The Peace Corps Changes Lives
On October 14, 1960, John F. Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. Fifty years later, his vision is still transforming lives. (More about Peace Corps at Michigan.)
How did the Peace Corps change you? That's the question we put to more than a dozen School of Public Health students, alumni, faculty, and staff who have volunteered for the corps since its inception on the steps of the Michigan Union in 1960. Today, UM ranks fourth among U.S. universities in the total number of volunteers (2,331, as of last year) to have served in the corps, and SPH has contributed dozens upon dozens of volunteers. A sampling of their stories follows.
Sierra Leone, 1962-1964, Marvin E. Hanson
SPH degree: MPH '69, medical care administration
Current job: Retired
The Peace Corps was officially established on March 1, 1961, and Marvin E. Hanson began his service the following year. Because the organization was in its infancy, and because Sierra Leone was "very much a developing country," Hanson says he and his fellow volunteers were to a large extent "left to our own devices as to how we were to be of service." If a school needed Latin teachers, they taught Latin. If a community needed a school, they helped build one. "We were young, we were challenged, we were needed (I think), and we were having fun," Hanson recalls. "My eyes were moist when it was time to leave my village of Pujehun after two years."
"Whenever I've had to prepare a resume or a job application, my lead item, front and center, was that I was among the first Peace Corps volunteers and that I am a graduate of the University of Michigan. In fact, I think I will have my eulogy begin with those two major accomplishments."
Liberia, 1969-1972, Robert Wolfe
Current job: Professor Emeritus of Biostatistics, UM SPH
Robert Wolfe and his wife, Janet, spent three years teaching science and math to high-schoolers in Liberia, mostly in Monrovia, the capital. Wolfe says the experience taught him a lot about being an American and opened his eyes to the ways that different cultures and perspectives "lead us to make different assumptions about how things are and how they work." Among other things, he learned that "perspective is local, and what's important in Africa is very different from what's important in the U.S. And you work on what's important where you are."
"Before I went to Liberia I was in graduate school, in mathematics, which is a field in which you make up problems and then solve them. After coming back I became a statistician, which is a field where you look at the problems around you and try to solve them. The Peace Corps had a tremendous impact upon my career choice, and it's undoubtedly why I'm in public health."
South Korea, 1972-1975, Tom Moore
SPH degree: MPH, '77, environmental health sciences
Current job: Staff toxicologist, California Department of Pesticide Regulation
As a tuberculosis-control officer, Tom Moore worked on a government-sponsored treatment program aimed at reducing the number of active TB cases in South Korea (approximately four percent) between 1972 and 1975. The program was already quite robust, Moore says, and he and his fellow volunteers merely "added a bit more manpower. Any Peace Corps volunteer will tell you that what you experience on a personal level is much more of a reward than what you're actually able to provide in terms of any expertise, particularly as a 23-year-old." Moore says he is "still living the experience." He met his wife, Jeong, during his Peace Corps service, and they have a daughter whom Moore teases for being a "Peace Corps kid."
"An important aspect of the international experience is the opportunity to compare and contrast the cultures of different societies by living closely with members of that other culture. Koreans, being a Confucian-based society, have a quite different perspective on personal and familial relationships that we as Americans don't necessarily embrace. We emphasize individual achievement—our own individuality—and it tends to isolate us. Whereas in Korean society, there's much more demand on the individual within the family to conform to certain expectations. But at the same time you can draw strength from the support that other family members provide."
Kenya, 1978-1980, Monica Dynowski Smith
SPH degree: MPH, '85
Current job: Human Capacity Development Specialist, U.S. CDC Global AIDS Program, Botswana
The year after she graduated from college, Monica Dynowski Smith signed up for the Peace Corps and wound up teaching English and biology in a secondary school in rural Kenya. Having grown up in suburban Los Angeles, "quite literally not thinking too much about where eggs and beef come from, she says, Smith found life in rural Africa quite eye-opening.
"One of my brightest students in Kenya got pregnant and had to drop out of school. So I went to the local family-planning agency and asked them to come and speak to the students, and they said they couldn't, because they weren't allowed to provide such information to teens. So I got very much more interested in population and over-population, and that's what led me to Michigan. After completing my MPH, I became one of the first UM Population Fellows and was posted to Botswana, where I still live. I think had I not joined the Peace Corps, I might be in California working for city government as a planner or something—who knows? The Peace Corps made me want to go overseas again and do something important."
Nepal, 1988-1990, Peter Rycus
SPH degree: MPH, '93, population planning and international health
Current job: Registry manager, Extracorporeal Life Support Organization (ELSO), UM Department of Surgery
Peter Rycus spent his first year in Nepal teaching math, science, and English in the public school system, and his second year conducting teacher-training sessions for math and science teachers. He met his wife, Meena Bajracharya, during his service, and the two return to Katmandu whenever possible with their son to visit Meena's family. Rycus says a key part of his Peace Corps service was the knowledge and experience he brought back with him to the U.S. You're not USAID," he says. "You're not going to make huge differences on a big scale. You're going to make friendships, and make small differences for a few people."
"In Nepal, everyone just likes talking. Over here in the States, it's a beautiful day, and my wife is, like, 'Where is everyone?' Well, everyone is inside watching TV. In Nepal, they're outdoors. It's a whole society. When you go to parties, whole families go together. They all get along, and they're all playing. Here, people are so segregated by their age groups. Family is very, very big over there, compared to here."
Mali, 1989-1991, Kris Holloway
SPH degree: MPH '96, dual degree in public health policy and administration and health behavior and health education
Current job: Director of University Relations and Marketing, Center for International Studies, Northampton, Massachusetts
Although originally sent to rural Mali to plant trees, Kris Holloway quickly realized she could be more effective by supporting an "amazing" young midwife named Monique Dembele, and so Holloway spent her two years in the Peace Corps working in the area of women and children's health, with a focus on birth, infancy, and nutrition. Despite "zero prior training" in midwifery, Holloway grew to love the work—and Monique. She says, "Monique was the real change agent. I simply reflected her best ideas back to her so she could see how good they were." Holloway and her husband, John Bidwell, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, kept in touch with Monique long after they'd left Mali and even brought her to the U.S. for a visit. Monique died in childbirth in 1998. In 2006, Holloway published a book about their friendship, Monique and the Mango Rains, which has been optioned for a film..
"Mali's still changing me. I met my husband there. I am in touch with Monique's kids, all young, growing adults now. I'm still fundraising for her clinic. My kids talk to her parents. For me, my Peace Corps experience isn't like this isolated experience that I look back on—it's an ongoing part of who I am and what I do. It's expanded my definition of who I consider my family to be."
Ecuador, 1996-1998, Shelley Coe Stoll
SPH degree: MPH '96, health behavior and health education
Current job: Research specialist, UM Center for Managing Chronic Disease, Ann Arbor
A class on community-organizing with UM SPH Professor Barbara Israel helped convince Shelley Stoll to volunteer for the Peace Corps, where she knew she'd have the opportunity to live for a long time among people in another culture and "really get to know them." Stoll spent two years in Ecuador working as a community health educator, helping to create sustainable community-improvement programs, offering nutrition and cooking classes to women and sex-education programs to teens, and even helping to launch a cooperative to raise chickens.
"Another thing I really liked is that people in my village did not live separated from nature. Most Ecuadorians may not have a lot of material goods, but they enjoy this beautiful country. Living there really emphasized to me how most people in the U.S. are so disconnected from the natural world. One of the things I can't stand about malls is that they're all manmade, artificial stuff, and there's no natural beauty. I still avoid them."
St. Vincent and the Grenadines, 1997-1999, Rebecca Cheezum
Current job: Fourth-year UM SPH doctoral student, health behavior and health education
Rebecca Cheezum had been out of college just five weeks when she joined the Peace Corps in 1997. "I had wanted to live in a developing country for a long time," she remembers, "so Peace Corps seemed a financially feasible way to do that. And it was an opportunity to do something positive." As a volunteer in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Cheezum ran programs for high school-aged students that focused on topics like personal development, sex education, drug and alcohol use, and self-esteem. She also helped run the country's first HIV-prevention group.
"I'd come from a pretty sheltered background, and so seeing what poverty looks like, and having close friends and people that I truly cared about living in severe poverty, was hard. Some of my friends had to leave school. They were very intelligent, but they couldn't finish school because they didn't have enough money for books and paper and pens. They'd come to my house to visit, and they wouldn't have eaten because they didn't have food. That experience was what led me to public health. I didn't even know what public health was until I was there, but seeing some of these circumstances, and the impact they had on people's health, was powerful to me. I wanted my career to be related to reducing these disparities, hopefully, or at least reducing the impact they might have on people's health."
Kyrgyzstan, 1999-2001, Jennifer Dickson Keith
SPH degree: MPH '05, health behavior and health education
Current job: Research associate, Public Health Management Corporation, Philadelphia
Her job as an English teacher in a small village in Kyrgyzstan led Jennifer Dickson Keith to do leadership and environmental work with young people, including orphans, and that experience "absolutely, 100 percent pushed me into public health," Keith says. Living in a mountainous region of the country with poor access to fresh food also fueled her interest in nutrition and health. Although she misses the friends she made in Kyrgyzstan, Keith doesn't miss the cold. "It's nice to have the seasons back, all four of them, instead of just two—cold and colder."
"A lot of the ways the Peace Corps changes you sound like little things, but they add up. To this day, I just don't shower that much. In Kyrgyzstan I was in the mountains, so it was cold eight months out of the year, and I showered about once a month. You would never undress all at the same time because you would freeze. That stuck with me, and today, I'm, like, 'Nope, not today, no need.' When I got back to the U.S. I went to a supermarket with my sister, and she had to lead me out by the hand, I was so overwhelmed. Things like packaging—if I see food in excessive packaging, I just can't buy it."
Burkina Faso, 2000-2001, Rebecca Coulborn
SPH degree: MPH Õ08, epidemiology
Current job: Epidemiologist, Doctors without Borders, Nigeria
From the start, Rebecca Coulborn found herself humbled by her surroundings in Burkina Faso. Working as a community-health volunteer, she taught residents of her village the science behind various diseases and then watched as members of a village theater troupe took the information she'd given them, developed it into a skit, translated the skit into multiple languages, and performed it on market days. "They were amazing," Coulborn remembers. Her Peace Corps work made her rethink her priorities and "definitely motivated me to want to work internationally for a good portion of the rest of my life," she says.
"I find it a very humbling experience to live in this setting. It really makes me appreciate all the blessings IÕve had in my life. I still take things for granted— think that's human—but it makes me appreciate what I have so much more. Yeah, you have to put up with heat, you have to put up with insects, with electricity that comes and goes. But you live so much more deeply in Africa. It's very common in many countries in Africa to stop strangers and ask, 'How are you?' and 'How is your family?' And to really ask these questions, not just passively, and to really want the answer. It's really community-focused, and that's something we miss out on in the West. We're always so stressed and pressed for time. I think that Africans have it right in terms of stopping and smelling the roses."
Fiji, 2003-2005, Katrina Ellis
SPH degree: MPH/MSW '08
Current job: First-year UM SPH doctoral student in health behavior and health education
During her Peace Corps service, Katrina Ellis lived in the coastal city of Sigatoka, where she worked as a health-promotion officer with Fiji's Ministry of Health, developing and presenting health information on a range of topics, including nutrition, infectious disease, physical activity, and sexuality. She also gave free aerobics classes. The experience "definitely transformed me," she says. "The Peace Corps is what brought me into the field of health and social work and led me back to grad school."
"Fiji is a very communal place. A lot of things are centered around community and religion, and people may stay in the villages or communities where they were born for their whole lives. Seeing things from that perspective made me more interested in learning how cultural and social factors affect people's health, family behaviors, and health-related decision-making. That's something that really stuck out: how one person's health impacts the community. Seeing that in a different culture led me to reflect on things that I had experienced in the States with my own family and made me want to find ways to assist individuals and families here on the road to wellness."
Morocco, 2006-2008, Terry (Callan) VanDuyn
SPH degree: MPH '10, health behavior and health education
Current job: Content developer, HealthMedia, Inc., Ann Arbor
As a community health educator in a remote village high in the Atlas Mountains, Terry (Callan) VanDuyn learned the meaning of the word "cold." Most houses were unheated, and VanDuyn learned to fill her Nalgene bottle with hot water at night and cuddle up to it. "You start to complain," she remembers, "and then you realize everyone around you has been dealing with this for their whole life, and you're, like, what are you complaining about? Put on another blanket." VanDuyn taught basic sanitation skills (teeth-brushing, washing hands with soap and water), worked on an irrigation project, and trained women to conduct health-education sessions.
"I tried to start a lot of projects that did not end up being successful, but I think that was a good part of the experience-- learning to experience a not-success not as a failure, but as progress towards something."
Honduras, 2007-2009, Allison O'Donnell
Current job: First-year MPH student, health management and policy
If there's such a thing as Peace Corps DNA, Allison O'Donnell has it. Her grandfather Kevin O'Donnell served as the first director of the Korean Peace Corps, from 1966 to 1970, and as the fourth director of the Peace Corps itself, from 1971 to 1972. Her aunt Megan Patton worked for the Peace Corps in Nepal in the 1980s. "I always had the notion I wanted to do Peace Corps," Allison says. In Honduras, Allison helped distribute water-purification filters to rural households and conducted HIV-prevention sessions with taxi drivers and prison inmates, among others. As an SPH student, she's perpetuating another family legacy: her father, Michael O'Donnell, received his Ph.D. from SPH in 1994.
"Honduras made me much more relaxed and flexible and laid-back and easygoing. The concept of time is a lot different there, and I had to learn how to accept things moving at a slower pace. I also had to learn how to be flexible and deal with all sorts of last-minute changes whenever I planned a meeting or an event. Being back in America, that's really helped me to just be OK with things going wrong, people canceling, stuff not happening the way it's supposed to happen."
Botswana, 2010-2012, Omosalewa Oyelaran
SPH degree: MPH/MHSA '07, health behavior and health education, health management and policy
In April, Omosalewa Oyelaran began her Peace Corps service in Botswana, where she is a district community liaison for the Tonota subdistrict, which includes some 13 villages. All Peace Corps volunteers in Botswana work to support the country's National AIDS Coordinating Agency's Strategic Framework, aimed at preventing new infections by 2016. Omosalewa works primarily to promote and coordinate HIV/AIDS prevention, treatment, and education activities among community agencies. She's also involved with the women's and adolescent support groups. Because today's Peace Corps is committed to community-capacity building, Omosalewa says she relies heavily on both evidence- and community-based principles she learned at SPH. She spent her first few months in Botswana assessing community needs so that the services she provides during her stay can meet those needs, enhance the lives of district residents, and be sustainable long after she leaves.
"If people are interested in doing the Peace Corps, I would say to them, do it, and know that it's a service. I think some people are, like, 'I'm going to do the Peace Corps and change the world.' But really, you're going to change yourself, and you're going to have an impact on a small portion of something. It's not the whole world--but change happens one step at a time, and that step can move an individual, a group, or an organization forward by an inch or by five or 500 inches."
By Leslie Stainton.
Preview of Peace Corps documentary video to be broadcast in late fall on public television and the Big Ten Network:
It's fitting that Whitney Goldman and Jacob Deering met during a class at Michigan on developing countries, because that's where they're going to spend their first two years as newlyweds. The two SPH graduates (MPH, '10) got married in August and are now waiting to hear where the Peace Corps plans to send them later this year or early the next. Africa is high on the list of possibilities—a prospect both find appealing, given that they did an SPH internship together in South Africa in 2009. Goldman has also done volunteer work in Ghana and Kenya.
Why the Peace Corps? Deering, a native of Traverse City, Michigan, says he's eager to learn all he can about the world. "From language to customs, it's nice to get out of your comfort zone." Goldman, who grew up in suburban Chicago, says she appreciates the perspective that overseas work provides. "People are often just working so hard to have an existence that we take for granted here. Seeing that is really humbling."
Unlike many who volunteer fresh out of college, Goldman and Deering come to the Peace Corps with rigorous graduate training in public health and are therefore likely to be paired with a local organization that can utilize those skills. Despite the many challenges they know they're likely to confront—isolation, linguistic and cultural barriers, tough living conditions—the two are eager to serve in the corps. "It's the best thing you could ever ask for," says Goldman. "One of the most formative experiences in your life, and you get to share it with the person that you love most in the world."
Deering is hopeful they'll wind up in a rural setting. "I'm really looking forward to being disconnected from things that plug in," he says with a grin.