ghana, Rice said she could already see the benefits.

"Peace Corps has definitely done some wonderful things for me, however hard it may be," Rice said. "It has helped me to reflect on my goals and personality. The best way to understand the culture we come from is to live in one so different from our own. I have come to understand poverty and race so much more in the last year and a half - more than I could ever have learned from a book."

Barnum said she learned much about herself, too.

"I learned that I can do anything I want to do. I learned that I can be adaptable in most situations as necessary. I learned to deal with loneliness - I never knew what loneliness was until I went into the Peace Corps," Barnum said.

She currently works as a juvenile probation officer in Berrien County but is going through the process to become a Foreign Service Officer. "I would have never thought of becoming a Foreign Service officer if it weren't for Peace Corps," she said.

Brevis also found a career path through the Peace Corps. After he returned from his service, Brevis went to graduate school and earned a master's degree in public administration. He now works in the administrative office of the U.S. courts that support the federal judiciary and has performed advocacy work for the Armenian-American community.

"It ended up being my entry into public service. It definitely dictated the path I took," Brevis said.

Peace Corps' Michigan Roots

John F. Kennedy speaks on the steps of the Michigan Union in October 1960, when he outlined his vision for a new type of American volunteerism.

The Peace Corps has its origin in Michigan. While he was campaigning for president in 1960, John F. Kennedy gave an impromptu 2 a.m. speech to students at the University of Michigan where he first proposed the idea. Here's what he said:

"How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past."

Page last modified March 11, 2014