50th Anniversary of Peace Corps Brings Volunteers to SMC

They Relive Life-Changing Experiences in a Meeting with Their Organization's Leader

On October 14, 1960, John Krauskopf and Linda Malila were in a crowd of several thousand students who stayed up until 2 in the morning to hear John F. Kennedy speak at the University of Michigan about the need to contribute their knowledge and skills to the rest of the world. They didn't know it then, but they were witnessing the birth of an idea that would become the Peace Corps.

Fifty years later, they came to Saint Mary's College last week to hear Kevin Quigley, head of the National Peace Corps Association, talk about plans for the 50th anniversary of the organization on March 1, 2011.

Both had been inspired by Kennedy's words to devote their lives to building bridges between cultures. After earning a degree in economics, Krauskopf signed up for the Peace Corps and volunteered in Iran from 1965 to '67, returning as a trainer in 1969. Malila helped to resettle refugees in Berlin and worked with refugees and immigrants in Vancouver.

They never met that night in Ann Arbor, but 11 years later Malila wandered into the offices of the Experiment in International Living in San Francisco, where Krauskopf was then working. They fell in love and discovered that they had shared a pivotal moment in their lives -- and the nation's.

Now married and living in Suisun City, they joined about a dozen former volunteers who traveled to Saint Mary's to meet Quigley, head of an organization that represents more than 200,000 volunteers who have served the Peace Corps since its founding on March 1, 1961.

Time to Tell the World

"This is our moment to talk to the world about the Peace Corps and its role in making this a more peaceful and prosperous world," Quigley said as he chatted with the volunteers and others in the Soda Center.

As the 2011 Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow, Quigley spent a week on campus last week and delivered an address on the "Peace Corps at 50: Realizing the Promise of the Next 50 Years."

All the volunteers at the reunion agreed on one thing: the experience changed their lives.

"The Peace Corps shattered my insular thinking and gave me a widened perspective about human behavior," said John Krauskopf, who has devoted his life to work that facilitates cross-cultural understanding. Linda has followed a similar path, saying that serving internationally makes you "realize you're a world citizen."

An Unusual Honeymoon

Bill Tschida, a 1966 Saint Mary's graduate, married his wife, Paula, a Dominican College graduate, and set out for Sierra Leone, where they served from 1967 to '69. They call it their "two-year honeymoon."

They ended up in a remote village on the Atlantic Ocean, 160 miles from the capital of Freeport -- a 20-hour ride in a lorry jammed with people, chickens and sacks of food. There was no electricity, no phone, no running water. "Every time it rained, we ran outside to take a shower," Bill said.

But with the optimism and drive of a couple of 22-year-olds, they set about making their little corner of the world a better place. The village chief wanted a secondary school, so they built a three-room schoolhouse from scratch. Bill became the principal, and they both worked as teachers.

"You live so deeply and intensely in that culture," Paula says.

They never wondered whether what they were doing was making a difference. "In Sierra Leone, without schooling you're pretty much resigned to being a farmer, growing cassava," Bill said. A high school education opens the doors to university and a whole new life.

The Peace Corps made a big difference in their lives, too. Bill, a lifelong educator who now teaches part-time in the Leadership Studies Program at Saint Mary's, says, "It gives you a positive way of looking at things." And an appreciation for the little things in life, he says, adding: "Every time I shower or turn on a faucet or go to the bathroom, I'm grateful."

Richard Cabrera '61 said he was so intent on getting into the Peace Corps that he turned down a long list of job offers during the notoriously long application process for the corps.

"I really wanted to serve my country," said Cabrera, who served in the Dominican Republic from 1962 to '64.

Culture Shock in Mongolia

Jessica (Dold) Giambruno '99 experienced culture shock on a grand scale when she was sent to Mongolia, where she taught high school students from 2000 to 2002. "I lived in a yurt. I rode horses and camels, washed clothes by hand, fetched water, built coal fires, chopped wood, ate anything with four legs, including marmot, camel, horse, goat, sheep and cow," she remembers.

Like many other Peace Corps volunteers, she also went through a huge personal transformation during her short but intense time in Mongolia.

"During the first year, I cried many times and wanted to come home," she recalls. "By the end of the second year, I considered extending my stay another year, but came home because my mother gave birth to my little brother."

Despite its trials, she says she wouldn't give up the experience for anything.

"As clichéd as it sounds, I truly was taught more than I taught," she says. "I was changed more than I changed. It has made me who I am today, and I am grateful for that."

Sheila Bliss Duffy, MBA '83, echoed those sentiments. She served in Costa Rica from 1991 to '93 and later was a Peace Corps contractor in Vladivostok, Lesotho and Mali. Duffy went on to pursue a career in international development.

"I got so much more than I gave," she says. "Sometimes I feel guilty and ask, ‘Did I give enough?'"

Community Members Drawn to SMC

Not all of the former Peace Corps volunteers who came to meet Quigley were Saint Mary's alumni. Some were members of the community who heard Quigley was coming to Saint Mary's and just had to meet him.

George and Carol Chaffey of Lafayette, who served in Liberia from 1967 to 1969, were excited to hear about the Peace Corps' plans to celebrate its 50th anniversary by holding more than 800 house parties for alumni and friends around the world. For the past 10 years, they have hosted reunions of returned Peace Corps volunteers who served in Liberia at their home in Lafayette. This year, 30 former volunteers came from all over the United States.

Shirley McGrath, who served in Colombia from 1966 to '68, told the group how she had met her husband there – another Peace Corps love story.

Bringing the Experience Home

Bruce Nelson said he signed up for the Peace Corps and, to his surprise, found himself in Iran in 1972 to '74. "I thought I'd be going to the South Pacific or Africa," he said. But it turned out to be a fascinating and rewarding experience. He taught English to junior high and high school students and worked with a local doctor to bring the first chemotherapy treatments to leukemia sufferers.

More importantly, he forged friendships. When he left Iran, he brought back some of his students to study at his alma mater, Graceland College, in Lemoyne, Iowa. Two of the students went on to work at the Iranian embassy in Washington, D.C., and helped to win the release of the Americans who were held hostage in Iran from 1979 to 1981.

"The Peace Corps has a lot of behind-the-scenes influence that you've never heard about," he said.

In 2003, he took a group of 23 people back to Iran, many of them former Peace Corps volunteers, through a collaboration with the Carter Center and the National Peace Corps Association.

John Finn, who volunteered in Korea form 1970 to '74 and as a trainer from 1974 to '79, came to the reunion with his partner, Art Desuyo '00 MBA '04. Finn recently returned to South Korea and met with some of his former students. "Several had become professors," he said with pride.

That experience taught him that Peace Corps volunteers often have more of an impact than they can imagine.

"The saying ‘I got more than I give' is a reflex," he says. "The truth is, we never really know how much we have affected all the people we touched."

Teresa Castle
College Communications