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The Peace Corps at 50

PHOTOS: Alice Kelly's photo by Jen Guyton. Other photos courtesy of Andrew Wallace, Fortune Zuckerman, David Shen, and Maryam Talakoob

In honor of the Peace Corps' 50th anniversary this year, and Cal's role as one of the biggest feeders of that program, Breakthroughs asked some of the College's many Peace Corps (PC) veterans to share their stories, memories, thoughts, and photos. Experiences were as diverse as the CNR alumni who served.

As Fortune Zuckerman, ’61, said, “I didn't do big things, but I did fulfill the three purposes of the Peace Corps: (1) I shared my technical knowledge with others, (2) I learned about another country and learned the language, and (3) I came home to share my love and admiration of my host country for the last 31 years.”

Alice Kelly, Ph.D. Candidate,
Environmental Science Policy, and Management

Service: Mozogo, Extreme North Province, Cameroon, 2004-06

Lasting impact, there: The park I helped the community get started is still open, their park organization is still running, and people still like to tell the story about the time I biked three kittens 12 kilometers down the road in a box strapped to my back.

Lasting impact, here: In a lot of ways the things that frustrated me the most during the Peace Corps, the things that I felt powerless to change while I was a volunteer, pushed me to do the research that I am currently doing. It changed my life.

Vivid memory: Trying to get a cotton mattress across the mountains on a motorcycle taxi in the pouring rain. That thing swelled up like a huge sponge. Wow, that taxi man hated me.

Advice for new volunteers: Two things: (1) Pride is a luxury that you cannot afford; (2) Let people be generous, no matter how poor they are. Read more.

Andrew Wallace,
Environmental Science '06

Service: Dialafara, Mali, 2007-09

Most surprising: The lack of misery. By and large everyone was pretty content, even without all the amenities that we find so essential, like vegetables. That's not to say that there were no problems, just that the ability of humans to be satisfied with the status quo is both amazing and frustrating.

Vivid memory: I stepped off the plane and was hit by the moist, hot air and a smell of galvanized rubber. As we drove through the outskirts of the city, cramped in the back of a 4x4 stuffed with sweaty trainees and luggage, we watched the Malians move around ghost-like through their tin-roofed shacks and lean-tos under the orange glow of the sodium lights. The exhaust from all of the vehicles overpowered my senses. I'm really here. This is it, I thought. We passed out of the city and on toward the training compound. The headlights illuminated the trees on either side of the dirt road but were unable to penetrate deep into the bush. As we pulled into the training site and disgorged from the 4x4s, we were welcomed by our training coordinator: "Aw bora aw ka so, aw nana aw ka so. You left your home. You have come home." He was right.

Advice for new volunteers: Just take it day by day. Tens of thousands of volunteers have finished and so can you. Read more.

David Shen,
Environmental Sciences '07

Service: Solwezi (Northwestern Province), Zambia, 2008-10

Most surprising: Learning the local language is an absolute must in order to get (almost) anything done. My local language was a Bantu one that was really challenging to learn, but with patience and perseverance, I became proficient enough to feel like a responsible and respected member of my community.

Vivid memory: When I experienced the wet/rainy season for the first time. I had never been tormented by such thunder, lightning, and rain — it shook and soaked me to the core; it was a total body experience, to say the least!

Advice for new volunteers: Strap on the seatbelt, because Peace Corps service is like a roller coaster ride. It has highs and lows, goes fast and slow, turns here and there (and even loops), but ends before you know it or want it to. Most of all, you won't be the same afterward. Read more.

Fortune Zuckerman,
Home Economics '61

Service: Colombia — Cartagena, 1974 and 1976; Santa Marta, 1975; Bogota, 1977 (volunteer leader) and 1978-80 (associate Peace Corps director)

Most surprising: How much Colombia changed me for the better. I learned to be more sincere in greeting people initially, rather than a quick American, "How are you?" Sometimes it would take five minutes to say hello. ¿Como esta Usted? ¿Que has hecho? ¿Que hay de nuevo? ¿Que me cuentes?

Lasting impact, here: Huge! In Colombia I met two children who were blind, and assisted them in reaching their school in Bogota. When I left, I decided to earn my master's degree in the field of peripatology at Boston College. This would allow me to train people who were blind to travel about safely, efficiently, and with confidence. Upon completing my degree in 1981, I took a job at Braille Institute in Los Angeles, and stayed with that organization for 22 years. Read more.

Maryam Talakoob,
Political Economy of Natural Resources '83

Service: Gbarma (Lofa County) and Yekepa (Nimba County), Liberia, 1983-85

Most surprising: Poverty! I saw a level of poverty I had never seen before when I arrived at Roberts Field Airport in Liberia. I had never seen children running amok in the streets, without clothes and shoes, and with huge bellies. The feeling of shame I experienced surprised me the most.

Lasting impact, there: I have kept close contact with a Liberian friend, arranging to get him and his family out of Liberia during the civil war so they could come to the U.S. He is now going back to Liberia to start a water and latrine sanitation program [much like Talakoob's PC project] with the help of his family members.

Lasting impact, here: It increased my awareness of waste and reuse of material tremendously. Personally, I developed more tolerance for differences that I experience in my surroundings. I am a more patient and giving person than I used to be. I try not to take life for granted.

Advice for new volunteers: Observe everything, and never judge. Keep a journal, even if you write one line a day. Read more.