by Amb. Brenda Schoonover
After more than forty years the Peace Corps has proved to be one of the most successful and enduring of our foreign policy programs. In this article, adapted from a speech given to returned Peace Corps volunteers at Duke, Ambassador Schoonover discusses her own experiences and those of others and the lessons for life which she and others gained from their time in the Peace Corps. — Assoc. Ed.
As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Philippines Group One (1961-63), I am one of the first two hundred Peace Corps Volunteers to join the Peace Corps. For me, the Peace Corps came along at just the right time. I was young, idealistic, enthusiastic and seeking adventure. Just before I graduated from college, then presidential candidate, John F. Kennedy, outlined his platform speaking of a new agency he envisioned. He would call it the Peace Corps – a program in which Americans could live and work in developing countries for two years helping to meet the developmental/educational needs of the host country. Kennedy promoted volunteerism an idea that appealed to many of the youth of my time, including me. I made up my mind that if the Peace Crops ever became a reality, I would volunteer. When it did, I took the exam at the first opportunity and much to my surprise I received a telegram offering me an assignment to the Philippines twelve hours after I had taken the exam.
Another RPCV, Juana Bordas (Chile 64-66), in explaining her motivation for joining the Peace Corps, said, “I am an immigrant. If it weren’t for this country, my family and I would be sitting in the backwoods of Nicaragua. I wanted to give back some of what I had been given to me.”
As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I taught English and Science in a rural town of Magarao on the Island of Luzon in the Philippines, located south of Manila about 12 hours by train. And, what a train ride it was! But, I don’t have to tell you about the joys of public transportation which many of us Peace Corps volunteers have experienced in faraway lands.
All total, including my time as a volunteer, later as P.C. staff in Washington, then Associate Director in Tanzania and finally Director of the worldwide School Partnership Program, I spent six years with the Peace Corps. Joining the Peace Corps is a decision I have never regretted, an experience that was a turning point in my life and I value the subsequent paths it has led me to take.
One specific event which brought home to me the full significance of the impact of the Peace Corps on my life was in 1991 when I had the opportunity to tour the exhibit at the Dallas, Texas Book Depository, the site of the November 1963 fatal gunshot that ended President John F. Kennedy’s life. Standing at the Book Depository location and viewing the display, I was overwhelmed by emotion and the memories it brought back of that tragic time in our history. I recalled the solemn funeral procession to Arlington National Cemetery attended by mourners from our own country as well as leaders and dignitaries from all over the world who came to honor that young American President, that man of hope, who inspired so many including those who joined his new agency, the Peace Corps. I recalled the honor I felt to be included in the funeral procession along with one other returned volunteer, Tom Scanlon. We were the two returned volunteers who were asked to represent the Peace Corps at the President’s funeral. As I stood at that Dallas site 28 years later, I could not help but think of Kennedy’s brilliant creation, the Peace Corps and I felt extremely proud and grateful to have been a Peace Corps Volunteer, even prouder to have served when he was still alive and would realize the initial success of his new agency – even in its earliest stages. I thought of my own enriching volunteer experience, which formed the foundation for many rewarding subsequent paths in my personal and professional life. I am certain I would not have had a career in the Foreign Service were it not for my initial exposure to new cultures and life overseas through the Peace Corps.
In my opinion, the Peace Corps provides many Americans the opportunity to develop leadership skills and assume leadership responsibilities at an earlier stage in life than most would have as new graduates recently out of college starting their careers in the U.S. I recognize that not every volunteer is just out of college, for example, in our group we had a fantastic couple who were in their 50s. Nevertheless, I still believe that in general fairly young volunteers acquire, develop and bring back valuable leadership skills, plus an enhanced global awareness and cultural sensitivity, all of which continue to serve them and their communities well.
I explored my theory in February of 1997, when as a member of the State Department’s Senior Seminar Program, I had the opportunity to create and carry out a project which I entitled: “PROFILES IN LEADERSHIP, A LOOK AT THE IMPACT OF THE PEACE CORPS EXPERIENCE ON DEVELOPING INDIVIDUAL LEADERSHIP”.
In completing this project, I interviewed nine returned-Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVS) from the earlier groups of the 1960s and 1970s, a sample of those who were considered current leaders in their fields; some who were on the PC’s list of notable volunteers. This was not a scientific study, but rather a rendering of the profiles of nine individual RPCVs, an attempt to portray how the Peace Corps experience affected their personal and professional lives and to record their opinions and ideas on the subject of leadership. A common feature, which was not by design, was that all of them had been recent college graduates at the time they entered the Peace Corps. Almost all of the RPCVs said they felt different from their peers who had stayed in the U.S. The returned volunteers told me that upon returning home, they were struck by the abundance of and emphasis on material goods. Most said the Peace Corps experience provided a means of self-discovery, a chance to look from within, to examine personal values, develop or enhance self-confidence and gain maturity.
Here are accounts of two former volunteers who had the opportunity to return to their Peace Corps sites years after their tours had ended. Each gained insight into the impact of their presence and their leadership roles as volunteers. The first is Ambassador Charles (Chuck) Baquet, former Deputy Director of the Peace Corps, former Ambassador to Djibouti and RPCV, (Somali Republic 64-67).
Twenty- eight years after his Peace Corps tour in Somalia, Chuck Baquet says he had an experience that helped him put his PC stint into perspective. While he was serving as Ambassador to Djibouti, he received a message that his Peace Corps town in Somalia was about to erupt into clan warfare and some town leaders requested him to come quickly. Chuck traveled from Djibouti to his Peace Corps town in Somalia to find the once beautiful acacia forest had disappeared. Many buildings had been ransacked or completely destroyed by looters – including the high school in which Chuck had taught and a clinic built by the British. In fact, most of the town was in shambles.
Chuck met with some of town folks, including some of his former students. He gave them hell, “Didn’t we talk about nation building, identity? Why am I here; you understand the process.” One former student replied. “We have gotten ourselves into a dangerous place and we don’t know how to get out of it. When you were here, you put in a garden. We thought it was ridiculous; so we ran the goats over it. When you took a trip out of town, we tore down the basketball hoops and the volleyball net. We told you nomads did it, but we did it. We helped ourselves to your books. We are sorry we deprived you of the satisfaction of your projects, but we would have continued to do so to find out what was in the bottom of that trunk you had – because every time something failed, you came up with another project, and you didn’t stay long enough for us to find out what was at the bottom of that trunk. But we all agreed when we heard you were back in the area that, if there was anybody who believed in us, if there was anybody who could get us out of this place, it’s you. Perhaps what is in the bottom of that trunk is the thing that is going to get us out of this place because we are about to shoot each other.”
Chuck Baquet said that until that meeting, he never thought that he had much of an impact or made a difference and what he learned gave him a sense of completeness.
John Garamendi, Deputy Secretary of U.S. Department of Interior under the Clinton Administration and former PCV in Ethiopia (66-68) related another story to me. John returned to Ethiopia in 1985, visiting another part of the country from where he had served, an area overflowing with refugees trying to escape the war. John learned that the main water system was broken and set out to try to get it in operation for the hoards of refugees in need of a reliable water supply. But John could not proceed without permission from the town mayor, who refused to see foreigners. Through persistence and using his Amharic language skills, John finally got to the assistant mayor, a young man of about 30 yesrs old, and convinced him to accompany him to check out the water system on the outskirts of town. Once he and the assistant mayor were out of earshot of the security forces, the young man switched to English, asking if John knew an American by the name of John Jones who was from Cincinnati. Garamendi responded that he did not know Mr. Jones. In response, the Ethiopian launched into enthusiastic praise for his friend, John Jones, “the most wonderful person on earth. He was my PCV teacher and I have not heard from him since the war. You know this war will be over and then we will run the country, we the people who were taught by Peace Corps Volunteers like you. Things will change”. John Garamendi reported that things did change and at the time of our interview, the new Ethiopian Prime Minister was a former student of a PCV.
From my interviews and my own observations, I have made a list of some of some traits, insights and skills we volunteers acquired or fine-tuned in varying degrees as a result of our experiences. Here are some that come to mind:
** We gained an increased sense of humility.
I recall the countless times during my Peace Corps Volunteer days that our Filipino hosts showered us volunteers with their warm hospitality at every opportunity at merienda or a fiesta in our honor. They treated us with immeasurable kindness even when we were awkward, brash and impolite by their standards.
One RPCV said in referring to some of the Chileans in his village, “You wonder sometimes at their kindness. They were not so concerned about what practical things we had to offer. To them, it was very important that we had come to be with them and to care about their problems. They always treated me with the greatest warmth, hospitality and respect.”
**We became more patient or at least most of us did.
In his 1962 speech to a group of summer interns, President Kennedy quoted from a letter that had been brought to his attention, written by the same PCV in Chile (61-63): “Recently I heard a story of a young Peace Corpsman named Tom Scanlan, who is working in Chile. He works in a village about forty miles from an Indian village which prides itself on being communist. The village is up a long winding road, which Scanlan had taken on many occasions to see the chief. Each time the chief avoided seeing him. Finally, he saw him (Tom) and said, ‘You are not going to talk us out of being communists.’ Scanlon answered, ‘I am not trying to do that, only trying to talk to you about how I can help.’ The chief looked at him and replied, ‘In a few weeks the snow will come. Then you will have to park your jeep twenty miles from here and come through the snow on foot. The communists are willing to do. Are you?’ When a friend (Father Theodore Hesburgh) recently corresponded with Tom and asked what he was doing, Tom replied, “I am waiting for the snow.” Shortly afterwards, President Kennedy related that same story to Congress in his appeal for additional funding for the Peace Corps.
Thirty five years later, Tom Scanlon opened a box of his letters and papers from his Peace Corps days and used them as the basis of his book entitled, you guessed it: “WAITING FOR THE SNOW,” published shortly before our interview.
**As Peace Corps Volunteers, we gained an increased awareness of the importance of listening and learning, looking for subtle cultural cues and fine-tuning cultural sensitivities and communication skills;
One of my PCV housemates and I labored hard to establish a library in our Filipino town, Magaroa. With the aid of the United States Information Service and family and friends, we were successful in collecting hundreds of books for the library. After many community meetings, we assumed the town-folks were 100 percent in favor of the project. When the moment of truth arrived and we learned the hard way that some key members were not on board and had reneged on commitments they had made, we were shocked. We felt hurt and betrayed. In fact our hosts had only been polite – telling us what they thought we wanted to hear. Pleasing us for the moment and disappointing us later was their gentle way of not agreeing with our program or approach. To them it was more important to have a smooth interpersonal relationship with us at the moment – delaying facing negative consequences or hoping the issue would somehow just go away. It did not occur to them that we would see their actions as deceitful and dishonest. Had we not been so taken with our project, full of our own “bright ideas”, we might have picked up on the cultural cues, subtle signs of reluctance, faint and unenthusiastic polite compliances. From this experience, I learned to probe gently, but much more deeply to get more forthcoming straight answers. It was never easy, but at least I became more culturally sensitive in communicating with our host country colleagues and friends – and in the end, the town provided not only space for the library, but also assigned a bright young man, who was working as the town janitor as part-time library attendant. The library remained in operation for many years beyond my tour there until it was hit by a typhoon, or so I was told 15 years later when I returned to the Philippines as a Foreign Service Officer.
** We, Peace Corps Volunteers, learned to recognize the need to maintain a healthy sense of humor.
This, a sense of humor, is a skill that will help you get through endless hours on hot humid days as you ride on a jammed-packed, non-air-conditioned bus with hard wooden benches for seats, a bus full of people with baskets of live chickens recently or dried fish at your feet and a frightened cow and/or goat hitched in the back part of the bus known as “the kitchen”. An agile sense of humor will see you through when you find that for however long or how often you ride this bus you are the center of the other passengers’ curiosity and the source of their great amusement.
** We acquired some invaluable first hand lessons in geography and world affairs.
** We grew to have a keener appreciation of our country and our democratic process as flawed as it can be.
**We acquired a better appreciation of the importance of international understanding, which has served me well during my 27 years in the Foreign Service.
**We took a closer look at our American value system and compared it to others. As a result, we came to realize that most cultures have similar value systems. It is the priority order that can make the difference and cause confusion and misunderstandings.
Witness the Magaroa Filipino town folks who gave the impression of going along with the program so as not to hurt our feelings. As Scholar David Reisman said of Americans in the Philippines, “Since the cultural similarities are superficial, the American may be thrown of balance when a situation revealing the enormous disparity arises.”
In his book, “THOSE PECULIAR AMERICANS”, The Peace Corps Country Director in the Philippines during our early years said about our first groups, “Of all the things that can be said of the Peace Corps – its inestimable propaganda value, its worth in helping to promote economic development, and the formal skills and knowledge acquired by volunteers – none is more important than this; young men and women tested and stretched themselves in complex, self-revealing, and often painful adventure in human relations which led to an acute emotional awareness of their ‘Americanness.’”
**I personally learned many times over the fact that as fortunate as we are, we Americans do not have all the answers and that there is a lot we can learn from other nations, cultures, peoples, another lesson frequently reinforced during my Foreign Service career,
** At times, we all came to grips with the need for cultural adjustments and the recognition that we as volunteers would face setbacks and frustrations:
David Sammons, (RPCV, Philippines 68-70), found the most frustrating and difficult part of living in the Philippines was dealing with the intensity of interpersonal relations. He found it almost impossible to have any privacy – time to do something alone as simple as lying in a hammock in the backyard reading a book. Despite his attempts to convince them to the contrary, his friends and neighbors were concerned that when he went off by himself he was unhappy, sad or homesick. David was frustrated at the lack personal space and by the consistent curiosity of his hosts, often posing questions Americans would normally consider much too personal.
**For me, I gained an enhanced sense of my own identity as an individual, as an American, as an African American.
Ambassador Chuck Baquet’s story on this issue is particularly poignant. He related: “I had hitched a ride into town on a trade truck and I met an elderly Somali gentleman, who spoke very good English as was common for some who had served in the Merchant Marines during World War II. The old gentleman asked me what am I doing and I tell him where I am going and he says no, what are you doing here?’ And I tell that I teach school and he says, ‘No, no what are you doing here? I had been thinking a lot about this, so, I puff myself up and I say: ‘I am an African American here in Africa looking for my village.’ I think my answer is profound. In response, the old man gives me this incredulous look and he starts to laugh – I mean he hurts my feelings. He says, ‘That is the stupidest thing I have ever heard. Young man you ought to know this. There are three hundred years of history and ten thousand miles of water that separate you from us. You Black Americans are a different people now. You should know that. There is no village here for you.’ The old man waits a moment and says, ‘Well, it is obvious there is a connection between you and Africa in the blood. The best advice I can give you is to look inside and if you can find a place of peace in your heart and soul. That is your village. Find that place, make yourself at home there and get on with your life.”’ From that moment on, Chuck says, “I developed a much more balanced attitude about my own identity for starts but also about my place in Africa and the Peace Corps.”
The third statutory goal of the Peace Corps is “strengthening Americans understanding about the world and its peoples.” As returned volunteers, that is our mandate and now is our time to put it into practice. In recently speaking to a local high school graduating class, part of my message to them was they must accept the fact that globalization is here to stay. The message I want to convey whenever possible is that we as individual Americans must relate, compete and deal globally and become culturally attuned to the global environment. Look at the labels in our clothes: made in Sri Lanka, China, Brazil or elsewhere. These days they rarely read “Made in USA”. Try to find a pair of shoes that are manufactured in this country. With the exception of roses, I am told that most of the flowers we purchase here are grown in Colombia – and I don’t mean Columbia, South Carolina. As for the roses, Tanzania is North Carolina’s largest supplier of roses, a fact I learned last February in reading a feature about Valentine’s Day. We have out- of-season fruits and vegetables because we can tap markets throughout the world. The furniture industry in High Point, N.C. is declining yearly while companies such as WalMart and Rooms-to-Go import furniture made in China. We are sometimes taken aback when we learn that the person responding to our telephone calls, inquiries and complaints in regard to our American Express accounts is an Indian national in New Delhi and Bangalore. All of this brings home the reality of global competition. All of this means that we will need to ensure that those of us who teach or mentor are made aware of the need to be competitive, not just with Carolinians or Americans, but with the myriad of talented people coming from all corners of the world, a thriving, flexible diversified workforce with a real appetite to compete and succeed. Work ethics and can-do attitudes, traits some of us used to think were uniquely American, have gone global. Those of us who teach or mentor must work to dispel the notion that Americans are becoming complacent and losing our competitive edge. We must banish the impression that Americans have gone soft and no longer want to work or study hard or apply ourselves; that we are anti-intellectual. We must get the message across that using the computer is not all there is to communicating and that we all need to continue to develop and refine verbal and written skills, mastering the ability to think, analyze, speak and write comprehensively and intelligently.
Shortly after I returned from the Philippines in 1963 part of the first group of returned Peace Corps Volunteers, some of us were honored at a welcome-home ceremony in Washington, D.C. hosted by the late Vice President Hubert Humphrey, who at the time was Senator Humphrey from Minnesota. At the ceremony, the Senator opened his remarks by telling us how proud he was of us for our willingness to volunteer for our country. He emphasized the special responsibility we carried as the first returned volunteers, urging us to share our experiences and newly acquired skills in the area of development and knowledge of the world with our fellow Americans. He said we had a great deal of work to do at home. In his endearing folksy manner, Senator Humphrey cocked his head and looked at us and said, “Don’t just come home and pull your chair up to the kitchen table and say, ‘Mama, please serve up the biscuits.’ Do something. Do something that will make a difference to your country and in long run to yourselves, your family and the world we live”.
I try my best to live by those words.
Ambassador Brenda Brown Schoonover is a retired Foreign Service officer. She was U.S. ambassador to Togo. Her last assignment was deputy chief of mission at the embassy in Brussels and chargé d’affaires ad interim during her last year there. She received the Presidential Meritorious Service Award in 2003. Mrs. Schoonover is a member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers.