Peace of mind from the Peace Corps
BY E. JOHN MCGOWAN
Serving in the Peace Corps is often referred to as "the hardest job you'll ever love." This motto has compelled thousands of Americans, including dozens of UCR alumni, to volunteer their services. The Peace Corps began in 1961 to help poor countries meet their need for trained personnel, help people in other countries understand Americans better, and foster greater American understanding of foreign cultures. Three UCR alumni share their experience with the 35-year-old organization, which is gearing up to double its presence.
Frank Usher '67
Frank Usher's involvement in the Peace Corps could be construed as destiny.
As a child, the 1967 UCR graduate grew up hearing stories of his great aunt who spent time with the Kennedy family when they vacationed in New Hampshire. As a young man, he developed a political interest in John Kennedy and made a vow to himself that he would somehow make a connection with the future president.
That vow took him to the steps of the University of Southern California library, just one week before the 1960 elections. Kennedy had just made a speech and the 15-year-old Usher managed to shake hands with the future president as he was leaving in a motorcade. As he followed Kennedy's car on foot, the crowd pushed him through one of the opened car doors. He found himself in the back seat.
"I put my hand out and said, 'Good Luck Jack.'"
It was then that Usher promised himself to join Kennedy's proposed organization, which became the Peace Corps.
Usher remembered that promise, when, as a political science major in his junior year, he saw a flier on a campus bulletin board advertising the Peace Corps. He signed up to become an agriculture teacher in the Rural Community Development Training Program. His group was the first to be trained outside the U.S. After months of intense training, an enthusiastic Usher was on his way to Checacupe, Peru, 11,000 feet up in the Andes Mountains.
Usher got off to a rough start. On his third day, after eating at a restaurant owned by the mayor, he became ill.
"I woke up at midnight feeling like a balloon ready to burst," he said. Violently ill with food poisoning, he found himself alone and sick. "I looked up at the sky and said, "Frank, if you can get through this, you can get through anything.'"
The next morning, feeling weak from dehydration, he caught a bus to the Peace Corps headquarters where an American doctor treated him. After some rest, a shower and some clean clothes, he surprised everyone by saying he wanted to stay.
He spent his time helping to educate local farmers on agricultural techniques. He and his partner walked five miles a day for two years. They visited farmers and encouraged them to participate in the seed and fertilizer loan program, which was designed to help them increase their crop return.
"When we started, we had 30 families using the loan program and by the time we were done, 115 families were participating," Usher said.
His duties often went beyond his job description. On one occasion, he was called to a nearby hut where a small boy, gored by a bull, lay with his intestines sitting on top of his stomach. Usher helped the boy as much as he could and then commandeered a military truck to get him to the hospital. His quick thinking saved the boy's life.
Shortly thereafter, he delivered a baby using only a two-page summary in his Peace Corps-supplied first aid handbook as a guide.
Usher remembers fondly those two years in the Peace Corps that took him thousands of miles away from home for the first time in his life.
"I can look back at my life and honestly say that my time in the Peace Corps is when I had the most peace of mind."
Beth Cortright '92
Long-distance travel was no big deal to Beth Cortright. As a child and young adult, she resided in Saudi Arabia and traveled throughout Europe, Scandinavia and Russia.
"Being far from home hasn't ever bothered me. Home really is wherever I am," said Cortright, who began thinking about joining the Peace Corps when a recruiter stopped by one of her environmental science classes during her junior year at UCR.
"I wasn't looking for a job that would keep me indoors, in a 'Dilbert-like' existence, but for a job that would utilize my education while also being an adventure," she said.
Cortright's degree in environmental sciences made her a perfect candidate to increase environmental awareness with the St. Thomas Environmental Protection Association in Kingston, Jamaica.
She soon discovered courtesy and friendliness were important to Jamaicans. "In the U.S., people feel apprehensive when you say 'hi' to them when you don't know them. In Jamaica it was the rudest thing not to acknowledge another person, regardless of if you knew them or not," she said.
Cortright said she was expected to attend everything from church and business functions to local dances and dinner parties.
"Socializing is an art form in Jamaica, and one that I am glad I got to participate in," said Cortright, who still keeps in touch with other Peace Corps members and Jamaicans she met while serving her two years.
Cortright believes the Peace Corps gave her a greater appreciation of life and work. After dealing with Jamaica's unreliable transportation, lack of hot water, and walking ten miles to the nearest phone, she came to the conclusion that Americans take daily life for granted.
"I got a lot out of my Peace Corps experience. While I was there to exchange technical information, I also got back a sense of myself, in terms of my abilities to cope with adverse and extreme situations that don't come up on a daily basis here in the U.S."
Marla Kozlak '90
When Marla Kozlak arrived in Békéscsaba, Hungary, in 1991 for her Peace Corps service, it was a homecoming of sorts.
As a UCR undergraduate, Kozlak studied abroad in Hungary for a semester where she learned the language, gained insight into the culture and watched as the Berlin Wall came down.
After she graduated from UCR, she longed to return to Eastern Europe but was also determined to enhance her international education. She applied and was accepted into the Peace Corps.
"I liked the fact that the Peace Corps has a great support group, excellent training, and is sensitive to each country's needs," she said.
After waiting several months for placement, she got her wish to return to Hungary to teach English. She trained for three months then traveled to Békéscsaba, her home for the next two years.
Her previous stay in Hungary helped her to avoid the culture shock that many Peace Corps volunteers encounter. However, she still faced some difficulties. For her first three months, Kozlak shared a small one-bedroom apartment with a math teacher.
"It was awful, I lived out of my suitcase for three months," she said.
She eventually got her own apartment but soon experienced the isolation that many Peace Corps volunteers face. To fight her loneliness, she got a dog, Titkar, who served as Kozlak's unofficial calling card.
"She went everywhere with me," she said. "I would take her for walks and it forced me to be outside where I got to meet all my neighbors."
For her first teaching assignment, she was put in charge of a rowdy eighth-grade class.
"Every teacher in the school kept telling me it was the worst class. I was petrified," she said.
In an attempt to give her students a constructive outlet she formed a drama club and helped organize the English Language Drama Festival, Hungary's first such event.
"As we rehearsed, there were lots of conflict between the students but slowly they started talking more in class and working as a team," said Kozlak.
More than 600 students from several area schools participated in the event and Kozlak's class won the elementary school category. The festival, one of Kozlak's proudest achievements, is now held annually.
Kozlak currently works for UCR's International Services office and is a Peace Corps mentor, advising potential volunteers to make sure they are good candidates to serve abroad.
"One-third of the volunteers in Hungary left and it's not good for the volunteers or the country," she said.
"You need to be an independent soul and be able to break into a culture," she added.
Nevertheless, she added it can be well worth the effort.
"The Peace Corps is an opportunity to discover yourself and your accomplishments. Everyday I had a wonderful feeling that I was accomplishing something."