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Postcards from the Peace Corps

by Christen O’Brien

I decided to leave my life one day. I was sitting in a cubicle, bathed in the fluorescent light of a sleek Century City law firm. It was late in the evening, and I was studying for my upcoming law exams. Working at the firm during the days and attending law school at night was taking its toll on me. I had held down a full-time job while attending USC as an undergraduate, and now here I was again, working into the night. As I gazed at the contracts outline on my computer screen, I could not avoid the emptiness inside. I tried reassuring myself that if I just got through exams, I would feel better. But deep down I knew this was not a temporary situation. I foresaw my life on a conveyer belt to corporate America, being reshaped and remolded into a mass-produced profit-building widget. And I freaked. I knew that if I didn’t do it then, I might never do it. So I shut down the computer and went home. I called my parents the next morning to break the news. I was leaving law school. I was leaving Los Angeles. I was leaving the Western hemisphere. I was joining the Peace Corps.

Yesterday, I was sitting on a train that recklessly careened along its tracks, stammering and sputtering in jolts of exasperation. An elderly woman sat across from me with a rusty bucket full of apricots at her feet. She stared through the dingy, yellow windows at the sunflower fields fronting the sun-draped mountains, her eyes fixed on the passing Bulgarian landscape.

In her face was the story I have seen in so many of the faces here � a tale of a nation once paralyzed by the iron fist of communism, now incapacitated by the long, painful transition to democracy. In her eyes was so much more than the reflection of the sunflowers, and so much more than I will ever understand.

Thousands of miles away in an Amerindian village in Guyana, Tom Sire ’01 has just awoken to the deep breaths of a woman in labor. He lives next door to the health center so he can be close by at times like this. Jumping out of bed and pulling on his jeans, he rushes out to deliver a baby.

Across the ocean, a group of Tanzanians spot the blond girl in the produce market again. “Wanguzu, wanguzu!” they yell across the crowd. Amy Gannon ’97 turns and smiles, though she secretly wishes she could go unnoticed. But the color of her skin is like a beacon. To them, she is a wanguzu: a white woman, a rich American.

Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan, Jeff Dubyn ’01 stands in front of a classroom full of university students. Pointing to the blackboard, he speaks slowly in English, pausing for his Russian interpreter. Basic fluency is a pre-requisite for Peace Corps volunteers, but Dubyn’s vocabulary isn’t quite up to the task of lecturing on free-market economic theory yet. As the interpreter completes his phrase, a dozen hands fly into the air.

From the grasslands of Africa to the cities of Eastern Europe, from the deserts of the Middle East to the jungles of Latin America, 38 USC alumni are currently serving as Peace Corps volunteers in 23 lands. Leaving behind family, friends and the comforts of home, these goodwill ambassadors dive headlong into the chaotic swirls and cultural depths of developing nations.

Jason Rothbard ‘93 and his wife in 1995, enjoying tea with their host family in Eritrea.

Since the organization’s inception in 1961, more than 500 Trojans have packed up and shipped out to serve � 120 in the last decade alone. Jason Rothbard ’93 is one of them. He and his wife spent 1995 to 1997 in Eritrea, teaching English in malaria-infested Adi Quala, population 5,000.

“There were people in my village dying left and right of malaria,” Rothbard recalls. “And you think, ‘My god! Why do you die of malaria?’” The problem went deeper than drug-supply failures:It had to do with villagers not realizing that mosquitoes transmit the disease, not understanding the importance of covering the oil-drums filled with water in their backyards.

Today Rothbard is back at USC, finishing up his master’s in public administration and working as a Peace Corps recruiter in the agency’s El Segundo office. He and his wife haunt Fairfax Avenue’s “Little Ethiopia,” nostalgic for the smells and tastes of East Africa. Whenever they hear Tigrinya (one of the nine tribal languages of Eritrea) spoken at another table, they eagerly burst in on the conversation.

Over the past three years, Rothbard has seen a rise in Trojan volunteers. The upswing, he believes, has to do with the overall improvement in the academic caliber of USC undergraduates. “The Peace Corps has always been an elite organization,” he says. “It attracts top-notch graduates, the cream.”

The current crop of Trojan volunteers comes mostly out of business, engineering and the social sciences. For some, the time they spent taking notes in class matters now more than ever. Patrick J. Wilson ’98 never realized just how much of a difference his civil engineering training would make: water sanitation is a major obstacle in Olanchito, Honduras. “Here I am with an opportunity to use what I learned at USC to actually help communities get clean water to their houses,” he says.

But many volunteers leave their majors behind, opting for something new. Anna Schleicher Joyce ’00, who studied international relations, is now a health educator in Guyana, concentrating on pre- and post-natal care. Matthew Romsa ’00, who graduated from the USC Marshall School of Business, now works in a community health and AIDS project in Ntaja, Malawi. Though he’s hard-pressed to articulate just why, “I know this is one of the best things I have ever done,” he says.

I never thought I would be living in a developing country. Even after I chose to box up my life and move to the other side of the world, I wondered if I would really fit in with the Peace Corps crowd. I mean, on my wish list, a lifetime supply of Charles David pumps ranked a close second to world peace. I was the girl who considered her hairdresser a miracle worker, believed sushi was a staple food, and completely lost her Zen when late for yoga. I was not the girl who took up humanitarian causes.

It wasn’t that I didn’t care. It was just that I never attended a peace march, or protested animal testing, or relegated myself politically to the left � or to the right, for that matter. I had always thought of Peace Corps volunteers as “extreme.” Extreme naturalists. Extreme activists. Extreme liberals.

The day before I left, I was terrified that I had made a mistake. “If they sing ‘Michael, Row the Boat Ashore’ on the Lufthansa flight,” I told myself, “I am coming right back to L.A.”

But I’m still here. Living proof that the clich� about the Peace Corps being an organization exclusively made up of starry-eyed hippies who brake for squirrels is inaccurate. Not that I have a more accurate label to offer. The truth is, the sheer diversity of Peace Corps volunteers makes them impossible to pigeonhole. Still, I can safely dispel some basic myths.

A haven for liberals. In its infancy, the organization focused on such programs as environmental protection and agricultural development � initiatives that tend to attract more Democrats than Republicans. But the tide changed in 1985, when new business and economic-development programs reeled in large numbers of Republican volunteers. Today you’re just as likely to find a Peace Corps volunteer teaching micro-economics in a university as planting soy beans in a field.

A club for privileged, white young adults. The oldest current Peace Corps volunteer is 84. In fact, people with more than 50 candles on their birthday cakes make up 6 percent of all volunteers, while minorities account for 15 percent. (From USC, the oldest current volunteer is 64; fully a quarter of volunteers are 30 and up; and minority participation stands at 32 percent � double the national average.)

An act of altruism. Returned volunteers know that in addition to helping find their inner child, Peace Corps experience helps them find a job. “You go into the Peace Corps as a selfless act,” says Rothbard, “but undoubtedly you come out gaining much more than you’ve given.” For volunteers looking to go on to graduate school, many institutions offer special scholarships and a leg up in admissions. For those interested in government jobs, Peace Corps service results in preferred hiring status. The agency also has a career placement department. As for resum� value, having made it through two years in a developing country says volumes about one’s tenacity, resourcefulness, creativity, flexibility, problem-solving and cross-cultural adaptability � qualities most employers seek in their hires.

USC’s Richard Drobnick in 1966, working in Malaysian rice paddies as a Peace Corps volunteer.

The peace corps volunteer experience has changed dramatically in the past 40 years. Oh, not the homesickness, the culture shock or the crude living conditions. But people who enter the Peace Corps today are much better informed at the front end than volunteers of yesteryear. “It’s a very different generation,” says returned volunteer and USC vice provost for international affairs Richard Drobnick PhD ’79. “They’re hungrier for information; they do research on the Internet and they ask very detailed questions.” Drobnick fields a lot of those questions as an informal faculty advisor to Peace Corps-bound Trojans.

When he departed for his own service in rural Malaysia in 1967, Drobnick knew very little about his destination. “We were nonchalant about it. We figured we’d find out when we got there,” he says.

Today’s volunteers are far better connected to the world; at the same time the world has became far smaller. When Drobnick was making his decision to go, “there weren’t any books on Malaysia at my local library in Waukegan, Illinois. Nowadays you could meet Malaysian students on campus.”

Globalization and the digital revolution have wrought other major changes.

“In my two years in Malaysia,” Drobnick says, “I never once called home. It wasn’t feasible: it would have taken six hours to make the connection and cost me more than my month’s living allowance.” These days, volunteers remain in touch with friends and loved ones via the Internet. Families come visiting at the work site; they plan vacations together.

Which isn’t to say that the Peace Corps is right for everybody. People who join in order to bring American ways and values into the heart of darkness are bound to fail, if not worse. Such “do-gooders,” Drobnick recalls from his own training group, occasionally “went home accompanied by a psychiatrist.”

The most important characteristics in Peace Corps volunteers, he believes, are curiosity, a taste for adventure and, above all, an open mind. “You learn to see things in a more relative light,” he says.

Thinking back on his experiences in Malaysia, a nation of four cultures, Drobnick explains that “the Malay, Chinese, Indian and British populations each identified problems and opportunities differently, made decisions differently.

“I learned a tremendous amount about cultural group dynamics � from work, to play, to sports, to love affairs.”

USC higher-education policy expert William G. Tierney echoes the sentiment. “Self-reliance, integrity and respect for people very different from myself became ingrained in my psyche and heart,” says the USC Rossier School of Education professor, who served in Morocco in 1975-77.

“Professionally, the ideas that I have today pertaining to diversity, culture, difference and equity were formed by living in a Berber village and city.”

Though it all sounds so exotic, there is another side to the Peace Corps experience that brochures often omit.

Though I am ashamed to admit it, I had romantic visions of my life as a volunteer.

I imagined myself in the dusty Sahara, leading a line of African children to our one-room schoolhouse. I saw myself in the jungles of Costa Rica, searching the rain forest for an elusive anti-virus to treat a fever that had swept my village. I dreamed of riding horseback through Mongolia, sowing the rice paddies in Thailand or watching the sunset from my thatched-roof hut in the Caribbean.

My life in Bulgaria was that romantic for about one week. Soon the exotic becomes normal, the adventures become routineand the reality of life in the Peace Corps is laid bare.

When I leave my apartment, I am confronted with a country in painful transition. The buildings are gray, the sidewalks are gray, even the sky is gray. Pollution is abundant. Employment is not. The town of Pernik itself is a huddled mass of makeshift shops and block apartments.

Volunteers often experience a measure of disappointment with their surroundings, their jobs and their role in their communities.

“I did think that I would do more than I have done to change Malawi,” says Romsa.

He admits his expectations were unrealistic. Change doesn’t come easily in an AIDS-ravaged country where unhealthy behaviors are rooted in generations-old habits. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “I feel very good about the work that I am doing. But I think most volunteers will admit that they believe they will single-handedly solve most of the problems at their site. It can be disappointing to realize that these expectations won’t be met, however unreasonable they are.”

The headaches that volunteers endure are many. Gannon has running water only a few times a week. Once-simple tasks, such as cooking or showering, now require planning and major effort. Dubyn’s electricity sporadically cuts out. On winter nights when the space heater isn’t running, the only thing between him and Kazakhstan’s below-freezing temperatures is a window and a wool blanket. Denied basic tools like the telephone, when Romsa wants to relay a message in technologically backward Malawi, “I have to get on my bike and deliver it myself. Sometimes that journey can be 20 kilometers round-trip.”

Many volunteers find it difficult to adjust to the relaxed pace that pervades the Third World. Wilson, Gannon, Romsa and Joyce struggle with the general disregard for punctuality and reliability. Meetings rarely start on time, if at all, and promises are routinely broken.

And try as they might to fit in, volunteers find it hard to defeat Western stereotypes. “Malawians believe that if your skin is white, you have a great deal of money,” Romsa says. “What they don’t realize is that as a Peace Corps volunteer, I receive a low monthly salary. Many businessmen in my village make more money that I do.”

Gannon and her husband face similar frustrations in Tanzania. “It was initially challenging to convey that we are here to offer our teaching services and not to hand out money,” she says. “We received daily requests from students to pay for their schooling. We also received requests from teachers on a regular basis.” Those requests tapered off over time, but when Gannon and her husband walk into town, the street kids still beg for change in their broken English. “No matter how hard we attempt to assimilate into the society and culture, the fact remains that we are different � we are rich Americans,” she says.

Despite the frustrations, disappointments and long nights dreaming of home, there is always something that makes Peace Corps volunteers say: “I want to be here tomorrow.”

For Gannon, it’s the voices of children in her peer-led “health clubs” discussing AIDS, malnutrition and malaria � issues directly affecting their community that they may never have been able to talk about before.

For Wilson, it’s the excitement of putting engineering theory into real-world, life-saving practice.

For Dubyn, it’s the thrill of realizing, mid-sentence, that he’s conveying his thoughts in Russian (though he still makes his share of mistakes: like the time he called his I.D. card “my potato,” or the time he mixed up the imperative form of the verb “to write” with the word for urination).

For Joyce, it’s being able to serve with her husband � the bond they share facing hardships together, becoming more appreciative, resourceful and humble.

For me, it’s the mornings after the long nights when everything seemed impossible, when I had lost all patience and tolerance. As I start these new days, I feel overwhelmed by my own strength.

I often think back to the evening I decided to take this leap; to the blinking screen and the fate I left behind. When I shut down the computer and went home that night, I thought I was about to do something that would change the next two years of my life. Now I realize I was changing my life forever.

I decided to leave my life one day. It was the best decision I ever made.

Christen O’Brien examines the merchandise at a spice market in Pernik, Bulgaria.

Christen O’Brien ’01 (communications) is a Peace Corps volunteer based in Pernik, Bulgaria.

Postcards from the Peace Corps

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