Joining the Peace Corps
Three Ohio University students share the lessons they learned about other cultures -- and themselves.
By Catherine Wood
In 1960, then-Senator 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. What developed from that inspiration was the Peace Corps, an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship. Since then more than 170,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have worked on issues ranging from AIDS education, information technology and environmental preservation in 137 host countries. There are currently 7,553 Peace Corps volunteers serving in 71 countries from Peru to East Timor. In 2003, 19 Ohio University students were accepted into Peace Corps service; 18 students are currently working as Peace Corps volunteers. Ohio University and Athens are also home to a large community of returned Peace Corps volunteers who come here to pursue graduate degrees, teach or contribute to the community in many ways.
Paige Miller: Samoa
It's a long way from her hometown of Appleton, Wis., to Samoa, where Paige Miller lived for two years while volunteering with the Peace Corps. But it's a journey the Ohio University graduate student is glad to have made.
Miller, whose major is international development studies, started to think about joining the agency after she visited Paraguay while her sister volunteered there as a Peace Corps teacher trainer from 1998 to 2000. She liked what she saw and thought she, too, would enjoy experiencing another culture. She returned from her two-year commitment this spring and now is conducting research for her master's thesis.
In Samoa, Miller, who earned her bachelor's degree in economics at the University of Virginia, taught business and math to ninth- and 10th-graders. On a typical day, Miller woke at 7:30 a.m. and taught from 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Then she would walk home with the students and spend time with her host family. From 3 to 5 p.m. she would rest, and then she would go running and eat dinner with her family.
Miller had no running water at one of the places she lived. She relied on the water that gathered from low tide to bathe and wash her clothes.
"When we ate, we sat on the ground cross-legged," she adds. "I wasn't expected to help because that would be shameful to my host family. It was a hard adjustment to start doing everything for myself once I returned to the United States."
Miller looked forward to her monthly visits to the capital city, where she sent letters or e-mails home to friends and family. She also enjoyed eating meals there that were less bland than her daily food. Miller brought food back for her host family to show her appreciation, although her host mother always told her it was not necessary.
Miller stressed the generous and accepting nature of the people she encountered in Samoa. "They were very open to the work I was doing," she says.
Often, the people in Miller's village had no income. "Most people lived off the land completely," she says. "The men tended to their plantations, and the kids did chores."
The majority of Miller's time was spent with other teachers, who were Samoan women, and the students. She was the only Peace Corps volunteer in the rural village.
"The women who worked at the school were very helpful," Miller says. "They were like mothers to me. They took me in."
The hardest part of the experience, she says, was learning the language. However, she had to supplement her lessons in English with Samoan if she wanted the children to understand what she was teaching them. "I had a lot of freedom within my lessons and what I spent my time teaching," Miller says.
Another difference Miller experienced was the weather. "It was humid and hot in the rainy season. And in the cold season, the lowest it got was around 70 degrees," she says. She also had a mosquito net around her bed while she slept because of all the bugs.
Miller did not return to the United States during her stay, although her family made the trek to see her. "It was great when they visited. It really helped them to understand my experience," Miller explains.
It took about three months to adjust to being in Samoa, she says, but it took much longer to feel at home again in the United States.
Miller would recommend the Peace Corps to others because she feels like she gained even more than she gave. "It helped me to grow up," she says, "and be less judgmental."
Chela Moore: the Philippines
In search of something productive to do between undergraduate and graduate school, Chela Moore set her sights on the Peace Corps. She was forced to step out of her comfort zone while traveling to an unfamiliar country and returned home with a broader understanding of different cultures as well as some personal insights about herself.
As a Peace Corps volunteer from 2000 to 2002, Moore lived in a rural area in the Philippines, where she worked for the Department of Education instructing high school teachers about ways to incorporate environmental education and critical thinking skills into their lessons. She also ran an environmental camp for high school students and worked for a community reading program. She usually stayed in her town for four days each week and spent the other three days in the capital city, home of the Department of Education.
A recent graduate of Ohio University's international development studies program, Moore earned her bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in 1999. Her growing interest in development issues brought her to Ohio University to study international development at the Center for International Studies. She says she enjoyed her studies because the program encourages the examination of issues from many angles, integrating political science, sociology, anthropology and other disciplines. As a graduate student at Ohio University, she conducted research on conservation and development issues in Ecuador. She completed her master's degree this spring, and she hopes to continue working on environmental and development issues in Latin America.
The Peace Corps experience helped Moore solidify her career goals, but she also learned some lessons about life. For example, the people in her town were masters at adapting to different situations. They taught her to do the best she can but not get frustrated about every detail, because things will work out in the end. She needs to let go, she now realizes, if something is beyond her control.
Moore lived with a large host family in the Philippines. There were four brothers, their wives and children as well as house helpers all living in the house. They usually ate rice with vegetables, but Moore says she also had the best mangoes she had ever eaten while in the Philippines. She grew close to her host family and still keeps in touch with them.
Her host family and a fellow volunteer helped her overcome the hardest part of her experience -- missing her friends and family at home. She did not come back to the United States at all during her two years of volunteering, but her parents did visit her for two weeks.
"Rather than me trying to explain everything, they got to see it for themselves, which was great," Moore explains. She says her host family was welcoming to her biological family, and they were excited to see that Moore was proud of the Philippines and wanted to share it with her family.
One of the things she missed was having four distinct seasons, since temperatures never fell below about 70 degrees.
Still, she says, her two years in the Philippines went by quickly. "The country is beautiful," she says, "and the people are so friendly."
Laura Fleischer-Proaño: Ecuador
Laura Fleischer-Proaño first became interested in international affairs as a 15-year-old while participating in an environmental studies program in Montes Claros, Brazil, through the American Field Service.
Later, while earning her degree in business and international studies at the University of Pittsburgh, she participated in the Semester at Sea program, traveling to and studying about Caracas, Venezuela, and Salvador, Brazil, and teaching English in Santiago, Dominican Republic. Once she completed her bachelor's degree in August 2000, she decided to further her interest in development in Latin America by joining the Peace Corps. Despite the long application process and her hesitation at making a two-year commitment, Fleischer decided the experience was one she did not want to miss.
Her Peace Corps assignment took her to Ecuador, where she lived in an apartment and worked in Bahía de Caraquez, a small coastal town. She received a living allowance for food, rent and utilities. Because she lived on the coast, she ate fresh seafood almost every day; her diet consisted mainly of fish, shrimp, rice and soup.
Fleischer worked primarily with two projects. She taught basic accounting, marketing and quality control to women in a paper recycling cooperative and worked with community banks, helping to establish five new banks. She also worked in three area elementary and high schools teaching sex education, English, geography and self-esteem.
"The students were excited to learn about my culture, and I appreciated having the ability to break the stereotypes of America children had developed from television," Fleischer says. She developed close relationships with the community members she worked with while in Ecuador. She even met her husband, Santiago Proaño, there. They were married in Quito, Ecuador, on Feb. 11, 2003. Fleischer hopes to visit Ecuador frequently after she finishes her master's degree in Latin American studies from Ohio University next year.
While in Ecuador, Fleischer maintained regular contact with her friends and family through phone and e-mail. She even had the opportunity to share her experience with some of them when they visited her in Ecuador.
"My friends and family learned a lot when they came to visit," she says. "It was exciting for all of us."
Catherine Wood, BSJ '05, is a student writer for the Center for International Studies.
The National Peace Corps Association, a nonprofit organization of returned Peace Corps volunteers, former staff and friends
The Peace Gallery: photos, information and stories from Peace Corps volunteers
Ohio University's Peace Corps campus recruiting office