50 Years of Bryn Mawrters in the Peace Corps
By Alicia Bessette
In the mid-1960s, Lucy Friedman ’65 and her husband, Bill Friedman, arrived in the Dominican Republic as Peace Corps volunteers. A revolution had just transformed the country, and protests, tire-burnings, and even dead bodies in the streets weren’t unusual.
But it was precisely because the country was “so out of commission,” says Friedman, that she and Bill were able to make a difference in the community. Based in Los Minas, the Friedmans worked with students who had enrolled in the university before the revolution shut it down. Together they created a well-baby clinic and extended water pipes.
In time, the university reopened, and some of their student-colleagues went on to become doctors, accountants, and government workers. Meanwhile, they got a glimpse of marriage American-style. “Many of our students had never seen a marriage where the woman has power,” says Friedman. “We helped them see that they could make things happen for themselves.”
Christy Cox ’05 served among the Gogo tribe in Tanzania. She observed drought, famine, hunger. Due to the lack of access to medical care, she saw deaths that could have been prevented and diseases that should have been treated. But she also learned from the people living in the midst of those realities.
“To meet someone who is honest, compassionate, and wise in such an environmental context is to discover truly the best that human beings are capable of,” Cox says. “I draw on the intangibles I gained from those experiences all the time: adaptability, hope, endurance.”
Peace Corps volunteers also cite the gift of language acquisition. “Bryn Mawr fostered my love of language, which I indulged in Morocco,” says Kathryn Hertel Kerle ’75, who taught English in Fez right after graduation. She learned both Arabic and French, “a linguistic bath,” she says. Kerle went on to pursue a business career that took her to England, France, Hong Kong, Australia, Singapore, Algeria, and Tunisia. She finds herself paying less attention to cultural differences between people. “I try to relate to what we have in common rather than what we do not,” she says.
Gaining respect of the women in the community is often a challenge. As a volunteer in rural northern Namibia from 2000 to 2002, Elizabeth Kantner ’97 had to first show proficiency in the typical tasks Namibian women perform: caring for babies, “feeding six to eight people every day with an electric plate and a cast-iron pot over a small fire in the front yard, and washing and drying your underwear without anyone ever finding out.” Kantner also quickly learned to keep her strong American feminist ideas to herself, and instead let her actions project her values.
After a while, she reaped the satisfaction of close personal bonds with her female students. “Though it took them a year to work up the courage, we were able to have ‘important talks’ about boys, education, expectations, and the future,” Kantner says.
Volunteers continue to perform what might be considered traditional Peace Corps work: teaching in classrooms and helping villagers gain access to clean water sources. Current volunteers also work in business development, information technology, and AIDS and HIV awareness and prevention.
A major change in the lives of today’s Peace Corps volunteers is the ease of communication. Kerle has a special perspective on the global IT revolution. Her daughter, Antonia Kerle ’11, is now serving in China. Mother and daughter Skype almost weekly—a sharp contrast to the grand total of two phone calls home that Kathryn made during the three years she served in Morocco.
“However,” she says, “I wrote home weekly, and my mother saved my letters. They make an invaluable record of my experience.” Nowadays, almost all Peace Corps volunteers have cell phones, and many of them talk to their families once a week or more.
Cheryl Turner ’87 spoke to her mother only a few times a year during her volunteer stint at a women’s center in Tahoua, Niger, in the late 1980s. Turner, who worked in a Peace Corps supervisory field position managing program and training for volunteers for nine years, now works for the organization Youth Challenge International in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. She occasionally hosts Peace Corps volunteers in her home and says many of them take advantage of daily Internet access at their volunteer sites.
Turner wonders if this constant interaction with home makes it harder for volunteers to fully commit to their new surroundings. “If you always have one foot in your life back home, it is much harder to really get to know local language and culture,” she says, adding that volunteers who work through problems on their own, or in a more local context, often fare better than those who seek coaching from their faraway parents or friends.
At the same time, she notes, frequent communication with folks back home may help inform people in the U.S. about the issues faced by developing nations, which is one of the Peace Corps’ goals.
Antonia Kerle, in Dazhou, Sichuan, China, doesn’t see a conflict. “Cultural adjustment takes time,” she says. “I am motivated to find a place in this community but I also care too much about the people I left behind to forget them entirely.”
Rebekah Schulz ’06, currently volunteering in Sanniquellie, Liberia, as a math teacher, tries to update her website (lifemagnanimous.wordpress.com) once a week. Christy Cox has posted to Facebook scores of photographs of her time in Tanzania.
Similarly, Barbara Knight Dye ’70 considers her Facebook photographs a way of sharing her appreciation of Mexico, where she and her husband, John Dye, are serving as environmental education and technology transfer volunteers, respectively.
Dye and her husband, a Haverford alumnus, first volunteered in Kumasi, Ghana, from 1973 to 1975. Back then, training was minimal, while freedoms were maximal. In Ghana, she and John regularly used two motorcycles and a Land Rover. Today, volunteers are not permitted to operate motor vehicles.
This policy to protect the Peace Corps from liability has a plus and a minus: while the ability to visit out-of-the-way sites is limited, riding the bus and walking to the market helps build an understanding of daily life.
Meanwhile, Peace Corps headquarters has become more involved in volunteers’ day-to-day experiences. In Mexico, the Dyes are required to complete long trimester reports on their progress. During their first Peace Corps service in the 1970s, the agency “really didn’t interact in our lives,” Dye recalls.
Some Mawrter volunteers view this increased involvement as an indication that the Peace Corps has become more bureaucratic. Yet they acknowledge that new policies, including closer monitoring of volunteers, are a necessary safety measure.
Recent coverage in the media has focused on the problem of injuries and assaults against volunteers. New policies are aimed at minimizing the risks faced by volunteers and improving the Peace Corps’ response to victims of crime, according to Peace Corps Director Aaron S. Williams, who testified during the Senate hearing, “Peace Corps: The Next 50 Years,” in October. In drafting the new policies, the agency met with returned volunteers who shared personal experiences of rape and sexual assault, said Williams.
These policies include training the overseas staff on how to respond when volunteers report allegations of wrongdoing, and training volunteers in sexual assault awareness and strategies to reduce risks of assault and encourage bystander intervention. The agency has formed the Peace Corps Volunteer Sexual Assault Panel, made up of outside experts and returned volunteers who were victims of sexual assault, to advise the Peace Corps on its policies. (See www.peacecorps.gov/safety.)
Former Bryn Mawr president and Peace Corps leader Harris Wofford, who also testified during the October hearing, helped author A Call to Peace: Perspectives of Volunteers on the Peace Corps at 50 (peacecorpsconnect.org/ 2011/09/acalltopeace/), a report on the findings of an independent survey to assess the impact of the Peace Corps over its 50-year history. Out of 200,000 total returned Peace Corps volunteers (RPCVs), 11,138 were surveyed, and of those, the percent of women volunteers who found safety a major concern rose from 2 percent in the 1960s to 6 percent in the 1980s and 8 percent in the 2000s; men only from 1 to 3 percent. Of all RPCVs, 98 percent rated their experience as excellent or very good, and 98 percent would recommend the Peace Corps to their child, grandchild or other close family member.
“The main story of women in the Peace Corps is one of great achievement,” said Wofford. “Women volunteers are a significant stimulus and a great inspiration to women—and to men—in their countries of service. The very example of an independent woman who traveled that far away from her home to teach or work in another country helps women in less developed countries realize what good they can do in their own lives, in their own communities, simply by raising their sights.”
Antonia Kerle underwent preservice training, which devoted an entire day to the topic of safety. Trainees learned how the Peace Corps could help in the case of an assault, and discussed Chinese cultural norms surrounding dating and sex.
Rebekah Schulz lives with a roommate in Liberia, where rape was used as a weapon during the recent civil wars and is regularly addressed by the government and in public service announcements.
“We have never once felt unsafe or threatened,” she says. “Sure, men yell ‘baby!’ and ‘fine girl!’ when I walk down the street, and public restrooms are elusive—but I got harassed and had to ‘hold it’ in America, too.” In Sanniquellie, “people wear T-shirts that say things like, Women are our partners. Stop rape now!”
To some, news reports have skewed the reality that volunteers encounter. Working in Guadalajara, Dye says she feels safe, adding: “The general impression of Mexico as entirely a country of drug wars is greatly exaggerated.”
More recent Mawrter volunteers point to eye-opening encounters that illuminate the complexities surrounding gender. Serving in Manica City, Mozambique, after her BMC graduation, Erin Schifeling ’07 found that issues of gender were inextricably tied to issues of race and class. A running joke among her fellow volunteers was that white women were a third gender. They were not grouped with other women, but they also weren’t immune from catcalls and marriage proposals from strangers.
“When I had about three months left at site, I started asking men if they changed diapers,” says Schifeling, who is now a second-year medical student. “It transformed conversations that could have otherwise ended with offense on both sides to insightful discussions of gender roles, cultural norms and economics.”
As a single, white hydrogeologist in her 20s, Suzanne Mills ’99 found that her presence challenged perspectives of the people she worked with when she served in rural Honduras four years ago. Though well-respected in general as a water and sanitation program volunteer, Mills worked directly with one male subsistence farmer for almost a year before he acknowledged her. She had to speak to him through another male colleague who repeated everything she said. In the end the farmer did speak to her and even complimented her on her work.
Like Dye on her second tour, some alumnae joined the Peace Corps later in life. Kate Wallace ’60 served in the Dominican Republic in the mid-1990s. After completing three years as an environmental educator, she has started a bird-watching tourism business in Santo Domingo.
Wallace advises empty-nest-aged volunteers to think of the Peace Corps as an extended camping trip without hot water or electricity. “You won’t have a clear schedule, and you will have very uncertain expectations,” she says. “Can you learn to live alone? Can you make up what you want to do without directions? Can you be self-sufficient?”
She adds that relating to younger volunteers as a colleague, not as their mother, was important to her success. And, as a doña in a culture that respects mature women, Wallace says she doesn’t have to fight to get her opinions heard. “Here, I’m not sidelined as old.”
Harris Wofford says, “The Peace Corps has always been for older Americans” and sees an acute need for them today—especially for seasoned teachers who have experience managing a classroom.
But some later-in-life Mawrter volunteers found the Peace Corps mainly geared to younger generations, and were disappointed with the medical care they received. Ruth Urbach ’57, M.A. ’67, for example, who served in southern Chile in the mid-1990s, says she was denied steroid treatment for severe bug bites and had to leave her site early after developing asthma, from which she still suffers.
Mary Clurman ’63 completed language training in Jaksi, Thailand, in 2008, before suffering a serious bike accident. While Clurman was impressed with her medical care in Thailand, she feels the Peace Corps is not well designed for people over the age of 60.
In Mexico, Dye says she’s a very different person now, at the age of 62, than she was as a 23-year-old newlywed volunteer in Ghana. “That affects my perceptions,” she admits. “However, I still feel that the Peace Corps is a bargain for our country, building goodwill, making a difference in peoples’ lives, and opening the eyes of many Americans to the range of ideas and experiences that exists in other cultures.”
That sentiment is echoed by Mawrter volunteers representing all generations. Turner encourages alumnae/i to view the Peace Corps as a human resource development organization rather than an international development organization.
“If you think of it as an investment of the U.S. government in its own future leaders, then the Peace Corps is a relatively inexpensive leadership development program, with the added advantage of serving a highly valuable diplomatic function,” Cheryl Turner says. “Every single Peace Corps volunteer that I know says they got more out of it than they put in. The real results are the expanded perspective and appreciation RPCVs bring to all of their roles after their experience, whether overseas or in the U.S.”
Rebekah Schulz, in Liberia, puts it this way: “Every time a student asks for more practice problems, I know why I came,” she says. “Every time a terrified baby stops crying and consents to touch my hand, grinning when she realizes it feels just like her own, I know why I came. There is so much good in the world if you are willing to look for it, if you are willing to sow it.”