Being chased by hippos. Digging latrines. Staring poverty in the face.
There's a reason they call Peace Corps the toughest job you'll ever love.
The Corps began when then Sen. John F. Kennedy challenged University of Michigan students to serve their country by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship. Since its inception, more than 200,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have served in 139 host countries to work on issues ranging from AIDS education to information technology and environmental preservation.
The Corps turned 50 this year, prompting UNCG Magazine to ask for reflections from staff, faculty and alumni who have served over the years. Here are a few memories from Dr. Meredith Walther, director of development for the School of Education; Dr. Michael McIntosh, professor of nutrition; and alumna Heather Douglas in celebration of their time in the Corps.
Heather Douglas in Mozambique
Heather Douglas '03
Heather now lives in Baltimore, Md., and works for Jhpiego, a global health organization affiliated with Johns Hopkins. Heather is the senior program coordinator for HIV/AIDS and maternal and child health programs in Botswana and Ethiopia, located in the East and Southern region of Africa.
Peace Corps service: Mozambique, Sub Sahara Africa, 2004-2007. Served as a community health volunteer (2004-2006) and volunteer leader (2006-2007).
Why the Peace Corps: I originally wanted to serve in an AmeriCorps program, but both programs I was selected for received drastic funding cuts and the programs were scrapped. So, I thought, I might as well go for what I thought was the epitome of volunteerism and apply to serve in the Peace Corps. I wanted to see things that were totally different from anything I had ever seen before, learn from people different from me, and also to push myself to see what I was made of when I didn't limit myself.
Toughest part: Seeing poverty and how it affects peoples' way of life on so many levels, and feeling powerless to do something about it.
Most rewarding part: When you push yourself, you can achieve anything. I witnessed this drive in my communities and in myself. For example, I witnessed people working selflessly day after day to cover school fees so a daughter or nephew could attend school.
Mozambique memories: Environment from the south to the north, Mozambique has jaw dropping beaches, mountains, wildlife, millions of coconut trees and forest areas. As Mozambique is in Sub-Sahara and is very hot and dry for much of the year, does have a rainy season. Culture fusion of east African music, dance, traditional instruments, and Lusophone/Portugal-Brazilian musical and dance influences. Food as a coastal country, lots of seafood. Fresh citrus and exotic fruits lichens and avocados were my favorites. Curries and stews, hot and spicy dishes with Arabic, Indian, and Portuguese influences.
The people of Mozambique: My Mozambican friends and colleagues are patient, kind, resilient, innovating, curious, open and always willing to go the extra distance in order to thrive.
Biggest lesson learned: There is a saying in Mozambique Estamos Juntos (We are together) and I truly felt that way in Mozambique. The people of Mozambique assisted me every step of my journey on so many levels. I felt as though the little differences between us were nothing compared to the similarities we shared together.
Most vivid memory: The African night sky. The stars were so big and close it felt like you could touch them! The openness and endlessness of the sky looking down made me feel as if I could do accomplish anything.
Advice for those considering Peace Corps: Do it! It will change your life! It will push you in ways you can never even imagine. In Peace Corps you learn about cultures different from your own, meet new people, form long lasting connections, do tasks you may or may not be good at, but you realize that's OK! You will see the world differently and realize that making a difference is nothing compared to the day to day experience that becomes the difference.
Meredith Walther in Ghana
Dr. Meredith Walther '11 PhD
Director of Development, UNCG School of Education
Peace Corps service: Ghana, 1992-94. Ghana was the first country Peace Corps went to when it began. I'm returning this summer to celebrate the 50th anniversary with fellow Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) and Ghanaian friends.
How she got there: I was an exchange student in high school and enjoyed the experience of living in another culture. I wanted to do study abroad when I was in college but back then as an education major they didn't have study abroad programs. So I joined PC after college.
Toughest part: The cultural adjustment and being so far away from friends and family. In the '90s email was new so we did not have the access to technology current PCVs have. We waited months for mail.
Biggest success: There were many proud achievements, but one was the success of adding a second girls dormitory to the school campus. The school I taught at, Navrongo Secondary School in the north of Ghana, had a majority of male dormitories and only one female dormitory. The headmaster asked if I could find funding for a pit latrine for the female students then he would convert one of the male dormitories to female so the girls would have more space. This was probably the start of my fundraising work because I wrote for a grant from USAID and received the money, found the contractor and oversaw the construction of a six-seater pit latrine for the girls!
Acquired tastes: I lived in the Upper East Region which is much more rural than southern Ghana. The food was mainly rice and beans or millet and sorgum flour in different forms with different soups. It definitely required some getting used to but I never learned how to cook it so I really missed it when I came back. Luckily Dr. Kwasi Amoako-Gyampah (a professor in UNCG's Bryan School of Business and Economics) is from Ghana and helped me find some Ghanaian food when I moved to Greensboro.
The people of Ghana: I was a teacher so I taught art in a secondary school. I don't know that I helped anyone. I think I got more out of the experience that I could ever offer. Ghanaians are wonderfully warm people, very generous and kind. I still keep in touch with some of my friends. The internet makes it much easier.
Biggest lesson learned: People are the same everywhere no matter your culture we all celebrate life and mourn our losses.
Most vivid memory: The people I have so many positive memories of my experience but it's the people that stand out after all these years.
Advice for those considering Peace Corps: Do it! Peace Corps will change your life forever in a very positive way!
Michael McIntosh in Cameroun
Dr. Michael McIntosh
L.S. Keker Excellence Professor of Nutrition
Peace Corps service: Cameroon, 1974-78. Constructed inland ponds and small lakes to raise tilapia as a high protein food source.
Cameroon climate: Northern Cameroon is in the sub-Sahel region of Africa, having beautiful landscapes and a relatively temperate climate. The dry season went from October through March without a drop of rain, making it easy to plan for outdoor activities.
The road to Cameroon: Plan A was to become a veterinarian; however, I was unable to get into veterinary school, and I did not have a Plan B. Fortunately, I spoke to a Peace Corps recruiter who was on campus one day prior to graduation, and one year later I became a Peace Corps Inland Fisheries volunteer.
Most vivid memory: Being chased by hippos as we were attempting to harvest fish from a local river.
Toughest time: The first six months being so far away from the U.S. and having some health issues.
Biggest reward: Learning to live in a new and unique culture. The Cameroonians taught me that the simple pleasures in life are the most rewarding and enduring.
The people of Cameroon: The people of Cameroon are extremely proud, friendly and compassionate. They helped me reformulate my priorities in life.
The lesson that stuck: The best way to learn is to actively participate with an open mind without bias or preconceived notions.
Advice for those considering Peace Corps: It may be the most important decision they ever make in their lives. It will certainly change their lives forever. For me, it got me thinking about the nutritional content of foods for humans, fish, and livestock, and wanting to learn more about how to efficiently use food sources for all three of these consumers. Thus, I went to grad school after Peace Corps, obtaining an MS in Animal Nutrition, and a PhD in Human Nutrition.