Source: Peace Corps
In 1965, perched on the side of a steep hill in Tansen, Nepal, stood a tiny 9-foot-by-13-foot house with a tin roof and a windowless first floor. The house lacked electricity and running water. Neighbors did not understand why its inhabitant lived alone. Surely he would be greeted by unfavorable ghosts, they thought.
Yet the strange inhabitant continued to live there apparently ghost-free. William Kieffer (PolSci’63) pushed on with his Peace Corps assignment — teaching English to local Nepali students. Unbeknownst to him, he was blazing the trail for the more than 2,300 CU-Boulder alumni who have served in the Peace Corps since its inception in 1961. This year the university was ranked fourth in the number of Peace Corps volunteers currently serving. In 2011 and 2012, it was ranked first in the nation.
While many of these volunteers felt the immediate impact of their service, much of their Peace Corps experience has shaped the rest of their lives.
Kieffer joined the Peace Corps in 1964 after Sargent Shriver — founding director of the Peace Corps — visited San Francisco State and urged students like Kieffer, who enrolled there after graduating from CU, to apply. Shriver was appointed by his brother-in-law President John F. Kennedy to establish the program with three goals: to meet the needs of countries with trained men and women, to promote a better understanding of Americans to the people being served and to give Americans a better understanding of other cultures.
“I had adventure in my heart,” Kieffer says. “The Peace Corps gave me the opportunity to get involved. Shriver opened the door, and I walked right through it.”
Eager to go abroad, Kieffer applied and received his Nepal assignment within the month. Today about one in three Peace Corps applicants is selected after a six-to-eight-month application process, says Cedar Wolf, CU-Boulder’s Peace Corps coordinator. It includes an interview, a legal background check and medical clearance. Volunteers fill positions in one of six areas — education; youth and community development; health and HIV/AIDS; business development/information and communication technology; agriculture; and environment.
“We always tell Peace Corps volunteers to go in wanting to help people rather than wanting a specific location or project,” Wolf says. “We encourage people to be flexible and to have two or three different programs in which they are willing to serve.”
When volunteers receive their assignments, they are sent to their prospective countries for about three months of in-country training before they travel to their assigned communities. But until the early 1990s, volunteers trained in America.
Kieffer’s group bound for Nepal had 45 people — including Dave Carlson (PolSci’64, MA’69), David Lewis (A&S’64) and William Robinson (PolSci’64) — who trained at George Washington University and in Hawaii. They studied the Nepali language and learned about the culture and geography along with how to teach. Physical training included running up and down stairs of the Washington Monument.
No amount of training, however, could have primed Kieffer for the culture shock that overwhelmed him after he arrived in Tansen, a hilltop town of several thousand people.
He was unprepared for the lack of water and electricity and realized his physical training was woefully inadequate. His assigned location was a day’s walk from the nearest road. He paid a woman to carry him water in three-to-five-liter cans daily from the bottom of the hill. He read and wrote his mother detailed letters by candlelight. A response took at least a month to arrive.
As one of the first Peace Corps groups in Nepal, Kieffer also was slammed with the realization that his teaching assignment could have very little impact on the school. His students were either in classes too large or displayed little interest.
“My assignment was nearly hopeless,” he says. “There was no way I could make a major impact on what I wanted to do.”
Despite his frustrations, Kieffer never thought of backing out of his assignment. He learned to make the most of his time and reap the value of his term.
Often, it is important for volunteers to realize their service is more long-term than immediate, Wolf says.
“In two years big projects can happen, but on the whole [volunteers] can’t go into the Corps with the mindset that they are going to change the world,” Wolf says. “They are planting the seeds of change that will occur over a person’s lifetime.”
Across the country’s western mountains in a village named Baglung, Carlson was having a different experience. While he, too, experienced culture shock, he and Lewis were warmly welcomed by their village and taught enthusiastic high school students English and science. They also developed a more sanitary sewage system for the villagers who often did not understand the need for latrines.
“We were very intent on persevering to the point where after six months we started to feel so much more at ease,” Carlson says. “Then our whole world changed.”
The pair became extremely engaged in their service, seeing their work directly benefitting the community to the point that Carlson’s life focus changed to helping others. Amid his difficult situation, Kieffer also recognized his impact in unintended ways.
He fondly remembers when a teenager named Kul Chandra Gautum ambled into a house where some Peace Corps volunteers were playing chess. Gautum was fixated by the game and returned to the house daily, asking them enough questions to make the volunteers realize Gautum’s extreme intelligence. They worked through the U.S. embassy to secure him a scholarship to Dartmouth College. Gautum eventually received a master’s degree from Princeton and had a very successful career with UNICEF.
“This is a kid who wandered into a Peace Corps house,” Kieffer says. “That’s the kind of unintended positive impact the Peace Corps can have.”
Some volunteers find their work so rewarding they extend their service. Kerri Courtney (Hist’06), a social studies teacher, stayed an additional year in 2009 in Namibia, Africa, empowering the young women she taught, emphasizing the need for gender equality. Her 7th-to-10th-grade students never had been taught by a foreigner before and were interested in places beyond their village. She showed her students videos and letters from the U.S. to help them grasp a different culture.
Courtney says her time in the Peace Corps was exactly what she had hoped it would be.
“I’m still reflecting on all the ways the Peace Corps has impacted my life,” she says.
Upon return to America, many remain invested in their country of service and often attend graduate school for research, Wolf says. Laura DeLuca (PhDAnth’02) received her doctorate years after serving in the Peace Corps as a teacher near Kisumu, Kenya, from 1987-89. She left her assignment in Africa with many questions about the culture of her village and sought answers through academic scholarship.
DeLuca teaches several Africa-related courses at CU-Boulder, conducts research in such areas as conservation, African policies and refugees and co-edited a book about community-based peace building. A saying she learned from Luo villagers has helped shape her outlook: “Haraka, haraka haina baraka,” which translates to “Hurry, hurry has no blessing.”
“In the Peace Corps you’re immersing yourself and trying to figure out how society works,” she says. “It opens up a new world.”
For most volunteers, the Peace Corps is the first step in a lifetime of public service.
“Ever since the Peace Corps, I’ve always sought jobs with a focus on community service,” says Carlson, who worked at Community Food Share in Boulder before retiring. He and several others from his Peace Corps group are involved with the nonprofit he helped start, Friends of Nepal, which is committed to helping development within the country to strengthen Nepalese communities.
Even though his tiny Nepali house was never ridden with ghosts, Kieffer was haunted by his powerful experiences in the Peace Corps. After he completed his assignment, he received his master’s degree and doctorate at Michigan State University. Years later he became field director of Plan International, which gives donors the ability to sponsor children in other countries. In 1978 he launched the program in Nepal — where his life’s journey started 14 years earlier.
“I would not have had the opportunity to go back to Nepal without the Peace Corps experience,” he says, adding that starting Plan International in Nepal was one of his life’s greatest accomplishments. “The Peace Corps was the first brick in the wall.”
Christie Sounart (Jour’12) is interim assistant editor of the Coloradan.
The Peace Corps Today
- Host countries: 76
- Volunteers and trainees: 8,073
- Gender: 62 percent female 38 percent male
- Marital status: 93 percent single, 7 percent married
- Minorities: 22 percent
- Average age: 28
- Volunteers over 50: 7 percent
Source: Peace Corps