Taking a foreign vacation is memorable, but spending two years becoming part of a culture different from one’s own is an invaluable experience that the Peace Corps offers to all who are willing to accept the challenge.
“There is an amazing feeling of accomplishment when it comes to successfully integrating with and living in another culture,” said Christian Reed, a former Peace Corps volunteer attending graduate school at USF. “Many people are not cut out for it, but you never really know ’til you try it.”
The Peace Corps started in 1961 and was first implemented by founding director R. Sargent Shriver.
“I went around with the ambassador (of India) and Mr. Shriver to present the idea of the Peace Corps to the (Indian) government,” said Roger Ernst, a former USF professor who helped establish the Peace Corps. “The government of India had been quite torn.”
Ernst helped convince a divided Indian government to accept American volunteers from the then-emerging Peace Corps.
Since its start, the Peace Corps has served 143 countries with the help of 170,000 volunteers. There are 70 countries in which Peace Corps volunteers are now serving, and there are 14 recent USF graduates stationed in countries overseas, such as Fiji and the Dominican Republic.
According to its Web site, Peace Corps aims to promote world peace and friendship by placing American volunteers in foreign communities for two years of service after three months of extensive training. An applicant for Peace Corps must be a U.S. Citizen and at least 18 years old with a bachelor’s degree.
After a candidate has applied, been granted an interview, nominated for service, satisfactorily completed a series of medical examinations and formally invited to serve in the Peace Corps, he or she will set off to their assigned country for training.
Peace Corps volunteers go through cross-cultural training and language training as well as training for the job to be held during a volunteer’s two-year stay. Volunteers serve in areas of youth and community development, education, health, agriculture, environmental awareness, business development and information technology.
Reed volunteered in the Republic of Zambia as a health extension worker from January 2000 to April 2002.
“I worked with local volunteer community health workers as well as Ministry of Health workers.” Reed said. “I lived the way of life of many Africans: Spoke the language, ate the food, worked in the fields with friends, learned the customs and got to really be a part of an African culture.”
While attending USF to complete graduate school, Reed acts as USF’s Peace Corps recruiter and brings others the opportunity to become a Peace Corps volunteer.
“I feel that in my life I’ve been so blessed and fortunate that I wanted to give something back.” said Jill Jones, a USF graduate stationed in Moldova as a Peace Corps volunteer. “So here I am.”
Jones began her training program in June of 2004 and began her service in August. “Peace Corps training is something like a cross between boot camp and college life,” Jones said. “It was really tough but worth it.”
Jones works in Moldova to improve education and teaches students in grades six through nine in a village of about 4,000 people. She also mingles with the locals and engages in a number of activities outside of the school setting. “Although I am a teacher five days a week, I feel like my role with Peace Corps extends beyond the walls of the classroom.” said Jones. “I’ve only been here six months, and I can already tell how much it has changed me. Peace Corps is not just a two-year service, but something that changes your entire life forever.”
Katie Curley, a senior at USF, is soon to embark on her journey with the Peace Corps.
“I have traveled abroad before and spent a semester studying abroad in South Africa,” Curley said. “Words can’t explain the experience I had. I was greatly influenced by my trip to South Africa and feel it is vitally important for students to explore the world. While I did all of the fun, touristy stuff, it was my experience volunteering in a township that made me realize how much we as Americans take for granted.
“I fell in love with the idea of traveling abroad while helping people,” Curley said.Curley will serve as an HIV/AIDS counselor to promote AIDS awareness, and is scheduled to leave on Sept. 14, 2005.
She is not the only USF student preparing to make a difference in the Peace Corps.
“I can personally say, without reservation, that this is going to be one of the most exciting parts of my life,” said Bryan Polson, a political science and economics major who is also preparing to leave for the Peace Corps.
Polson said he always planned to attend law school in California to pursue his dream of being an agent, executive or league counsel in the world of professional sports.
“While these dreams are still very much alive for me, I felt that I needed a unique inspiration, a readjustment of soul, if you will; something that was going to be extremely challenging and out-of-the-ordinary, especially for young people,” he said. “One night I went to the Peace Corps Web site, and after reading an amazing set of stories, I decided to fill out an application.”
Polson will serve his two years in Sub-Sahara, Africa, where he will help community leaders develop macro- and microeconomic institutions, generate new forms of revenue and market new ideas.
“I might not be able to change the world, but it is possible that I will inspire those whom I will leave behind after my two years of service to continue the trend of positive development,” said Polson.
Those who have already served as Peace Corps volunteers have no trouble admitting that their service was hard, but worth it.
“It is not easy by any means,” Reed said. “The most difficult part was missing family and friends, but one of the best parts was making entirely new family and friends. Undoubtedly, my life is more enjoyable, and I feel that I know myself very well after Peace Corps. Bring lots of patience, an open mind, and a sense of adventure.”
Peace Corps has a lot to offer not only to the countries it serves, but also to the volunteers who participate.
“It’s a two-way street. You’re learning from them, too,” Ernst said.
“You think you are going over there to help through teaching or organizing communities,” Reed said. “But volunteers always learn more than they could ever teach.”