Who I am: I am a retired academic adviser, after working a few years in a pathogen-free mouse colony while getting a master’s degree in pathobiology while my husband got his PhD in zoology. Here in Birmingham, Ala., I worked at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), serving as the academic advisor in biology and pre-health for 25+ years. In a volunteer capacity, I currently serve as the secretary of the GBRPCVs, but I have also served as treasurer and newsletter editor.
What I did in Peace Corps, including where and when I served: In 1964, I was accepted into the Peace Corps (for the first time) to serve as a visiting health worker in Northeastern Brazil. We trained for three months in Albuquerque, New Mexico, getting Outward Bound training in the Sandia Mountains, in addition to many hours of instruction in Portuguese and maternal/child care. Once in country, I worked in a very small town in the west of Paraiba state (draw a line south from Fortaleza and west from Recife) encouraging people to use latrines and filter water. I also led vaccination campaigns and conducted many, many fecal exams, providing worm medicines. As for my lifestyle, we had a town generator that supplied some fortunate homes (including mine) with electricity for two hours each night. We did not have indoor plumbing, and I slept in a hammock for those two years. I love(d) Brazil and the wonderful, friendly, fun-loving Brazilians. Funny thing: I never did need the hiking boots or rappelling equipment that we used in training.
In 1968, I was earning a bachelor’s degree in bacteriology from the University of Wisconsin, where I met my husband, Rob. I was accepted to a graduate program at Oregon State University; but Rob’s options were the U.S. Army band, the draft, or Peace Corps. He proposed, asking if I would go into Peace Corps with him rather than face 2-3 years apart. We were married in August and left for training in September. We trained in Frogmore, South Carolina, and we were sent to Botswana in southern Africa to teach biology and health (me) and math (Rob). We lived on the grounds of Gaborone Secondary School, a new school built after Botswana’s independence in 1966. The country needed volunteers to staff all the new schools and invited teachers from around the world. At our school, there were volunteers from England, Denmark, and France, in addition to the three Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs). Since the students would sit for the British Overseas Certificate exams, we were urged to speak English with them at all times. As a result, our proficiency in the native language, Setswana, was no better after 3+ yrs there (we stayed an extra year) than it was when we left Frogmore. In addition to classes, we were responsible for coordinating activities like science club, photography group, sports teams, etc. Once, for example, we took students camping in the Kalahari Desert, using big old green, floorless army tents (circa World War II). We got rained on, but the students enjoyed seeing several of the desert animals and a San (Bushman) village, where we dropped off vitamins from the health department.
Why I went, and what impact I think my service had (on others and on me): I applied to Peace Corps the first time right after President Kennedy was killed. I was a sophomore at Ripon College, a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin, majoring in biology and education. I had joined a sorority, and we spent many evenings partying. The announcement of Kennedy’s assassination came in a chemistry class, and school was closed immediately for early Thanksgiving holiday. We all watched TV news, crying, disbelieving that this could have happened. The President had asked us to ask what we could do for our country, and he had created Peace Corps. But the whole scene at college seemed not to address what I could do for my country. I had also read “The Ugly American” and believed that we needed to send people who were not movie stars, or diplomats traveling around in limousines, to other countries. Over the break, I filled out an application. Although I didn’t think I had any useful skills, it seemed to be something I could do that might make a difference. Peace Corps decided that, with my biology background, I could be a visiting health worker. All through training, I worried they would decide I couldn’t do it after all, but I was sent to Brazil where Kennedy was revered. Every home had a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and one of Kennedy on the wall.
Did I make a difference? My Peace Corps co-worker and I helped people get vaccinated and get latrines and filtered water into homes. Anyone who has ever lived without basic health services, sanitation and clean water knows the value of these interventions. I’d like to think we saved lives. At the time we were in Brazil the infant mortality rate (0-5 yr old) was over 150/1000 births in Brazil (http://www.indexmundi.com/facts/brazil/mortality-rate) and worse in the northeast. In the dry season, there were funeral processions nearly every day for little children who had died. Polio and other childhood diseases were also prevalent.
In Botswana, Rob and I taught many kids who went on to college and some into ministries. All of them had more options after 3-5 years of school than they would have if they had just stayed in their small villages. The girls, especially, would be worth more as brides with their educations! But some went further. Several years later, after coming back with my husband from Botswana, we met one of our former students in Massachusetts, where she was working on her master’s of public health. Most of all, what I hope happened is that people from my sites in Brazil and Botswana will remember living and working with a very normal person who was an American.
While we were at the University of Connecticut, I worked part time as a Peace Corps recruiter, especially in the agriculture and science areas. I have stayed active with the RPCV group in Birmingham because I still think the mission is important. I also know that almost every volunteer has a tough time at some point in service when frustration and loneliness and “culture shock” cause them to rethink their commitment. RPCVs can help them over that hump. And, upon return, the cultural re-entry is often as hard as anything that happened while serving. So again I think we can help because we actually want to hear the stories and will listen again and again when family and friends want a quick summary and just want them to get back to “normal” and their life’s routine.
I would recommend Peace Corps to today’s college students because: …. helping others is very rewarding, and it will probably also be the adventure of their lifetime. Being a tourist in another country is no comparison to living with the people and their culture.