One year after evacuation from the Philippines: A Peace Corps Volunteer on the trauma of leaving see more
One year after being evacuated from the Philippines, a Peace Corps Volunteer faces the trauma of leaving, the country he returned to, and a question that’s impossible to answer.
By Rok Locksley
Work and friendship: Rok Locksley, left, with Ban-Ban Nicolas. Photo courtesy Rok Locksley
The last day of my Peace Corps service was Friday, March 13, 2020. Together with my wife, Genevieve, I was serving in the Peace Corps in the Philippines. We had gotten up early to enjoy the sunrise on what we knew would be our last day on the island that had become our home.
My counterpart was Ban-Ban Nicolas, with whom I was collaborating on marine conservation efforts on an island near Cebu. I called him Ban2x. And over the course of service, we developed a deep friendship.
Ban2x arrived at our host family’s house early in the morning in his family car. He would shuttle us to the seaport. Airports had already shuttered. He knew we were on the last boat off the island, and he wanted to make sure we got to the port safely.
We loaded our bags into his car, and he promised to look after our things, to check in on our dogs and our house. At this point we thought we were just being consolidated: all Volunteers gathered together temporarily. On the drive, Ban2x and I made promises to keep each other updated and what the estimates were for returning after consolidation — we were speaking in that awkward way that you do when you have so much you want to say but lack the words or ability to properly express how much you value the other person.
As I made my way onto the bridge to the boat that would carry me literally and figuratively out to sea, I turned for one last look at my friend and said, “It’s not goodbye, just until we see each other again.”
We got out of the car and I could see tears welling up in his eyes. I could feel them in mine. We lingered until the last possible minute. As I made my way onto the bridge to the boat that would carry me literally and figuratively out to sea, I turned for one last look at my friend and said, “It’s not goodbye, just until we see each other again.”
I got on the boat, found a seat, and sat down gingerly. Everything was moving in a surreal way. At first I thought it was the rocking waves, but then I started to feel my world crashing around me. There was everything we had left behind: our project, our year-old dogs who had cried and tried to squirm under the fence to get in the car as we drove away. My host family, with tears in their eyes. My coworkers, their faces grimaced in shock when I told them the day before that I had to leave.
I began the journey back to the United States, but I would not be returning home. My home was in the Philippines.
Where do we go from here? Photo by Rok Locksley
The boat carried us to a larger island where we met up with other Peace Corps Volunteers. We managed to catch the last boat off of that island, and we sat there on the top deck of a ferry, rocking in the sea, surrounded by tourists trying to figure out if they should stay or go. As for us 30 Volunteers, we were shell-shocked and broken, leaving through no choice of our own. We didn’t really talk. What was there to say?
About two hours into the five-hour ferry trip, our phones chirped and pinged and vibrated at the same time with an alert. It was an ominous sound, and it carried a message that changed our lives. The director of the Peace Corps had declared the evacuation of all Volunteers. That is how we found out that our service was over: On a boat, rocking in the sea, carrying what random items we had shoved into our backpacks in a state of trauma. Some of us cried. Some tried to call their families. Some stared off across the waves, trying to soak up the last of the Philippines. Most, like me, were simply in shock. And desperately trying to figure out what to do next.
Back in the States, we could not go to my parents’ house or my wife’s parents’ house, because of COVID-19. I knew that the evacuation route would take us through numerous airports, and I was sure I was getting exposed. The risk was not worth it to my family; health and age put them in the at-risk population. My grandparents’ house was out. My uncles and aunts had young kids. We literally had nowhere to go.
I timidly reached out to a few people, inquiring about whether it might perhaps be possible maybe that … They made it clear, gently but firmly, that they did not want to risk the fact that I might be bringing the virus, especially coming from Southeast Asia. I understood.
We had given up ties in the States to join the Peace Corps. We had no house, no car, no job waiting. All that was waiting for us stateside: the terrifying horror of the unknown. Unknown if we had the virus. Unknown where we would sleep when we landed. Unknown where we could get health care or insurance or a job or food or winter clothes. Aside from what we carried, what possessions we owned were in a storage unit. And I was not sure how I was going to make the next payment on that.
As I was making calls from the boat and, later, from a hotel, trying to figure out where exactly we should attempt to fly to in the United States, a fellow Volunteer overheard my struggle. His family had a summer cabin in the Midwest. It wasn’t summer. But he offered it as a place of landing to us and a few other evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers for the mandatory two-week quarantine. We had no option other than the Peace Corps reimbursement for staying in a hotel. We gratefully chose the EPCV cabin.
The Facebook group for evacuated Volunteers was one of the few places we didn’t have to explain to others why this transition was so difficult, why we all felt lost at sea.
We ended up living there in quarantine from March until June. Three months of trying to make sense of what had happened — and was still happening around us. Three months of sleepless nights and tearful mornings. Three months of confusion, loss, and desperation. Three months of writing resumes and filling out applications. Three months of Zoom interviews and those awful hopes that come with searching for a job: of failing again and again. Three months of struggling alongside my fellow evacuees to find our new place in the pandemic world. Three months of every other American dealing with a new world and none of them understanding what had happened to us. The Facebook EPCV group was one of the few places we didn’t have to explain to others why this transition was so difficult, why we all felt lost at sea.
I talked to Ban2x at least once a week. That helped a bit. In the EPCV cabin, we shared our struggles with one another and tried to help others as best we could. Mostly we sat staring into space, thinking about all that had been ripped away — and what we were supposed to do next. I cannot imagine what it was like for Volunteers who had chosen the lonely hotel room for mandatory quarantine.
After three months, with the warmth of summer finally arriving, there was a changing of our seasons, too: We started to get hired or accepted into graduate school. I was fortunate to receive a Peace Corps Fellowship. Some of us got federal jobs, thanks to non-completive eligibility that comes with status as a returned Volunteer. Without the support of the RPCV network, National Peace Corps Association’s meetings and seminars, and Jodi Hammer’s counsel and advice through the Global Reentry Program, I don’t think any of us would have made a good transition out of that cabin.
This is water. Photo courtesy Rok Locksley
The problem with that question
I have recently had a few Returned Peace Corps Volunteers ask me what the hardest part about the evacuation was. The problem with the question is its premise; it makes it seem like the evacuation is over. For me it is not.
I am building a place that is starting to feel like home again in Illinois. And we did manage to get one of our dogs to the States in the fall. (The rest were poisoned, we found out later). I have school to focus on, but the evacuation is not an easily packaged life event. It was trauma and I am still experiencing it, working through it, processing it.
Every time I talk to Ban2x, I am filled with conflict about abandoning my work and my friends. I question whether I should have stayed on my island — which has had fewer cases than my neighborhood here in Illinois. Did we make the right choice to return to the United States? I still find myself trying to discern a morally correct answer to this question.
The reason that we have adopted the signifier EPCVs rather RPCVs is because we all came back at the same time to a nightmare version of America that was nothing like what we had left. This was not the place often dreamed of in our desperate moments of homesickness. This was a foreign land to us. The restaurants closed, the markets eerily empty, wide eyes of fear peeking over new masks — and other faces with self-assured smirks.
There is also this strange aspect to coming back with more than 5,000 other Americans: The people I was competing with for jobs were my friends and fellow EPCVs. The person’s spot I took for my graduate program was a fellow evacuee. For every one of us who got a federal job or fellowship, that meant another EPCV did not. I don’t mean that in the abstract. I mean it literally. We would have Zoom meetings with members of our cohort and find out we were all in the final round for the same job. Only one of us could get it.
I had previously met a few people who had lost their homes due to fire or other circumstances beyond their control. People who have walked out of a strange airport in a strange land without any idea of what to do next — but carrying a hope that life would get better. People who have relied on the charity and goodwill of others to survive. A year later these experiences are much less hypothetical and much more real. It helps me to understand their situation and seek out guidance from them.
Today, on the year anniversary of our evacuation, I had a conversation with my counterpart and best friend, Ban2x. Over the past year, we have kept in contact every week, updating each other on our lives, hopes, and dreams — all the while following up on the final steps of our project, which is finally almost at fruition. Ban2x and his wife go for regular rides on the bicycles that we left behind. They send photos over Messenger of their rides and adventures to some of our favorite spots. I get photos of gatherings in the community, and it is awesome to see folks in my community wearing clothes we left behind and using the items that didn’t make it into our suitcases in that frantic final morning packing session. A few months ago, Ban2x tried to send some of the more precious items to us, but international shipping costs during the pandemic made it effectively prohibitive. They were handed out or given away to our friends and co-workers.
The hardest part is that we are still going through it. Some of us are still waiting to return to service.
When we talk, Ban2x and I, each of us is searching for words trying to fill in those things are that are still left unsaid. We wonder when this will end, and what the world will look like when it does. He stays healthy and, because of the island’s precautions, the pandemic is less of a threat there than I feel here with my mandatory in-person classes. We plan for the theoretical reunion that might take place in the next few years. I talk about all the spots and things I want to share with him in America. He tells me about the changes in our community and celebrations I have missed. Ban2x, always the optimist, smiles and says things that would translate to something along the lines of “When the time is right” or “When fortune favors us.”
We laugh a bit more in recent weeks, but sometimes my laughs are a bit hollow. I know that I can’t just jump on a plane and visit anytime I want. And I can’t bring him here for a visit. I know it will be a few years before restrictions are lifted enough to allow us to visit our home again. Until then, despite the temporary roof over my head, my heart still feels homeless. I still feel like I am adrift on the sea, packed in with all the other EPCVs rocking in a boat with no port, and wondering what happens next.
That is what it is like to have been evacuated during the pandemic. Generally, my experience is too much go through just to answer the question “What was the hardest part?” The gap is too wide. The cut is still too deep. And although it is healing, it is a long way from being a faded memory.
Maybe the closest I can come to answering my fellow RPCVs’ questions about evacuation is this: The hardest part is that we are still going through it. Some of us are still waiting to return to service.
SHARE YOUR STORY
Are you a Volunteer who was evacuated because of COVID-19? Are you part of the Peace Corps community with a story to tell? Let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rok Locksley’s tribute to Ban2x in WorldView magazine, and evacuation stories of dozens of Peace Corps Volunteers from around the world.
“How can we transform this moment in Peace Corps history?” Rok Locksley takes part in a discussion with other evacuated Volunteers as part of the Global Ideas Summit Peace Corps Connect to the Future.
Rok Locksley served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Republic of Moldova from 2005–08. He then worked as a Recruiter for Peace Corps 2009–16 and went back for a second tour with his partner, Genevieve, in the Philippines 2018–20. Locksley is currently a Peace Corps Fellow at Western Illinois University. He intends to return to his island at the first possible opportunity.
It has been decades since Congress tackled Peace Corps legislation this sweeping. see more
It has been decades since Congress tackled Peace Corps legislation this sweeping. Along with important reforms, it would lead to 10,000 Volunteers serving in the field — a number not seen in half a century.
By Jonathan Pearson
Illustration by traffic_analyzer
On March 1 of this year, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and California Congressman John Garamendi introduced H.R. 1456, the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2021. Co-sponsored by Rep. Garret Graves (R-LA), who serves as co-chair of the House Peace Corps Caucus with Garamendi, H.R. 1456 will serve as the foundation for National Peace Corps Association’s 60th anniversary legislative agenda.
The date it was introduced carries weight; it was on 3/1/61 that President Kennedy issued Executive Order 10924 establishing the Peace Corps.
What’s significant about this new bill? Over the years, Congress has passed Peace Corps–related legislation on a variety of individual subjects, including bills that strengthened the agency’s response to sexual assault, authorized a commemorative work near the National Mall to recognize Peace Corps service, improved certain health and safety protocols, and provided necessary funding and provisions to safely bring home and support evacuated Volunteers in March 2020. But it has been decades since Congress has come together to pass comprehensive legislation to address a wide range of issues that support and honor Peace Corps service.
In a press release, Congressman Garamendi said, “Now more than ever, Congress must support the Peace Corps’ mission and realize President Kennedy’s vision of generations of young Americans ready to serve their nation and make the world a better place. Our reauthorization bill does exactly that, and provides much-needed resources to Volunteers.”
In a post-COVID world with a global recession, with healthcare problems around the world, particularly in developing countries, the Peace Corps mission is going to be more critical than ever.
Garamendi spoke to members of the Peace Corps community on March 1, as NPCA kicked off its annual National Days of Advocacy in Support of the Peace Corps. Congressman Graves sent a video message, in which he noted how important Peace Corps’ mission will be moving forward: “In a post-COVID world with a global recession, with healthcare problems around the world, particularly in developing countries, the critical nature of your mission is going to be (greater than ever).”
As of May 14, 45 members of the House have signed on as co-sponsors of the legislation. Consideration is underway for companion legislation in the Senate.
Think big, follow through
Here are some of the provisions included in the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2021:
Steady, Sustainable Funding Increases
Recommends increased funding of approximately 10 percent in each of the next four fiscal years, aiming for $450 million in Fiscal Year 2022 and reaching $600 million in Fiscal Year 2025. This would move toward the stated minimum target of 10,000 Volunteers in the field — a number proposed in the original Peace Corps Act, and a figure not realized in more than 50 years. This would also provide funding for many of the needed and overdue reforms called for in this legislation — as well as reforms that were called for in previous legislation but were never implemented.
Increased Volunteer Benefits
Would increase Volunteers’ readjustment allowance to $417 for each month of service, raising the total allowance for two years of service from $8,000 to $10,000. Paid post-service health care would be extended to three months upon completion of service.
Calls upon the Peace Corps to consult with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concerning recommendations for prescribing malaria prophylaxis. And it requires health personnel in countries where malaria is present to receive adequate training in the side effects of such medication. The legislation also incorporates the language of the Menstrual Equity in the Peace Corps Act (H.R. 1467) introduced by Representative Grace Meng (D-NY). This bill requires the Peace Corps to ensure access to menstrual products for Volunteers who require them, either by increasing stipends or providing the products for affected Volunteers.
In the long-standing effort to provide more support for returned Volunteers disabled by service-related illness or injury, H.R. 1456 would increase the monthly workers’ compensation rate for these individuals.
Non-Competitive Eligibility (NCE) Protections
For RPCVs seeking to utilize NCE for federal job opportunities, H.R. 1456 would pause the one-year benefit in times of a federal government shutdown or hiring freeze. It would also delay the start of NCE eligibility for RPCVs unable to work when coming back home due to service-related illness or injury.
Support for Current and Future Evacuated Volunteers
Codifies that Volunteers who face evacuation and the end of their service through no fault of their own — as happened to Volunteers globally in March 2020 — receive benefits to which they would otherwise be entitled as Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, determined by the Peace Corps director; and that these Volunteers should be given expedited consideration for redeployment if they so choose.
National Advisory Council
Would reestablish a National Advisory Council to bring more exposure to the agency and its work. The council would also be charged with considering key issues related to the Peace Corps’ future, including agency progress in advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion; and it would examine financial barriers that might prevent individuals from applying to the Peace Corps.
Extends whistleblower and anti-retaliatory protections that currently apply to Peace Corps contractors to Peace Corps Volunteers, including protections against reprisals by any Peace Corps employee, Volunteer supervisor, or outside contractor.
Includes the language of the Respect for Peace Corps Volunteers Act sponsored by Rep. Albio Sires (D-NJ) since 2013. This bill would confirm that an allowable use of the Peace Corps name, official seal, and emblem would include its use at gravesites or in death notices.
Concrete Steps from a Community-Driven Report
John Garamendi served as a Volunteer in Ethiopia 1966–68, as did his wife, Patti. Joining him and Garret Graves as original co-sponsors on this legislation are Grace Meng (D-NY), Dean Phillips (D-MN), Ed Case (D-HI), Albio Sires (D-NJ), and Aumua Amata Coleman Radewagen (R-AS). Radewagen represents American Samoa today, and she has a Peace Corps connection; she served on Peace Corps staff in the Northern Mariana Islands 1967–68.
National Peace Corps Association has been a key player in helping shape this legislation as well. Drawing on actionable recommendations in the community-driven “Peace Corps Connect to the Future” report, NPCA worked with congressional staff to begin to address priorities developed through eight town halls and a Global Ideas Summit in 2020. Some previous calls for reform have not been fully implemented; this would make them law—and provide funds to follow through.
Notably, the legislation is also endorsed by the National Whistleblower Center.
Notably, the legislation is also endorsed by the National Whistleblower Center.
“Passing this legislation will require every member of the Peace Corps community to take five minutes to write or call their members of Congress urging support for these reforms,” says NPCA President Glenn Blumhorst. “It will require hundreds of advocates to reach beyond our community and speak to the importance of Peace Corps and its mission through traditional and social media.”
The landmark legislation is of a scope not seen in many years. To give it momentum in Congress, the Peace Corps community will need to do some heavy lifting.
“We will need dozens of advocates willing to continue organizing and conducting meetings to bring forth the importance of this legislation directly to members of Congress and their staff,” Blumhorst says. “And we need additional, highly committed individuals willing to volunteer as state and regional advocacy coordinators, joining more than 40 current advocacy leaders who have sparked legislative victories, past, present, and future.”
Story updated May 14 at 3 PM: number of members of the House who have signed on as co-sponsors of H.R. 1456
Jonathan Pearson is Director of Advocacy for National Peace Corps Association. You can be a leader in passing H.R. 1456 and charting the course for Peace Corps’ future. Contact email@example.com to get started.
WorldView Magazine Earns Top Honors for Editorial and Design Excellence in 2021 FOLIO Magazine AwardsAn EDDIE for a series of stories, and an OZZIE for best cover see more
An EDDIE award recognizing a series of stories about Volunteers evacuated from around the world. And a cover asking “What’s the Role of Peace Corps Now?” These awards mark the first time that the magazine published for the Peace Corps community has earned these top honors.
By NPCA Staff
For the first time in its more than three-decade history, WorldView magazine has brought home top honors in the FOLIO Awards honoring magazine editorial and design excellence. Published by National Peace Corps Association, WorldView is a winner of both an EDDIE and OZZIE in the 2021 awards.
WorldView earned EDDIE top honors for a series of articles in the Summer 2020 edition that tell the stories of Peace Corps Volunteers who were evacuated from around the world in 2020. The series captures the Volunteer experiences and the communities in which they were serving, and the unfinished business they left behind.
The magazine earned OZZIE top honors for the cover of the Fall 2020 edition, featuring an illustration by award-winning artist David Plunkert. With a dove of peace inside a cage-like COVID-19 molecule, the cover asks: “What’s the role of Peace Corps now?” Plunkert’s work has appeared in the pages and on the covers of The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Time, and elsewhere.
The awards were presented on October 14 at the FOLIO gala in New York City. The EDDIES and OZZIES have been presented for more than a quarter century and draw competition from across the United States and internationally. This year marked the return of an in-person awards ceremony. Other top winners this year include California’s ALTA Journal, Variety, environmental news publication Grist, People, National Geographic Kids, and more.
WorldView is edited by Steven Boyd Saum, and Pamela Fogg serves as art director. The recent digital edition also bears the handiwork of Orrin Luc, who serves as digital content manager. And just joining the editorial team is Tiffany James, who comes on board as associate editor, global stories.
“This is an unprecedented time for the Peace Corps, and it’s heartening to see WorldView recognized for the importance and caliber of the work we’re doing,” says Saum. “There are dozens of people who shared their stories to help readers understand what thousands of communities and Volunteers have gone through — and a small but dedicated team of writers who helped give these stories shape and form. Every one of those Volunteers and writers deserve credit for the editorial award.”
As for the award-winning cover, Saum says, “That asks a question we’re still seeking to answer. And just like when Peace Corps Volunteers first embarked on this mission of building world peace and friendship 60 years ago, in the months to come it will be up to the Volunteers — and all of us in the Peace Corps community — to help define that role in a changed world.”
Read the current edition of WorldView — and those editions that have brought accolades — at worldviewmagazine.org.
Orrin Luc posted an articleWhere are we going? Where have we gone? Some answers lie within the pages of this magazine. see more
Sixty years of Peace Corps. Volunteers returning to service. And a first for this magazine.
Illustration by Tim O’Brien
By Steven Boyd Saum
A year ago the cover of WorldView bore the image of a dove encaged by a COVID-like molecule and asked: “What’s the role of Peace Corps now?” It’s a question we’re still seeking to answer. There were then, as now, no Volunteers in the field — though staff in posts across the globe were sustaining connections with communities. And tens of thousands of returned Volunteers, whether they had been abruptly evacuated because of the pandemic or had served decades before in countries where Peace Corps programs no longer existed, were working as best they knew how to nurture the flame of peace and friendship in a dark time.
A snapshot — from an ad that ran four decades ago: Statue of Liberty, arm pointed toward an exit stage right, and a suggestion for how to make America a better place: Leave the country. Only part of the journey, that. “Maybe it’s not just what you do in the Peace Corps that counts. But what you do when you get back.”
If you return stateside, that is. Get back. Because, of course, central to the imperative for launching this audacious Peace Corps mission 60 years ago was the fact that this nation needed to do better when it came to understanding people and communities around the world: speaking languages, listening, and grasping on a truly human level how the best of intentions — not to mention policies conceived in cynicism or indifference to suffering — might exact a terrible cost. And that understanding should inform the work of diplomats and those who serve as hands-on workers and leaders alike in diplomacy and education, alleviating poverty and bolstering public health, and so much more.
GET BACK. A phrase zipping around the zeitgeist these days, and not only thanks to an epic Beatles documentary. Get back to a sense of common purpose, a sense that service might unite us and enable us to better address the most daunting problems facing our planet. That’s one of the conversations taking place in this edition.
Get back to a sense of common purpose, a sense that service might unite us and enable us to better address the most daunting problems facing our planet.
So is this: Peace Corps Volunteers are about to get back into service in countries around the world. Whatever title they carry, related to education or the environment or public health, all will have a role to play when it comes to fighting COVID-19. After the unprecedented evacuation, everything will be different. But the work of Volunteers and Peace Corps staff in battling smallpox and Ebola and HIV/AIDS over the decades means this is not entirely uncharted territory. And the person-to-person connections that define the Peace Corps experience couldn’t be more important.
Which is one more reason we’re heartened that this fall, WorldView brought home top honors in the FOLIO Awards, honoring magazine editorial and design excellence. The aforementioned cover of the Fall 2020 edition, illustrated by David Plunkert, earned an OZZIE design award for best cover. And, in an award that recognizes the work of dozens of contributors, WorldView earned an EDDIE award for editorial excellence for a series of articles in the Summer 2020 edition. Telling the stories of Peace Corps Volunteers who were evacuated from around the world in 2020, the series captures the experiences of Volunteers and the communities in which they were serving, and the unfinished business left behind.
These awards mark the first time that this magazine — published for the Peace Corps community for more than three decades — has earned such recognition. The awards, presented on October 14 at the FOLIO gala in New York City, have honored top work in publishing for more than a quarter century and draw competition from across the United States and internationally. It’s rewarding to see outstanding work recognized. Even more important is amplifying the voices of the Peace Corps community in this unprecedented time.
SO HERE WE ARE, with this special 60th anniversary edition. Even before the pandemic hit, it hardly seemed appropriate to serve up a self-congratulatory feast of nostalgia. Too much is happening, and too much on the line.
Let’s end, then, with beginnings: the cover of this magazine. An iconic portrait of John F. Kennedy from illustrator Tim O’Brien. Six decades after this Peace Corps endeavor took flight, we ask: Where are we going? Where have we gone?
Some answers lie within the print and digital pages of this magazine. So many more have yet to be written.
This note appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Steven Boyd Saum is editor of WorldView and director of strategic communications for National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96. Write him.
Orrin Luc posted an articleEvacuated Peace Corps Volunteers: Then and Now, We Continue to Serve see more
Evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers: Then and Now, We Continue to Serve — a conversation convened as part of Peace Corps Connect 2021.
Pictured: “Gül” in Turkish, “rose” in English. Margo Jones served as a Volunteer in the village of Asagisayak, then in the city of Bolu. Photo by Ken St. Louis
On September 25, 2021, Jodi Hammer hosted a panel of Volunteers who have been evacuated from the countries where they were serving — in the 1960s and in 2020. Hammer was a Volunteer in Ecuador 1994–97 and serves as Career Support Specialist at National Peace Corps Association. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation. Watch the full conversation here.
I decided in high school that I wanted to go into the Peace Corps. My parents were not thrilled. I was invited to Turkey. I graduated from college and went into training at Portland State. Turkish was my fifth language. At a university in Ankara, we spent a month learning more Turkish. I was a rural community development worker, and I went out into my village near the Black Sea at the end of August 1966.
Asagisayak: Villagers where Margo Jones served as a Volunteer. Photo by Todd Boressoff
The village had no running water. We went to the well in the morning at 5:30, a social event with the women. We did not have toilet facilities. For food we had no refrigeration. We went to a market once a week, and you bought what you could eat.
I initially bought a few canned things. When I opened them, they had worms, so I threw them out. We had one big oven and baked bread once a week.
Where she called home: In Turkey, Margo Jones’ landlady with her son. Photo by Todd Boressoff
I got a driver and seven days a week went to villages and taught girls basic healthcare. I got an infection in one of my fingers, and they wanted to amputate. I said, “No, I came in with ten, I’m leaving with ten.” I had menstrual problems. But what brought me down was amoebic dysentery. They decided to evacuate me in March 1967. On my flight, a Peace Corps doctor accompanied me back to the East Coast.
Many we had not talked to in 50-some years. They were all willing to come back and do it again.
Three weeks later, the Peace Corps asked if I’d like to go train for India. I said, I’m still sick. They sent me to a doctor at George Washington University Hospital. I was still seeing him for a year.
I felt Peace Corps was the best experience I’ve ever had. Financially, it was a problem. We were paid $150 a month in Turkey; that wasn’t enough to live on. I bought a bed but had to return it before I left, because I hadn’t fully paid for it. Then we were paid $150 per month at home. That didn’t go far with renting an apartment in Washington, D.C. My mom helped; she understood a little better than my dad why I was doing this.
I loved the commercial that said: Is the glass half empty? Or is the glass half full? The Peace Corps person believes it’s always half full. In February 2021, I set out to find the 35 people in our group. In September, my site mate and I hosted a Zoom meeting; of the 30 people still alive, 17 participated. Many we had not talked to in 50-some years. They were all willing to come back and do it again.
Photo: Ron and pet rabbit devour a book. Courtesy Ron Bloch
In 1966, when I graduated from college, I had a choice between the U.S. Army and Peace Corps. I chose the Peace Corps. We went to Puerto Rico to learn Spanish, and I was sent to Venezuela. There were 400 Volunteers there.
I was assigned to work in the high-rise slums of Caracas — some 80 buildings, and 5,000 people in my building alone. I got involved in community development. I was there 18 months out of 24.
Congress was debating whether military service and Peace Corps service should be equal. I was a test case; it went all the way to the presidential board, and I was drafted.
I became a first lieutenant; the army, in their wisdom, assigned me to South Korea in charge of tactical nuclear weapons. All that taught me a lot about flexibility, resilience, and humor.
High-rises in Caracas — where Ron Bloch served with the Peace Corps before the Army cut his service short and sent him to Korea. Photo by Ron Bloch.
I had a career in recruiting and outplacement career management, so I’ve offered a service to returned Volunteers reviewing résumés. I’ve helped over 4,000 so far. I keep, in my office, postcards they have sent from around the world — the only thing I ask for.
WE SHARE SOME SAD NEWS from December 28, 2021: Ron Bloch passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. He dedicated literally thousands of hours to supporting fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. We’re tremendously grateful for his work and care, and he will be deeply missed.
I was part of group 54. I arrived in August 2019 and was teaching in Mohyliv-Podilskyi in south-central Ukraine. I was evacuated because of COVID-19 in March 2020. The evacuation process itself was about four days in Kyiv, trying to figure out when we’d be able to find a flight back to the United States. Countries were shutting down airports.
When all that happened, I was just getting into a groove, feeling connected with my community, students, and colleagues. I was in Kharkiv when I found out about evacuation; I texted my host family: I’m leaving. I’m sorry. I don’t know if guilt is the right word for what I was feeling; it was frustrating and upsetting.
I arrived in Ohio, and the next day things went into a full shutdown. Everyone was experiencing culture shock in the U.S. I struggled with the economic tailspin. I was sitting in my quarantine hotel, thinking, What am I going to do? We were watching opportunities shut down.
Peace Corps and National Peace Corps Association did a good job hosting lots of virtual events, providing résumé help. Some graduate schools extended their application deadlines. I ended up going to grad school in international relations at University of Chicago. I wrote my thesis on Euromaidan and Ukrainian civil society. I am also involved in the RPCV Alliance for Ukraine, trying to continue those connections between the U.S. and Ukraine.
I work as a senior programs associate for Venture for America. Being able to communicate about things that are very difficult, dealing with people who have different cultural norms — that helped a lot when I was job searching. I would also say rely on the Peace Corps network. My friends were the best.
Guyana 2017–19; South Africa 2020
I was inspired by my mother to serve in the Peace Corps; she was a Volunteer in Botswana 2010–12. After serving in Guyana, I applied to go to South Africa and arrived January 2020. I was just at the end of pre-service training when the evacuation happened. It was about 36 hours from when we found out until we were on a plane.
I did have quite a bit of culture shock coming back — especially because of a scarcity mindset in the U.S. Compared to where I had been, there was abundance. We have running water, electricity, I have a flush toilet. I feel like I’m living in the lap of luxury. It was very confusing.
I did have quite a bit of culture shock coming back — especially because of a scarcity mindset in the U.S. Compared to where I had been, there was abundance. It was very confusing.
Peace Corps did a lot of outreach about volunteer and employment opportunities. The organization I’m supporting, as a crisis counselor for survivors of sexual assault, I found through that outreach. But after I closed my service in Guyana, I had a real struggle with mental and emotional health. Resources Peace Corps had were completely insufficient and hard to access. I’m in Oakland, California; there were a lot of providers on the list they provided. No one I called knew how they ended up on that list, and they wouldn’t take the Peace Corps insurance. I contacted Peace Corps; the response was dismissive. We hope you figure it out. I hope that changes in RPCV healthcare include a boost in mental health support and reevaluating that list of providers.
This story appears in the 60th-anniversary edition of WorldView magazine.
Story updated January 19, 2022, to correct photo credits.
Evacuated Volunteers and one with half a century of leadership experience in conversation see more
Evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers and one with half a century of leadership experience in conversation. The big question: How can we transform this moment in Peace Corps history?
On July 18, 2020, National Peace Corps Association hosted Peace Corps Connect to the Future, a global ideas summit. Four Volunteers joined NPCA President Glenn Blumhorst in conversation to discuss their experiences — and tackle some questions about how the believe Peace Corps — and the Peace Corps community — needs to change. Here’s the discussion — with video highlights throughout. And a video of the full conversation.
Marieme Foote, Evacuated RPCV | Benin 2018–20
Rok Locksley, Evacuated RPCV | Philippines 2018–20
Juana Bordas | RPCV Chile 1966–68
In conversation with
Glenn Blumhorst, President & CEO, NPCA | RPCV Guatemala 1988–91
Marieme Foote: I'm a second generation Peace Corps Volunteer who was evacuated due to COVID-19 from Benin, where I served in the agricultural field from 2019-2020. First, as others have done before me today, I would like to start off by sharing condolences: Congressmen John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were giants during the Civil Rights Movement and should continue to serve as an inspiration for our current conversation. Congressman John Lewis said, "Never be afraid to make some noise and get in trouble, necessary trouble."
If you want NPCA and the Peace Corps to move into a better future, we need to push for radical shifts in order to continue to push the envelope. If not, we risk losing Peace Corps to time.
So to start off, I will also introduce some of the panelists that I've worked with. When we returned from getting evacuated, we formed a group with Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS) and we created a report that received over 450 responses on the experiences of evacuated Volunteers. And we’ve used this report to advocate to Congress on behalf of volunteers for PUA, healthcare, and other different topics.
I'm joined by Rok Locksley. Rok volunteered in the Philippines as a coral reef preservation Volunteer from 2018 to 2020. He also served in Moldova from 2005 to 2008, and was a Peace Corps recruiter from 2009 to 2016. And we're also joined by Juana Bordas.
Juana Bordas: Intergenerational leadership is a key thing in all communities of people of color. I'm Juana, and I served in the Peace Corps way back in the ’60s, 1964 to ’66. And I've had an illustrious career since, we might say. It's been 54 years since I was in the Peace Corps. So I do want to share all of the things that have kind of happened since then that were based on my decision, which is a decision all of us made: We made a decision to serve and to and to put our lives in the service of humanity. And I think that's what makes people powerful, has made me powerful, and Peace Corps powerful. I've spent my career building organizations for communities of color, particularly Latinos and Latina women, and also doing work in race and equity and trying to build the compassionate, good society.
Glenn Blumhorst: First I just want to say thank you so much, Marieme. This panel is something I was really looking forward to. As we kind of started talking about this, it seemed like the right way to do this was just to say: This is your panel discussion and make it what you want, and put together something to reflect on all these big ideas that we have — and your thoughts as the next generation of Peace Corps Volunteers. I'm glad you invited me to be a part of the conversation, and I’m really looking forward to hearing your reflections. The questions you put together are really important — not just for you, but for all of us. And I'm looking forward to hearing your answers. This is directed to everyone for a brief response. As we envision the reentry process for Volunteers, what do you think are the most important things to consider when supporting Volunteers in the future post service?
WATCH: Rok Locksley — Lessons from Reentry
Difficulty Upon Reentry
Rok Locksley: I'll take that one. I served in ’05-’08 and then I served again in ’18 to ’20, so I was evacuated. But the first time that I finished my service, I came back into the 2008 economic depression. I started doing a lot of research, especially when I went to work for the agency. (Thank you, Jody Olson, for helping me get a job, back when we had an RPCV Career Center, to make all that happen!) Peace Corps has known for a very long time that returned Volunteers have had more difficulty upon reentry, rather than going into service. In fact, the Peace Corps like itself termed “reentry” in a paper in the ’90s. They took it from the NASA program, because reentry is recognized as a very difficult process — as difficult as as leaving the earth.
There was a paper written in the ’90s called "Psychological and Readjustment Problems Associated with Emergency Evacuation of Peace Corps Volunteers." That really nailed down what some of the problems were. This is where we started to see that Peace Corps, recognizing through its own surveys and own research, that Volunteers were having trouble with reentry to start with — but then evacuated Volunteers were seeing double the amount of difficulties.
So, 265 Volunteers were evacuated from Liberia, Philippines, and Yemen. The evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers coined the term that this was a "crisis of reentry." Fifty-one percent of all RPCVs found reentry very difficult, and that was the highest difficulty rating on the survey. All evacuees from this 1990s survey got a debriefing conference as part of Close of Service (COS), and that's how they got these surveys. Basically, the stats are: 30 percent of RPCVs experienced some sort of depression, where 60 percent of evacuated Volunteers experience depression. Then we see the stats doubling: 30 percent for a feeling of disorientation; 12 percent for periods of crying; 39 percent for a difficult transition back; 26 percent difficulty making decisions; 15 percent reported avoidance of thinking about Peace Corps as an experience; and 12 percent reported disturbing dreams. Take all those percentages and double them, and that's generally what evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers have been dealing with.
We are given three months of training to integrate into a community. At best we're given a three-day Close of Service conference to readjust to the States, but then no real support from the agency when we land.
We are given three months of training to integrate into a community. At best we're given a three-day COS conference to readjust to the States, but then no real support from the agency when we land. And especially with the discontinuation of RPCV Career Center, pretty much all we have is our RPCV groups and NPCA to help us make this transition. What we need to do is really provide a landing pad for RPCVs — because we know it's difficult. The agency knows it's difficult. And I think there are two ways to do this.
The first is that we have to flood the world with our stories. We have to talk about return on investment on Volunteers, and how do we measure that. But our greatest return on investment is the stories of Peace Corps Volunteers. So, if you don't have the fact that you are a Peace Corps Volunteer in your staff file at work, put it in there. When I was interviewing people [as a recruiter], the most common response to my question "How did you hear about Peace Corps?" was: a teacher, my parents, or I had a friend that served, my uncle or aunt served. So people were coming to us not because of our recruitment efforts, commercials, or radio spots; they were coming to us because of one-on-one connections that they'd had with people who shared these very beautiful, very intimate stories.
Our stories are really our greatest resource. We need to be sharing those at all opportunities. That's so that we can both inspire people into service, and then when they return, they know to look for RPCV groups who can help them find jobs and help them make this transition, so we can start to minimize that trauma.
WATCH: Juana Bordas — Peace Corps taught us leadership
Peace Corps Taught Us Leadership
Juana Bordas: I would take a little bit of a different perspective, I think. What I do today is I teach leadership, and I learned it in the Peace Corps. Futurists say there are two trends, two shifts, that we're going through. One is to become a global community, which we do by being in the Peace Corps. The second one is to create the inclusive, diverse, and equitable society. In other words, we're moving towards a multicultural society and world. The young millennials and the generation after them are already there. And I think we reframe the Peace Corps as something that taught us leadership, that made us global citizens, that made us inclusive and able to relate and embrace people of all cultures and ethnic groups and ages and generations, etc.
In the ’90s, I worked with National Peace Corps Association to do a leadership program for Peace Corps Volunteers that were re-entering. But I've been listening some, and I think one of the things that's so important is for us to empower ourselves to understand — because when I came back from the Peace Corps, I went to get my first job, and I had this portfolio because I had been doing micro-enterprise work with women way back then. I had all this stuff, and I go to get interviewed, and the guy stops me and he says, "I'm really sorry, but we only hire people that have a master's degree in social work." This was the state of Wisconsin. Well, this was absolutely bizarre to me. I'm the first person in my family to graduate from college. My mother had a fifth-grade education. I thought this was ridiculous. And I had just come back from the Third World where I thought I had made a contribution. So I slammed my papers on the floor, and I said, "You don't understand. I was born to be a social worker. I was born to do this." And he looks at me and he says, "We can go down to the University of Wisconsin, we'll help you get a master's degree if you'll come back to work for us."
“Guess what? I’m a global citizen. I’ve made contributions across this globe. I’m inclusive. I love culture. I’m here to build this new world that's coming.”
Now, I understand I had certain privilege there for the first time in my life, because I am Latina and I was able to speak Spanish, etc. But I had that sense of empowerment that I got through the Peace Corps. And I invite everyone just to stop for a minute to realize that, yes, it's difficult to come back, particularly under these circumstances. But I think the most important thing we can do as Peace Corps Volunteers is to have that banner that says: "Guess what? I'm a global citizen. I've made contributions across this globe. I'm inclusive. I love culture. I'm here to build this new world that's coming."
Especially today, with our problems in foreign policy, with our problems with the current administration, the work we need to do in the future is absolutely more critical. The other thing I'd like to say is that I've been at this for over 50 years. So it's not, I'm coming back from the Peace Corps and what I'm going to do. It's our lifelong commitment to building peace in the world.
Marieme Foote: I think that what we've all realized, even when we created the WCAPS report: Facebook and social media was definitely huge for us, in terms of bridging those connections. In the future, looking at ways that we can formalize those places where we can get information — a lot of RPCVs were offering help, therapy sessions, all types of help. If you're not on Facebook, you wouldn't know; or if you're not in these specific chats, you wouldn't know. So figuring out how can we get all of this information to all of these groups of Volunteers that need it — I think is definitely something that will be important when considering reentry for the future.
What does the future recruitment process look like?
Glenn Blumhorst: Thank you all. It's really great how a community comes together like that organically and helps, and that's what we saw emerge during the evacuation: when the group started forming and talking amongst themselves, and then also speaking with us and helping share with us what their needs and expectations were from the community, from NPCA, and from Peace Corps. So, thank you. Shifting a little bit to recruitment now, the question here is: How were you recruited? What does the future recruitment process need to look like? We've heard some ideas earlier today, but from your perspectives, what would it look like? There is another question that's really mostly for Juana: How can Peace Corps focus its efforts to recruit members who may be experiencing the crab syndrome? I think we'll kick it over to Rok first, if you don't mind, and then go from there.
Rok Locksley: I think, you know, it goes back to the question that was brought up earlier on one of the report outs: Where's the "peace" in Peace Corps, right? For me, peace is not like harmony and no conflict. It is absolutely a place of conflict, difficult questions, expanding our comfort zones, learning about other people and our world that we exist in — those are all peaceful things. What breaks the peace is when we have a disagreement that leads to some sort of violence. So I think that Peace Corps having healthy conversations about how they're going to recruit in the future — the question I was asked a lot as a recruiter was, “What is the Peace Corpse?” Right? So my thing is, like, let's not be the Peace Corpse, because that's not good! We're definitely the Peace Corps, right?
Let’s not be the Peace Corpse, because that’s not good! We’re definitely the Peace Corps, right?
I remember as a recruiter 10 years ago, when we first started our big initiative with the Office of Diversity and Inclusion to recruit at Historically Black Colleges and Universities and start increasing our diversity numbers. I was sitting around in a conference room with a bunch of other recruiters; most of us were white, and there was one Black recruiter. And we were talking about strategies of: How do we recruit Black people? Or how do we recruit persons of color and Latino community members? How do we recruit these? How do we talk to these people? And then we were saying, We need to get this Black recruiter to come with us on campus to talk to the Divine Nine, or to talk to the different university groups. And he looks at us and he says, That is like — I recruit on white universities, right? You don't need to be a certain race or color to go recruit these people. But that, it was such an enlightening moment for me — and such a moment where I realized: Even in the Peace Corps, even working as a recruiter, my privileges, and my blinders are so on. Here is this guy — he was laughing at us, like, this is so ridiculous. And that was 10 years ago, when we first started doing it. So recruitment has a long way to go. And it's full of these difficult conversations and lots of apologies.
Glenn Blumhorst: Marieme, you're a child of a Peace Corps Volunteer yourself. Can you share a little bit from that perspective?
WATCH: Marieme Foote — How will Peace Corps and NPCA shift?
Marieme Foote: For me, it's like Peace Corps has always been something that I've always considered as something that I would do, because my father served in Peace Corps in Ethiopia and in Eritrea. I'm one of the few that has that connection, I think. And the fact that there were lower numbers of Volunteers that are people of color, that are Black, Latina — they don't have that kind of connection as other white Volunteers might have. So it's really important to also see how that could affect recruitment.
The other question that I have in terms of recruitment is looking overall at the mission of Peace Corps. When Peace Corps was first created, it was an exciting thing. It was something that was radical, really. And as we go forward and the population in the U.S. changes and a new generation comes about — they're dual national, they're all types of different backgrounds. They also have different expectations, and what they want to do and what they want to be a part of. They're questioning neocolonialism. They're having a lot of questions about Peace Corps overall. So how will Peace Corps and NPCA shift? I know even questions about joining NPCA; a lot of Volunteers that I know that are Black or Asian, or people of color, don't feel like NPCA or Peace Corps is for them. So, how do we expand that discussion and make them also feel like they are a part of this as well? You know, even for me, without the work with WCAPS, I'm not sure if I would have been as involved with NPCA. So I feel like that is a concern that I have, at least for recruitment and getting people involved with NPCA and Peace Corps.
Glenn Blumhorst: Thank you so much, Marieme. I really appreciate that, because I do believe that it's incumbent upon us to help create a more inclusive and welcoming community here on the part of NPCA for the Peace Corps, the greater Peace Corps community. Juana, did you have anything to add about the question specifically for you related to crab syndrome?
Juana Bordas: Yeah, but I also wanted to go back to some of the discussion I was listening to, to talk about coalition building and partnerships, particularly with communities of color. Because I think the association itself, for example, the Hispanic Association for Colleges and Universities that serves Hispanic-serving organizations, or the NAACP or some of the other organizations and in our communities that serve people of color — because it's through those organizations, not only can you learn and exchange and grow your power base and your numbers, but it also gives you an entree into into young — well, they don't have to be young, but into people of color that want to serve in this way. The other thing I would like to say about it is that servant leadership — and leadership as service and as social change — are absolutely pivotal in communities of color.
Leadership as service and as social change are absolutely pivotal in communities of color.
When I joined the Peace Corps, I actually joined the year that John F. Kennedy was killed. There was this tremendous upheaval in our communities about what we could do to support this vision that he had: about young people going and learning about the world and contributing. Today we have similar kinds of reasons for us to be able to go global and to try to help and work with communities. Of course, we all know we learn more than we get.
The crab syndrome, for people that don't know what it is: It's when when you grow up marginalized when you grow up in a society that does not validate your people, your history, your background, who you are, your incredible contributions to this country — you develop what's called the psychology of oppression. In other words, you begin to internalize the negative messages that society has put forth. And that's why identity building and learning our history — we have Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month, and all of that, because you have to integrate that into the American fabric if we're truly going to have a multicultural society. Where it comes in with the Peace Corps — well, first of all, I want to say that if you have that sense of ... All I wanted to do when I graduated from college was to give back, because I've been given so much. I'm an immigrant. I came here, I became educated. And so I had that sense of service, which I think is pivotal in communities of color. That's how we've gotten where we are, is to collaborate to help one another, and to serve.
This whole idea of service is a key thing for communities of color. Growing up, I didn't know I was smart; how could I know I was smart if I didn't know the language when I entered school? If I didn't understand the system? (And I do now, by the way.) So you begin to think everybody in your community is not smart — because I didn't have professors, teachers, Congresspeople. So that's the crab syndrome. What can I do? And am I good enough? Are my people not capable of doing it? Identity building becomes really important.
There are so many issues in communities of color that we're kind of caught in the crossfire. So the Peace Corps, in order to be able to really attract leaders in communities of color — for example, DACA students, which would be another political thing, but they're brilliant young people that are dealing with so many issues, and when they come to school, they are so talented. But then they’ve got to deal with immigration in this country. They've got to deal with homelessness. They have to deal with low-income wages, they have to deal with the cost of college education for kids. Somehow the Peace Corps has to be relevant to the many dynamic, critical issues that we face — and connect.
What I learned in Chile I was able to bring back and help start a center for Latina women that had a business center; that followed the micro-enterprise principles I worked on in Peace Corps. So it's that weaving together of the needs and challenges in communities of color. It's building those partnerships. It's making the Peace Corps relevant, and an experience that you can bring back to enrich your own community. And at the same time, for Anglos that come back from the Peace Corps, you need to join organizations and become multicultural yourself so that we can start building those bridges across communities and and fulfill our Third Goal.
What will future generations need?
Glenn Blumhorst: Absolutely, thank you so much, Juana. We've touched a lot here already on diversity and inclusion. But let's drill down on that a little bit more. For each of you, how will diversity and inclusion impact the Peace Corps in the future? And in that, what will the future generation need? How can you answer that?
WATCH: Marieme Foote — How do we not just recruit but retain Volunteers of color?
Marieme Foote: We're looking at stats for Peace Corps. You see diversity — at least the rates of Volunteers that are serving from different backgrounds — are going up and up. However, there isn't really any support in place for a lot of them. And we're also seeing that ET [early termination] rates for those volunteers of color are significantly higher than their white counterparts. So these are the questions that we really we need to be looking at and saying, Why is this the case? It's not just about recruitment. It's about how do we also retain these volunteers? How do we keep them interested? How do we get them involved with NPCA? And how do we do all of that?
Right now, there's great work that Volunteers are doing. I know that there are letters that Volunteers have written to their country offices on racism and discrimination that are going around in the community. Volunteers of color are creating group chats — WhatsApp chats, Facebook groups. They have all of these resources, but they're not compiled in one place. So it's hard for volunteers to have access to all of these things. And it's important for us as well. So I'm thinking about creating seminars, creating spaces for these Volunteers to meet each other, to meet other people who are older, other RPCVs who are working in different types of fields, so that they can get also motivated and feel like Peace Corps and NPCA are for them. So pushing for that, I think and holding NPCA and Peace Corps accountable for that, is something that we all have to do and be responsible for. Which is why it's also so important for Volunteers to get organized and actually advocate — and push these institutions.
Glenn Blumhorst: A great point, Marieme, thank you so much. Because that's what we are — a community-driven organization. And all we do, it should respond to the community and the expectations that you set for us. We're going to move on to the next question — penultimate question. What are the potential barriers you see to joining the Peace Corps or NPCA? How can that impact future Volunteers? So, Rok, do you want to start it off with that one?
WATCH: Rok Locksley — “For me to clear medical cost $6,000.”
Rok Locksley: There's a lot of barriers. For me, personally coming in at 40 years old, for me to clear medical cost $6,000. At the point I had quit my job to join Peace Corps. So I was unemployed and pretty much homeless. I was one backpacking through different countries, but I had no home of record in the United States. So getting back to the States and having to rely on other services, because I had no medical insurance: It was a $6,000 that we just put on our credit cards and then paid off with our readjustment allowance. So that's a major barrier. I know I'm older, I've had some medical issues, but the costs involved with the medical application alone is is prohibitive.
Glenn Blumhorst: Thank you, Rok. I think that's something we don't think much about — the cost involved for many individuals, particularly if we're not young and as healthy as we were before. Thank you for bringing that perspective to this. Let me ask just for one another person maybe to chime in on that question, and then we'll move to the last question.
Juana Bordas: Well, if I had had to pay $6,000 for medical, I wouldn't have been in the Peace Corps. You know, I had no money. Now students are graduating with debt. So, again, going back to leadership and communities of color, we need to dedicate ourselves to public change, public policy change. This cannot be — that people have to pay. When I found out that happened, because two of my Latino friends joined, I was shocked that it — and that it took so long, because the process wasn't like that in the past. And I think some of these barriers are just ways to not expand the Peace Corps to where it should be at this time, in this multicultural age.
Financial barriers are one of the most significant things that we need to look at — to remove them so that anybody and everybody who wants to serve can, regardless of their economic situation.
Glenn Blumhorst: Thank you Juana. Financial barriers are, I think, one of the most significant things that we need to look at — to remove them so that anybody and everybody who wants to serve can, regardless of their economic situation. The question we want to ask all of you is: What do you envision the future Peace Corps Volunteer values to be?
WATCH: Marieme Foote — “If we really, really do care about Peace Corps … we also have to be open to changing Peace Corps.”
Marieme Foote: If you look at the next generation, you see even the Black Lives Matter movement, you saw, at least when I went, you saw a huge amount of the next generation there present. And they're calling for change. They're calling for accountability, and all of these things. And if Peace Corps and NPCA and these organizations don't shift, they won't exist.
If Peace Corps and NPCA don’t shift, they won’t exist.
So, if we really, really do care about Peace Corps, we want Peace Corps to exist and to continue, and we care about the mission, we also have to be open to changing Peace Corps and making these radical changes — or also we'll not exist, because the next generation won't accept it. Even when I was joining Peace Corps, I had a lot of questions from my friends: “Why are you joining this organization? You know, there's not a lot of people of color there. It's mostly white people.” There was a lot of just preconceived ideas of what my Peace Corps experience would be. And there was a lot of fear of joining it, and being a part of a neocolonialist [enterprise] — and so if Peace Corps really does want to exist, I think that it does need to shift from the foundation in terms of its mission statement and what it does — and how it does it — is my opinion.
Glenn Blumhorst: Thanks, Marieme, that's a really powerful statement. And I take that to heart, because I think you're absolutely right: If we don't shift, we will not exist. And that's food for thought, very important for us.
WATCH: Rok Locksley — “If Peace Corps wants to remain this cutting edge social justice thing, it cannot remain reactive, as it has been.”
Rok Locksley: OK Peace Corps, the first groups were Kennedy's kids, right? Shriver's kids. And if Kennedy was building Camelot, then Peace Corps is his Excalibur. It was the best thing that was created, and it was on the edge of social justice and change. Now, we know like it's sort of steeped in neocolonialism, white savior complex, those sort of things. But you know, most people didn't have those terminologies back then. But if Peace Corps wants to remain this cutting edge social justice thing, it cannot remain reactive, as it has been. It can't just wait for and prepare for the worst case scenario and be quiet. And during our evacuation, that's all the EPCVs have experienced, is quietness. Our main source of our cutting edge Excalibur has been Facebook. I mean, we need the agency; we want to support you. This thing has hurt us. We gave our lives to this organization, and our hearts are in it. And we believe in social justice and change. So I just want to see Peace Corps return to its roots of being this cutting edge of social justice and change. And I think embracing that would lead to a revolutionary new wave of applicants whose hearts are full, who are young and active and ready to serve — and really, really get to the core of the agency, which is world peace and friendship.
If Kennedy was building Camelot, then Peace Corps is his Excalibur. It was the best thing that was created, and it was on the edge of social justice and change.
Glenn Blumhorst: Juana, I'm going to ask if you have any last words of wisdom or wisdom for us.
Juana Bordas: I just want to say is that we are the association. We are the Peace Corps. You know, I served on the board of NPCA for six years, I developed the leadership program for the association. We want to continue engaging; it's not somebody doing it for us. It's each one of us making that long-term commitment. I want to say it for everybody who's been out in the demonstrations, who's been out there trying to make this change: Keep it up. Because as an elder, I did that in the ’60s. You know, I did that for women, for the Vietnam War, for civil rights, and then there weren't that many people marching.
My last thing is: We have to do this. It's a lifelong commitment. It's up to each one of us. The Peace Corps has prepared us to be leaders in this new global and international and multicultural age. So I would like to see us say, Yes, each one of us is going to step up our commitment. Yes, each one of us decides we're going to do this, we're going to reach out to other communities, we're going to join organizations that aren't white, if we're white; we're going to join different organizations from different perspectives. And we're going to keep this going. And I think it does take an advocacy commitment for all of us to do our part in creating the future.
Glenn Blumhorst: Thank you so much, Juana. That's a great way to end this conversation. I want to thank especially the evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers for organizing this panel, and inviting Juana and myself to be a part of it as well. I've really enjoyed getting to know all of you over the last several weeks and working with you and a number of other evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers. This has just really been a highlight for me. Though I am pained with the way that your service was interrupted and you had to come home, I'm just really amazed at how you have rallied around as a community and supported each other and helped drive the conversations that we're having today. So thank you all so much.
Story updated November 9, 2020.
A group to link evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers with the help they need see more
A group to link evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers with the help they need. Sometimes that’s just someone to listen — and hear.
By Steven Boyd Saum
The day after Peace Corps informed Volunteers around the globe that they were being evacuated, a new group took shape to help them: Returned Peace Corps COVID-19 Evacuation Support [Community-Generated] was launched by returned Volunteer Joshua Johnson. The group had 200 members within the first hour. By the end of the day on March 16 that number had grown to 2,000. Soon nearly 10,000 returned Volunteers and parents joined. And a dozen administrators began to chip in to manage it.
There were outpourings of sympathy and dismay and immediate offers of help: A place to stay for self-quarantine in Boston or Tucson, Baltimore or Seattle, Central Pennsylvania or East Tennessee. A welcome home and a ride from the airport in Washington or Syracuse, Columbus or LAX (with free air hugs). A grocery run in New York. Questions about what’s the status of Volunteers evacuating from Ethiopia and Morocco, Indonesia and Panama.
Evacuations differed country by country, and so did instructions from country directors. So questions for the group were legion: about readjustment allowances and benefits, health insurance and reimbursement for those having to self-quarantine in a hotel. There were questions about pets: bringing cats and dogs back home. One wanted to know about transporting his machete. Amid economic meltdown, there were many questions about unemployment and would the evacuated Volunteers be eligible? After all, they were not technically “employees.”
What they were, per a new community-generated acronym: ERPCVs, for Evacuated Returned Peace Corps Volunteers.
Pin our hopes: The community offered places to stay and airport rides, financial help and comfort. Sometimes it was the little things, like lost and found—a Botswana pin scooped from an airport floor in Doha. Photo by Carrie Cowan Angell
There were differences in status: Some were initially placed on administrative hold. Ultimately, all were COS’d — a verbification of the acronym for “close of service.” That status unlocked benefits that otherwise would not have been available to Volunteers kept on hold. But it felt like a gut punch to many. And it led to this Washington Post headline: “The Peace Corps isn’t just bringing home 7,300 volunteers because of the coronavirus. It’s firing them.” Not exactly. But there was this: To formally COS, Volunteers needed medical checkups, which had to be done back home; nationally, non-critical medical appointments were on hiatus.
The Facebook group provided updates and advice; it steered members to the latest news and programs from National Peace Corps Association, as well as new policies rolled out by the Peace Corps agency. Group members have provided job help and resume reviews, interview tips and advice for grad school, opportunities for community service to help battle the pandemic here at home. It became a place to connect as many took to the streets to protest against racial injustice. In June it carried news that evacuated Volunteers could now apply for reinstatement or re-enrollment.
Joshua Johnson, who served as a Volunteer in The Gambia 2009–11, started the group with other RPCVs because they realized they didn’t need to wait for someone else to take action — they could help by bringing the community together and centralizing resources. “Leaving Peace Corps after months of preparation was difficult enough,” Johnson says. “I can only imagine what it is like to be so quickly pulled out of site.”
“Responding to an emergency situation by coming together as a community gets to the heart of Peace Corps values, and really is what we have trained for.” —Joshua Johnson
Joshua Johnson and family. Photo courtesty Joshua Johnson
And Johnson says the kindness he has witnessed has been inspiring. “In reality, responding to an emergency situation by coming together as a community gets to the heart of Peace Corps values, and really is what we have trained for. In the face of an uncertain situation, and with limited resources, we are able to use our creativity and resourcefulness to come together to make sure that everyone is taken care of.”
The group has also been a platform for ideas. “What has really given me the most hope is seeing how the evacuating Volunteers have responded to this,” Johnson says. “Yes, there have been many moments of grief or frustration shared, but I also see a lot of hope as Volunteers have found ingenious ways to continue their project work, and continue to connect with their communities.”
Tasha Prados (Peru 2011–13) contributed to this story.
Quick Take: Peace Corps Efforts to Help Evacuated Volunteers
Volunteer Ana Santos, evacuated from Rwanda
Providing evacuation and readjustment allowances, a wellness stipend, extended health insurance, health and quarantine instructions and resources, information and webinars for federal government job opportunities, job postings for other private sector positions, and graduate school options. Volunteers who were evacuated qualify for Non-Competitive Eligibility (or NCE), which makes it easier from them to join the federal workforce. They qualify for Coverdell Fellowships available for graduate school study. Volunteers who seek to return to their host countries or seek a new assignment will be given expedited consideration over the next year.
Nearly all evacuating Volunteers are finishing Virtual Completion of Service conferences, which provide training to assist Volunteers with their transition back to the United States and allow closure of activities in their countries of service. Courses through LearningSpace, the agency’s internal online learning management system, are already online, with more in the works to help returning Volunteers: prepare for employment; maintain health and well-being; understand COVID-19; and learn the future process for returning to service once circumstances allow.
Federal agency webinars: Thirty and counting to introduce the work of their agencies, especially as it relates to COVID-19 response. Many more have asked to host a webinar and/or present for a second and third time. Hundreds of evacuated Volunteers have participated in each of these events. The Office of Personnel Management has hosted eight sessions covering themes related to working in the federal government, showcasing opportunities available across the country, discussing how to prepare a successful federal resume and navigate USAJobs for their job search. Hundreds of evacuees have benefited. Bulletins that provide answers to pressing concerns and questions and direct Volunteers to an increasing number of resources available from the Peace Corps and other partners and sources, such as the National Peace Corps Association, RPCV Support Groups, Rotary International, universities offering tuition discounts, and hoteliers offering lodging discounts. New info posted daily.
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An invitation to listen, learn — and roll up our sleeves see more
An invitation to listen, learn — and roll up our sleeves.
By Steven Boyd Saum
Let’s start with a story about an invitation. There’s that historic letter from JFK below, sent to the first would-be Volunteers. And let me tell you about Laurel Hunt, a recent engineering grad from University of Minnesota, and the years of Peace Corps service she has yet to undertake in Peru, working with a community on health and sanitation. Return to March 2020: “Friday the 13th was my last day at work,” Hunt writes. “As I packed up my desk that afternoon, I got a phone call from Washington, D.C. A frazzled-sounding Peace Corps employee told me that my Peru 35 group would be delayed at least 30 days.”
COVID-19 was burning its way across the globe, countries shuttering airports and closing borders. Two days later, Peace Corps announced a global evacuation of all Volunteers.
Peace Corps was something Laurel Hunt had her heart set on since junior high. While earning her engineering degree, she co-founded and served as president of Out in STEM. “As a queer woman in engineering, I’m used to feeling out of place,” she says. Peace Corps would no doubt bring more of that sense of displacement, in ways humbling and unexpected — and, so the story goes, lessons in patience, flexibility, resilience.
“I don’t know what my future holds, and the uncertainty is tough,” Hunt wrote a year ago. “For right now, all I can do now is wait, support my community, and wash my hands. I’m incredibly fortunate to have a safe place to stay and enough savings to make it through a few months in limbo.”
On her blog she wrote with admiration about returned Volunteers who, as the global evacuation was taking place, rallied to help the evacuees. There was a Facebook group focused on providing that support; within days, its membership swelled to 6,000 members, and then 14,000. Hunt pitched in as an administrator for the group.
She hoped, as so many did, that the pandemic might be tamed — and that Volunteers would return to their sites later in the year. By summer it was clear that wouldn’t happen. Hunt took a job at a seafood processor in Alaska for a few months. She returned to Minnesota. The firm where she had been working offered her a job again, while she waited to hear when she might begin Peace Corps service.
“The uncertainty is tough,” wrote would-be Volunteer Laurel Hunt. So she established a group to support others in the same boat: Peace Corps Invitees in Limbo.
Many hundreds of others were in the same boat, waiting. So Hunt formed a Facebook group to give them a place to share updates (what’s the latest on departure for your country?) and to offer advice and support and a shared sense of what it was to be living with this uncertainty while other forces in life exerted their gravitational pull. Hunt christened the group Peace Corps Invitees in Limbo.
When the first Peace Corps Volunteers received their letters of invitation from President Kennedy 60 years ago, they were embarking on something uncertain and new. When Volunteers arrive once more in countries around the world, the communities and individuals who serve there will begin a journey very different from what has come before. I have heard from one of my former students — Olena Halapchuk-Tarnavska, who is now on the faculty at Lesya Ukrainka Volyn National University in western Ukraine and who has been training incoming groups of Volunteers for years — that they are eager for Volunteers to return. Those sentiments have been heard from every country where Volunteers were serving. But how things will be different remains to be seen.
When the first Peace Corps Volunteers received their letters of invitation from President Kennedy 60 years ago, they were embarking on something uncertain and new. When Volunteers arrive once more in countries around the world, the communities and individuals who serve there will begin a journey very different from what has come before.
As we mark the 60th anniversary of Peace Corps beginnings, in the spring 2021 edition of WorldView we also lean hard on what Peace Corps might be — and what place it has in a changed world. And not only Peace Corps, because this audacious endeavor — independent from the exponentially larger USAID and State Department, thanks to the vision and efforts of the early architects of the agency — does not exist in a vacuum. Which brings us to the words on our cover: The Time Is Now! For what? To commit as never before to a sense of service with a sense of solidarity, building up communities across the United States and around the world, fostering the personal connections that deepen our awareness and understanding — of shared humanity, of what equity and justice mean, and, for better or for worse, a common fate on this planet.
The thing about service and solidarity is that these are not a one-and-done commitment, boxes to be checked. For this work, there’s a standing invitation.
Letter image courtesy Maureen Carroll Collection, Peace Corps Community Archive, American University Archives and Special Collections
Steven Boyd Saum is editor of WorldView and director of strategic communications for National Peace Corps Association. He served as a Volunteer in Ukraine 1994–96.Write him.
This essay appears in the spring 2021 edition of WorldView magazine. Sign up for a print subscription by joining National Peace Corps Association. You can also download the WorldView App for free here: worldviewmagazine.org
A time to honor the past — and commit to a different future see more
A time to honor the past — and commit to a different future
By Glenn Blumhorst
Illustration by Richard Borge
HERE’S A FAMILIAR CELEBRATORY REFRAIN: On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10924, establishing the Peace Corps with the mission of building world peace and friendship. In honor of that beginning, every spring is a time for us to recognize the ways that the Peace Corps has made an impact — in individual lives and in communities around the globe.
But this year is different. And an unprecedented time in so many ways.
One year ago, March brought the global evacuation of Volunteers from communities where they were serving. Communities were bereft, Volunteers heartbroken. Thousands in the Peace Corps community came together in an unparalleled response, assisting evacuated Volunteers in ways big and small. Some of those evacuees were able to help communities across the United States reeling from the pandemic; they began serving as contact tracers, working with food banks, making masks, or later deploying as part of NPCA’s Emergency Response Network in Washington State — and so much more. This May, many begin serving domestically as Peace Corps Response Volunteers, assisting at FEMA community vaccination centers.
Here at National Peace Corps Association, we rapidly launched the Global Reentry Program one year ago — at the outset to focus on the immediate needs of evacuated Volunteers. The program has expanded to provide broader, more robust support for returned Volunteers — such as counseling, mentorship, career advice, and more.
Last summer we convened a series of town halls and a Global Ideas Summit to ask deep and searching questions about the relevance of Peace Corps in a world profoundly altered by COVID-19—and the systemic inequities the pandemic underscored. Drawing on decades of experience and commitment, members of the community offered concrete ways we might reimagine, reshape, and retool the Peace Corps for a changed world.
The report distilled from those conversations, “Peace Corps Connect to the Future,” has provided a road map. Recently it helped shape the most sweeping Peace Corps legislation in decades: the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act of 2021, introduced by Rep. John Garamendi to the House of Representatives on March 1. Garamendi served as a Volunteer in Ethiopia. This legislation calls for important reforms, including addressing better healthcare and providing protection for whistleblowers in the Peace Corps. And it calls for the increase in funding that will be necessary for the Peace Corps to help lead the way in reengaging with a world profoundly changed by COVID-19.
This legislation is one of the concrete ways that the report is yielding results. Several working groups focused on implementing the report—through Congress, the Peace Corps community, affiliate groups, and more — continue their efforts. And in the spring 2021 edition of WorldView magazine, Peace Corps Acting Director Carol Spahn speaks of how the report is already informing work at the agency.
A time of reckoning
In more ways than one, last year also began a time of reckoning for our nation. And it’s far from over. COVID-19 continues to exact a terrible price, even as vaccines are deployed in the United States. Globally, more than 3 million have died. We continue to witness the crushing toll of systemic racism: in terms of healthcare and economic opportunity, and with people of color being victims of hate crimes, as well as far too often violence at the hands of police. The murder of George Floyd last May was a catalyst for protests across the country and the world. Let us hope that the conviction of his murderer is a step forward on the journey toward justice.
“Empower the people,” Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said of Kenya reminded us last summer. “That’s the main aim of the Peace Corps.”
“Empower the people,” Dr. Mohamud Sheikh Nurein Said of Kenya reminded us last summer. “That’s the main aim of the Peace Corps.”
Here at home, as part of our commitment to service, we have asked members of the Peace Corps community to take a stand to support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. We renew those calls for reform.
We know that equity and justice are works in progress. That intentionality matters. That service continues in the communities we call home. And as we look toward the future, we know that it is a sense of solidarity, not charity, that must be the compass by which we steer the Peace Corps.
In this anniversary year, thank you to all who have served. Thank you to the people and communities around the world who have undertaken this work together. And thank you for being willing to show the commitment that we all must in the ongoing work of building peace and friendship. It’s work that’s far from finished.
Glenn Blumhorst is President & CEO of National Peace Corps Association. He welcomes your comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
This story appears in the spring 2021 edition of WorldView magazine. Sign up for a print subscription by joining National Peace Corps Association. You can also download the WorldView App for free here: worldviewmagazine.org
Peace Corps beginnings up to global evacuation in 2020 — and advice for what should be next. see more
Sixty years since the Peace Corps was founded. Beginnings in a troubled world. Amid an unprecedented time, an anniversary like no other. And unfinished business in an age of divisiveness and uncertainty.
In the print edition of WorldView, these photos open a section of the magazine that brings together a few stories of service across the decades. Plus, advice that former Peace Corps directors would share with the current president of the United States. Read. Explore. And share your stories.
1961: Towering Task Edition | Once More, with Feeling | Our Stories Are America’s Stories | “If I had three minutes to talk to President Biden about the Peace Corps…” | Peace Corps Week 2021 | Make It Cool, Make It Last | This Isn’t Over | In it Together
Peace Corps training in Hawai‘i in the 1960s.
Archival photo courtesy Peace Corps
Mangrove reforestation in Panamá, and Elias, a boy fom the community, high-fives Volunteer Bailey Rosen. Her service was cut short by evacuation in March 2020.
Panamá photo by Eli Wittum
Evacuation, some Peace Corps history, and #apush4peace see more
Evacuation, some Peace Corps history, and #apush4peace
When Coronavirus Unmapped the Peace Corps' Journey
Jeffrey Aubuchon (92252 Press)
Reviewed by Jake Arce and Steven Boyd Saum
In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic led to the unprecedented global evacuation of Peace Corps Volunteers. Jeffrey Aubuchon brings together stories of some evacuees chronicled in WorldView: Chelsea Bajek, who was working with a women’s group in Vanuatu; Jim Damico, evacuated from teaching in Nepal; Benjamin Rietmann, yanked from his work with farmers and young entrepreneurs in Dominican Republic; and Stacie Scott, who left behind the community she was serving as a health volunteer in Mozambique.
Aubuchon follows in greater depth two Southern California high school sweethearts, Jacqueline Moore-DesLauriers and Dylan Thompson, who served together in Morocco. In Sefrou (pop. 80,000), on the outskirts of Fez, they taught English classes and hosted a STEMpowerment workshop for girls at the local dar chabab (youth center). They established a girls’ volleyball team that played its first game on March 5. Ten days later, Peace Corps announced its global evacuation.
“Never in the last 40 years has the Association’s mission been more vital.”
The book also serves up some context for 2020 — when each week seemed like a year unto itself. And National Peace Corps Association gets more than a passing nod — particularly its crucial work advocating for evacuated Volunteers, which helped secure additional benefits for them and $88 million in supplemental funding for Peace Corps. “Never in the last 40 years has the Association’s mission been more vital,” Aubuchon writes. “Indeed, on March 16, 2020, NPCA President Glenn Blumhorst released a statement not only voicing support for all of the EPCVs, but also outlining a national plan to coordinate support for these evacuees among the Peace Corps, the NPCA, and the RPCV community itself.”
Aubuchon served as a Volunteer in Morocco 2007–09. “I walked my own Peace Corps journey in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the Casablanca bombings of 2003,” he writes. He applied for and received grant funding to help build four libraries. In fall 2019, he was teaching a course in Advanced Placement U.S. History at a high school in central Massachusetts. A lesson in Cold War history led students to do more than merely talk about global problems; they founded a youth venture — and began raising funds to support Peace Corps Volunteers’ projects. Taking the acronym for the class, APUSH, they hasthtagged their effort #apush4peace. They convinced community members to put up $1,000 in seed funding — and then, through fundraising, more than tripled that, “allowing them to help a PCV in Zambia build a hospital clinic ward and help another build a library in Mozambique.”
Paama Custom Arts Festival: Traditional basket weaving on Vanuatu. Chelsea Bajek worked with these women to launch a business project. Photo by Chelsea Bajek
One of those APUSH students, Olivia Wells, takes over the closing chapter of the book. She observes: “Few people know that there are ways to help educate adolescents in Eswatini (Swaziland) about HIV/AIDS, or to help local farmers in Malawi construct an irrigation system to decrease water erosion on their farmland.”
This is a project that’s meant to give back; one dollar from each copy sold goes to Kiva.org to support microfinance projects, and another dollar goes to support National Peace Corps Association.
As for the stories of the Volunteers who were evacuated: Those journeys continue beyond the pages of the book. For example, Jim Damico, a three-time Volunteer, didn’t wait for Peace Corps to return to Nepal. He went back on his own in January 2021 and has been mentoring teachers. Chelsea Bajek, who was serving in Vanuatu, had successfully applied for a Peace Corps Partnership Program grant to purchase equipment and materials for skill-building workshops at the Paama Women’s Handicraft Center. But those funds were cut off when Bajek was evacuated. Thanks to crowdsourcing and NPCA’s Community Fund, in 2021 that project was fully funded and will, Bajek reports, increase opportunities for women’s economic development and empowerment.
The skateboarding project and learning to paddle together. see more
Nobody wanted it to happen this way. Evacuation stories and the unfinished business of Peace Corps Volunteers around the world.
The Philippines | Diane Glover
Home: Valdosta, Georgia
When Diane Glover arrived in the Philippines in July 2018, it was a sort of homecoming — to the country where she was born and left at age 11. She was raised by her older sister in Washington state and Georgia. “So many people invested in my success,” she says. Returning that investment seemed natural; empowering girls is something she cares about deeply — especially survivors of sexual violence.
She was a youth development Volunteer in Tacloban City on the island of Leyte. She worked with dozens of street children. One effort was the “skateboarding project,” which rented out skateboards — but not for money. The goal was to get kids into the community office and help them learn. Every minute they participated in reading, writing, or gardening bought a minute of skateboarding. The work taught Glover patience: “I can’t necessarily say, ‘I transformed six lives today.’ Most of the time our success — we don’t see that until down the road.”
“I can’t necessarily say, ‘I transformed six lives today.’ Most of the time our success — we don’t see that until down the road.”
Investing in their success: Diane Glover, left, with kids in Tacloban City. Photo by Diane Glover
With six months left, she was worried about cutting it close with the terms of a grant. There was another project proposal — and wouldn’t it be good to extend for a third year? Then came the email.
The islands of the Philippines are scattered over hundreds of miles; evacuation was decentralized. Peace Corps staff flew from Manila to Cebu City to ensure that Volunteers consolidating there got home safely. “They just wanted to support their Volunteers till the very end.”
Crisis brought home a new lesson: Stop worrying about grants and project deadlines. “The evacuation has given us a snap of realization: Your relationship is your success—the relationship that you create in your community.” Yet suddenly that was gone.
The Philippines | Rok Locksley
Home: Chicago, Illinois
Volunteer Rok Locksley, left, supported Nibarie Nicolas in his projects focused on marine resources. Photo courtesy Rok Locksley
I met Nibarie Nicolas just before our swearing-in ceremony in Manila. I knew him as Ban2x (Ban-Ban). He’s mid-twenties, full of energy, curiosity, and infectious joy. He had recently been hired as fisheries technician for the Municipal Office of San Jose in the Visayas region. He was responsible for local marine resources, programs, and events. He was passionate about working with local fisherfolk. And he was assigned to be my counterpart.
I served as a Volunteer in Moldova (2005–08) and worked as a recruiter for Peace Corps before my wife, Genevieve, and I went back as Volunteers in Philippines. I supported Ban2x in his projects: developing a guardhouse for our marine sanctuary, programs for fisherfolk, agro-tourism events, and education about marine resources.
Within minutes of us meeting, Ban2x asked if I liked dragonboating. I had a vague familiarity; I’m an avid whitewater kayaker. He had assembled a dragonboat team from the fisherfolk communities; he was drummer and captain. They had never paddled before as a team, but they spent days and nights on the water in canoes they call sakayans, fishing the Tañon Strait. They borrowed a boat for their first race and blew the competition out of the water.
Dragonboating became a major part of my life. After a day in the office working on marine policies or presentations, Ban2x and I headed to practice. We paddled until sunset, then sat on the beach and watched stars reclaim the sky. We shared thoughts and dreams and life lessons. We ended each night with traditional goodbyes in Binisayan: “Kitakits”—which isn’t so much “goodbye” as “Until we see each other again.”
Genevieve became fast friends with Ban2x’s grandmother. We attended birthday parties and fiestas with his family. He took time to walk me through basic introductions, made sure I knew how to dress for various occasions, who to thank. While he was tasked with protection of the park, he had never donned SCUBA gear to see it underwater. So I arranged for him to get his diving certifications. Our first dive we saw lobsters, turtles, sharks, and stunning coral formations. When we surfaced, I saw the wonder in his eyes.
We created plans for coastal resource management and a marine protected area. We had big ideas for 2020. As January ended and news of the virus spread, we intensified our work. February rolled in fast. March, I could see the writing on the wall. I tried to wrap up projects and spoke with Ban2x at length about what needed to happen professionally if Genevieve and I left.
“When we surfaced, I saw the wonder in his eyes.” Photo by Rok Locksley
The first week in March we went on lockdown. I talked with Ban2x about evacuation. He wasn’t worried. Peace Corps evacuated us in 2019 to Manila when a typhoon came close. We returned a week later. When we got the call for consolidation in mid-March, I knew it would be the end of my service. I asked Ban2x to come over.
He arrived in his usual chipper demeanor. We talked on the porch, then I brought him into the house and started pointing out things he could take, what to give to the fisherfolk. After I showed him our bicycles, it registered on his face that we were truly leaving.
I firmly believe that one-to-one relationships built at a grassroots level between people who are fundamentally different is the best pathway to world peace. But I forgot how much it hurts to leave your friends.
When people talk about Peace Corps, they are quick to mention Volunteers and service. Maybe they get around to speaking about the three goals or cultural exchange. Most people forget about the actual mission of the agency: world peace and friendship. I firmly believe that one-to-one relationships built at a grassroots level between people who are fundamentally different is the best pathway to world peace. But I forgot how much it hurts to leave your friends.
Ban2x showed up at our house early the next day. He brought his family car to shuttle us to the seaport. We were on the last boat out. We loaded our bags. He pledged to look after our dog. We hung around the port until the last possible minute. Then I grabbed my dragonboat paddle and turned for one last look at my best friend. “It’s not goodbye,” I said, “just until we see each other again.”
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The Director of Peace Corps chronicles the events that led to an unprecedented global evacuation see more
The Director of the Peace Corps chronicles the events that led to an unprecedented global evacuation of Volunteers. And the hardest decision she’s had to make in her life.
By Jody Olsen
I will always remember 2 p.m. on March 15, 2020, as the moment I made the most difficult decision of my life. I had just received a call from Patrick Young, the Peace Corps’ Director of International Operations, who himself had spent the previous 24 hours in phone conversations with almost every one of our country directors around the world. Each told him of impending host-country decisions to close borders, cancel all international flights, and restrict internal movement. The consensus among country directors, he told me, was that we should evacuate all Volunteers. I wasn’t surprised. The writing was on the wall, and I made the decision immediately. It was the right choice, but it brought me to tears.
Besides being a national and global treasure — one that I have helped protect and honor — the Peace Corps has also been my touchstone for 54 years, a central part of my life since I began service as a Volunteer in Tunisia in 1966. I feel personally linked not only to the agency itself, but also to the trainees, Volunteers, and staff around the world. The decision to evacuate unfolded over only two months, and the story is one that will always be a major part of Peace Corps history.
Lead up to evacuation
On January 29, 2020, every Volunteer in China was told to pack their bags and be on a plane to Bangkok within 24 hours. The novel coronavirus was spreading in China but, at the time, we thought Volunteers would simply wait until the virus cleared and then return. But Chinese schools closed, and the news of the virus began to sound alarming. It became clear that the country was locking down for longer than initially anticipated. Rather than wait to return to China, the evacuated Volunteers headed home to the United States. At the time, we did not know this was merely the first step of what, only six weeks later, would become an unprecedented global evacuation of 6,898 Volunteers from all 61 current Peace Corps host countries.
In the meantime, we formed an agency-wide COVID-19 working group and began restricting international travel to virus “hot spots” to reduce risk of exposure. We sent guidance to every post that outlined the medical, security, and logistical requirements in case the virus spread beyond China. Each post began preparations, just in case.
None of us could have foreseen how the evacuation would play out, and none of us will be quite the same again.
January 30, the day after we evacuated China, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak a public health emergency. We still believed the virus could be contained, even as we prepared for further evacuation. By February 9, we had reviewed all potential evacuation plans. Shortly thereafter, we suspended all non-emergency international Volunteer travel.
February brought increasingly constricted movement both within and between countries, and our concerns grew accordingly. However, though evacuation plans were in place, we felt confident Volunteers could stay in their host countries and continue serving.
Then, in late February, even without any active COVID-19 cases, Mongolia closed schools and imposed local and international travel restrictions. We knew that if travel restrictions continued to tighten in Mongolia and surrounding countries, the Peace Corps would not be able to evacuate any Volunteers who needed life-saving medical care or be able to assist Volunteers in the event of safety and security incidents or family emergencies. We began evacuating Volunteers from Mongolia on February 28. By this time, global fears of COVID-19 were growing each day. One after another, travel restrictions began — first ripples, then waves, and finally, a tsunami of countries scrambled to close transportation options, borders, and limit internal movement. First, countries in Asia and Europe began restricting flights in and out, limiting in-country travel options, requiring incoming travelers to be quarantined, and shutting schools and other counterpart organizations where Volunteers work. The world as we’d known it was closing down.
By the second week in March, we planned Volunteer departures from several other countries including Albania and Montenegro, Georgia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Moldova, the Philippines, and Timor-Leste. We wanted to remain in countries where we could — we were determined. However, moment-by-moment the landscape changed. Host countries in Africa and the Americas began restricting travel and our means of ensuring Volunteer safety became more and more limited.
Ana Santos was serving as a Volunteer in Rwanda from September 2018 until she was evacuated in March 2020.
Photo courtesy Ana Santos
The effects of COVID-19 weren’t confined to foreign shores, and on March 13, Washington, D.C. — like many areas around the U.S. — issued a “stay-at-home” order. Peace Corps headquarters began its own social distancing plan, with all United States–based staff transiting to work from home, a state we remain in as of this writing. With all that had been happening, the decision I made during that 2 p.m. phone call on March 15 was not unexpected. It was, however, heartbreaking.
The next day, March 16, we began evacuating all trainees and Volunteers from posts around the world. In short, we evacuated everyone in every Peace Corps country that hadn’t already been evacuated, sending Volunteers and trainees to their homes-of-record (HOR) and temporarily suspending the operations of all Peace Corps posts. The process took the next eight days. We raced against time as travel choices narrowed by the hour. We engaged charter flights, and then backup charter flights when commercial flights canceled. Ethiopian Airlines rearranged flights, added flights, and held flights for evacuated Volunteers in Africa. Finally, on March 25, 6,892 Volunteers and trainees were evacuated safely to the United States.
Peace Corps has always relied on community — and the evacuation process was no different. We leaned on ambassadors; embassy staff; taxis; bank employees; guest houses; hotels; restaurants; host-country counterparts and families, and local and national officials to work in concert, work quickly, and work hard. The graciousness in their assistance affirmed to me their love for the Peace Corps. Peace Corps staff in-country — country directors; medical officers; program and training and administrative staff; drivers — worked around the clock, at times without sleep, to ensure Volunteers could leave posts safely, quickly, and with a dignity reflective of the service they had given.
In each country, departure procedures and timing ranged from a few hours to a couple days. Some Volunteers completed a Close of Service conference and physicals, some did not have the time. Most countries provided some kind of ceremonial closure, such as ringing a bell, even if on an airport tarmac as Volunteers climbed aboard planes, that honored each Volunteer and trainee’s time of service.
Every Volunteer returned to the United States and self-quarantined for 14 days. Everyone was safe.
Though we were each working virtually from makeshift home offices, Peace Corps headquarters staff became one family of action. We worked seamlessly together even while apart. As core evacuation staff worked tirelessly, others assisted. Recruitment staff supported duty officers, management staff supported travel, regional staff supported country staff, and everyone supported the medical unit.
This worldwide evacuation was unprecedented, and a total disruption of a two-year, life-changing commitment of service Volunteers and trainees made — yet under trying circumstances each acted with honor, dignity, selflessness, and courage. None of us could have foreseen how the evacuation would play out, and none of us will be quite the same again. However, we shall return. We are doing country-by-country assessments that include examining safety and security and health factors. Peace Corps posts remain operational and we’ve maintained a strong staff presence in each country. Staff continues to communicate with government ministries and community partners. With everyone’s safety in mind, we are preparing to continue our global presence as soon as it is safe to do so, and we want as many evacuated Volunteers as possible to be there with us. We will continue to build on 59 years of Peace Corps legacy to remain the treasure built by Volunteers and envisioned by President Kennedy.
Throughout these difficult and unusual times, our dedication to our core mission never wavers. The Peace Corps remains a leader in global development, world peace, and friendship. It remains a life-altering experience for Volunteers and the global communities in which they serve. My service in Tunisia changed my life and I pledge to all returned Volunteers and all future Volunteers that we will return. Countries around the world are readying for us, and I pledge to them, and to you, that we will return. The world needs us now.
Jody Olsen is the 20th Director of the Peace Corps. She served as a Volunteer in Tunisia (1966–68) and has served as Country Director of Togo, held leadership positions within the agency, and as visiting professor at University of Maryland-Baltimore School of Social Work and Director of the University’s Center for Global Education Initiatives.
Peace Corps Volunteers are Needed at Home Now — and in a new National Service Program: The Week in ReviewA national service program and legislation to benefit Peace Corps — and hurt it. see more
A national service program seems to be an idea whose time has come. Legislation to benefit Peace Corps — and to take back $88 million. Stories of evacuation and service at home. And Twitter shout-outs.
By NPCA Staff
Here are some top stories (and a couple of Tweets) on the Peace Corps community across the United States — and around the world. We include a sampling of opinion pieces and coverage from states and communities that are home to some of the 7,300 evacuated Volunteers — and nearly a quarter million Returned Peace Corps Volunteers. Stay up to date throughout the week with our Flipboard stories, subscribe to the National Peace Corps Association newsletter, and follow us on social media.
The Washington Post | Editorial: The U.S. needs an army of workers to reopen. These senators have an idea for getting it.
May 7, 2020
“We need an army of workers to reopen the country,” begins an editorial from the Washington Post last week. “The good news is, a group of senators has an idea for where to find one.” The editorial was republished across the country, from the Minneapolis Star Tribune to the Santa Fe New Mexican to the West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette. The gist: “Sens. Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Christopher A. Coons (D-DE), and several colleagues introduced legislation this week to pay for 750,000 national service positions over the next three years… The bill would prioritize Peace Corps Volunteers and Fulbright and other fellowship recipients, as well as, crucially, the many Americans this crisis has left unemployed…Standing up a ready-to-go cadre of Americans who can be deployed anywhere across the country would be instrumental in serving areas where staffing is relatively scarce and sickness is spreading — not only now but also in the many months ahead.”
The New York Times | Columnist David Brooks: “We Need National Service. Now.”
The formative moment for a new generation
May 7, 2020
The column by David Brooks calls for turning this moment of national crisis into a transformative one. “There’s a good bill winding its way through the Senate to do precisely that, led by Chris Coons, a Democrat from Delaware.” That’s the Pandemic Response and Opportunity Through National Service Act, introduced in April, which calls for expanding national service programs to help meet the need for as many as 300,000 new workers for contact tracing, testing, and other COVID-19 relief efforts. Peace Corps Volunteers get priority. "The Coons bill is an excellent start. But it needs to be bigger and bipartisan.” Brooks advocates for service year fellowships and notes: “There’s no reason this shouldn’t happen. Eighty-eight percent of Democrats and 74 percent of Republicans support voluntary national service … And as we all know, the benefits of the program accrue not only to those being served but also to those doing the serving. What would it mean to the future social cohesion of this country if a large part of the rising generation had a common experience of shared sacrifice? What would it mean to our future politics if young people from Berkeley spent a year working side by side with young people from Boise, Birmingham and Baton Rouge?”
What we’ll note: For the past 59 years, Peace Corps Volunteers have been answering that very question.
Press Release from Senator Chris Van Hollen | Bicameral Legislation to Significantly Expand National Service in Response to Coronavirus Crisis
With momentum building to utilize national service programs during the pandemic, “UNITE Act” calls for increased AmeriCorps recruitment, expansion of a deployable FEMA force.
May 8, 2020
The latest release from Sen. Chris Van Hollen, Sen. Edward Markey, and Rep. Dean Phillips calls for the swift passage of the UNITE Act — and underscores just how critical a role evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers can play during this domestic crisis.
Sen. Van Hollen: “Our national service organizations provide vital assistance to communities across our country and the globe. With a wide array of skills and experience, the volunteers with Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and other service organizations are uniquely equipped to help our country battle the coronavirus. We should be doing everything in our power to enlist these men and women – and others who are eager to volunteer – in these efforts.”
Sen. Blumenthal: “We must expand the ability of mission-driven Americans from service programs like AmeriCorps and Peace Corps to serve our country at this time of unprecedented crisis. From public health expertise to extensive experience working in vulnerable communities, these individuals have the invaluable skills to help our country rise to the immense challenges this pandemic has made us face.”
Rep. Phillips: “The Peace Corps represents the very best in American leadership on a global stage, with volunteers serving alongside communities in their fight against sickness, hunger, and economic insecurity. They are ready now to fight for the health of the American people. The United States must have a whole-of-government response to the COVID-19 pandemic that not only employs those who have lost their jobs or who’ve become underemployed, but also delivers relief to understaffed frontline workers.”
Press Release from Senator Jeff Duncan | Duncan introduces WUHAN Rescissions Act
Our take: Legislation would jeopardize funds that provided for health and safety of more than 7,300 evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers amid global pandemic.
May 4, 2020
File this under news you need to know — to take action to stop it. Congressman Jeff Duncan (R-SC) introduced H.R. 6657, the Working Under Humanity’s Actual Needs (WUHAN) Rescissions Act, which calls for eliminating more than $27 billion from the CARES Act legislation that was overwhelmingly approved by Congress and signed by President Trump in late March. Included in the new legislation is the proposed return of the $88 million appropriated for Peace Corps which covered evacuation and initial support costs for 7,300 volunteers. Read Representative Duncan's press release here. And read more about the co-sponsors — and how you can share your concern over this bill — here.
The Wall Street Journal | Eight Graduates Plan for an Uncertain World
Many of those leaving college this spring have had plans changed by the coronavirus. Members of the Class of 2020 speak about what’s next.
May 9, 2020
In story about young Americans facing uncertainty amid the coronavirus crisis, journalist Kathryn Dill profiles future Peace Corps Volunteer Colton Denton. A first-generation college grad, he hails from Phoenix, is finishing studies at Knox College in Illinois, and has been accepted for a Peace Corps assignment in Ukraine. Training has been postponed from August until September 30 — but may be delayed further. Graduation ceremonies have been postponed, too. “I just hope that it’ll happen before I leave for Peace Corps,” he says, ”assuming that still pulls through.”
The Hill | Opinion: During this historic time, remember to value public service
May 8, 2020
Dr. Joe Heck and Michael M. Crow start with the fact that we’re seeing how critical public service professionals are at a time of crisis. They make the case for a public service corps program across the country. Heck is chairman of the National Commission on Military, National, and Public Service. Michael M. Crow is the president of Arizona State University (ASU). They offer ASU’s Public Service Academy as a model — graduating its first cohort last year, including Turner Hubby, a Peace Corps Volunteer assigned to Ukraine teaching English as a second language.
Center for Strategic and International Studies | Blog: A Covid-19 Response Corps Can Help Stop the Pandemic
Evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers could be readily mobilized.
May 5, 2020
Congresswoman Susan Brooks (R-IN) and Congressman Ami Bera (D-CA) make the case for Peace Corps Volunteers playing a key role in COVID-19 response now. The authors are members of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Commission on Strengthening America’s Health Security. Key takeaway one: "Volunteers have received training in — and many have up to two years’ work experience in — a variety of relevant issue areas, including water and sanitation, hygiene, and maternal and child health. They have experience integrating themselves into local communities, serving as community health workers, peer educators, and teachers. They could be quickly recruited into the CRC and put to work supporting the Covid-19 response across the country."
Key takeaway two: "We know that state and local health authorities are clamoring for such a workforce to combat coronavirus."
KRCR television news | Rep. Huffman and others call for prioritizing national service in future COVID-19 relief
Peace Corps volunteers should be mobilized into domestic programs and projects.
Northern California television station KRCR highlights the efforts of Reps. Jared Huffman, John B. Larson, and Dean Phillips to get House leadership to focus on national service priorities to aid in recovery efforts during the coronavirus pandemic. Included: Peace Corps Volunteers should be mobilized into domestic programs and projects. From the letter: “The Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) and its volunteers are on the front lines of the recovery effort, providing disaster assistance, educational opportunities, meal support and much more … Investing in the CNCS and reimagining the service of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers are investments in the continued rebuilding of the nation.”
WDEL newsradio | A badly needed workforce
Legislation seeks to expand AmeriCorps to provide contact tracing, testing for pandemic response.
May 5, 2020
Coverage of legislation that Sen. Chris Coons introduced in April: “We know that we have a ready pool of returned Peace Corps volunteers, of current year AmeriCorps members, and hundreds of thousands of Americans, who have applied to be AmeriCorps members, but we haven't had the number of funded slots for them.”
Public Service Twitter Shout-outs | House Foreign Affairs Committee
May 9, 2020
To wrap up Public Service Recognition Week (May 3-9), the House Foreign Affairs Committee tweeted out thanks to Peace Corps Volunteers in a pair of posts.
“The U.S. is always lucky to have dedicated public servants but especially now, during the #COVID19 pandemic. This #PublicServiceRecognitionWeek we recognize the @StateDept, @USAID, @PeaceCorps and frontline personnel working through this crisis to make the world a better place.”
“And to @PeaceCorps volunteers who have been brought back home during this unprecedented time: thank you for your hard work. Though it was cut short, your commitment to service left an impact on your host community. #PSRW2020”
In the Twitter Zeitgeist | Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban
May 4, 2020
Entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban kicked off a conversation on Twitter May 3 calling for more national involvement in contact tracing and caring for people during the coronavirus pandemic. Sen. Ed Markey joined in to share that he and Sen. Chris Van Hollen had introduced the UNITE Act to “test, trace, and assist the vulnerable.” Cuban’s response: Agree we need to expand @AmeriCorps, @PeaceCorps and other volunteer organizations. But in order for this to work there has to be someone in charge of a coordinated federal Public Health Covid response that can drive a solution driven plan. Patchwork legislation doesn't work.”
Kansas, Tennessee, Washington, D.C., and Nationwide | Stories of evacuation, community service, and recruiting RPCVs for jobs
The Masks Now Coalition is a grassroots movement of over 11,000 nationwide volunteers in every state, Puerto Rico, and Washington, D.C. who are working to help protect frontline workers and healthcare professionals through sewing and donating masks to organizations in need. They’ve teamed up with the group Returned Peace Corps Volunteers Serving at Home — with RPCVs making masks and, in the case of evacuated Volunteer Julie Wang, putting to work her skills as a graphic designer.
Hope and host family: a snapshot from Benin. Photo courtesy Hope Woodard
Two weeks after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in social work from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Hope Woodard headed for Benin with Peace Corps. She had to evacuate nine months later. “In America, before COVID-19, we had everything at our fingertips,” she says. “I think that this moment, although it has caused a lot of hurt for some people, has allowed people to recalibrate what is important to them.”
“Peace Corps experience shortened due to COVID-19” | Salina Journal, Salina, Kansas
Mohri Exline served as the community and organizational development Volunteer in Albania when she got the fateful call: “I was called on a Thursday night and told to pack because we were being evacuated. The next morning they called and said they would be there at 9 a.m. to get me.”
Takeaway: The departments of Housing and Urban Development and Homeland Security are actively recruiting returned Peace Corps volunteers. Agencies are hosting virtual jobs fairs and recruitment webinars to find new talent.
Stay up to date with the latest news about Peace Corps and COVID-19 global evacuation each day through our Flipboard stories. Here you’ll find a selection of stories from around the world about evacuated Peace Corps Volunteers, efforts to help them here at home, and how they’re helping the United States tackle the COVID-19 pandemic through community service, work as contact tracers, serving on the front lines in medicine, and more.
Before Milana Baish served as a Volunteer, she interviewed 15 who had served across the decades. see more
Before Milana Baish served as a Peace Corps Volunteer, she interviewed 15 who had served across the decades. Then came the global evacuation.
Interview by Jordana Comiter
Meeting multiple returned Volunteers while studying at University of Texas, Austin, led Milana Baish to interview 15 RPCVs and write an honors thesis on how they perceived their experiences’ impact — in their communities and on themselves. They served from the 1960s to 2015, from Ghana to Sri Lanka, Brazil to Ukraine.
Then it was Baish’s turn. Her service in Zambia was cut short by evacuation. A Coverdell Fellowship brought her to Clark University for a program in development economics and international development.
Why did you decide to serve?
A lot of it had to do with the people I talked to. I wanted to learn about another culture. My time teaching in the Peace Corps solidified the path that I want to follow, working on education and equity in the U.S. and abroad. Most meaningful were relationships with fellow teachers and my host sister, learning from other women in the community, and learning from my students.
Teaching was hard. My classes were really large, up to 80 students. We were meant to work with another teacher, but my school was short staffed. We held teacher meetings to choose difficult topics and create a lesson plan together. Then someone would put on this class, and we’d all observe. With my English teaching, it was just me. I started an English club also; students could do extra material or homework. If they were trying to learn a phrase, I would make sure I knew how to say it in Bemba.
Embrace: Silvia Mwape, left, with Volunteer Milana Baish. Seated: Abigail Shamz. They hosted Milana as mother and sister. Photo courtesy Milana Baish
Talk about the evacuation — and who and what you left behind.
My group had gone for literacy training in the capital. There staff told us, “We’re evacuating you guys. You don’t have time to go back to your village, say goodbye, or pack. We’re flying you out from the capital.”
It was very sudden and still feels like an open chapter. I talk to people in my community, checking in. But I’m only able to keep in contact with people with smartphones. I can sometimes give messages to students through the teachers.
I was the first Volunteer at my site. Seven months is not a lot of time. There were a lot of things the community wanted to get done. We started a women’s group that did income-generating activities, as well as adult literacy classes. We were about to start our big project — beekeeping. I have heard from the local carpenter, who built structures for the nests; he is helping the women continue the project. We wanted to build a kitchen at the school as part of a meal program for students who go through 15-hour school days hungry. We talked about writing the grant but never got started.
What do you think it means to serve now versus then?
One thing we learn in Peace Corps training is, “You’re not going to be happy if you’re comparing yourself to the other Volunteers.” Everyone has different communities and schools they’re working in.
I went in knowing what other Volunteers had done but tried to have no expectations. The goals of the Peace Corps are the same. The world seems so large, but it’s really so small. It’s been an important part of the Peace Corps to just show us that we’re all in this together.
Teacher training: Students with Milana Baish. Photo courtesy Milana Baish
Talk about concern over neocolonialism and white saviorism.
That’s an important conversation being had now. I’m half Hispanic, but I’m very white passing. Going to Zambia, I’m just seen as a white woman. That was something I thought a lot about, because of the history of colonialism.
A couple times in my community someone would say, “You’re gonna bring all these great things to our community.” I would say, “We’re going to do this together. I want to know what you guys want to do.” I was there to help support, learn, and share.
A lot of Volunteers I spoke to for my research reflected on how their race might have affected things. Some were people of color who were treated differently by their communities. In Guatemala, one was the first Black person many had met.
It’s critical to have diversity in the Peace Corps, because that’s how the United States is.
Would you do it again?
Yes, 100 percent. Without a doubt.
International Women's Day, 2020: “We had a parade around the village and then celebrated with dancing and cooking at the school,” writes Milana Baish. Photo by Milana Baish
Jordana Comiter studies political science and communications at Tulane University. She serves as an intern with WorldView.