October 29, 2001 - San Francisco Chronicle: After The Tech Rush Former dotcommers give back to the global community

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Headlines: Peace Corps Headlines - 2001: 10 October 2001 Peace Corps Headlines: October 29, 2001 - San Francisco Chronicle: After The Tech Rush Former dotcommers give back to the global community

By Admin1 (admin) on Tuesday, October 30, 2001 - 11:39 am: Edit Post

Read this article from the San Francisco Chronicle on former dot-commer's who are joining the Peace Corps:

After The Tech Rush Former dotcommers give back to the global community

After The Tech Rush Former dotcommers give back to the global community

Amy Moon, SF Gate Staff Monday, October 29, 2001

San Francisco, California, USA -- In April 2001, the SF Weekly ran an ad for the Peace Corps that specifically targeted out-of-work dot-commers. "Dot.com, dotgone," it read. "Now's the time to network with the real world." Readers responded: There was a spike in the number of applicants as people freshly laid-off from technology jobs signed up for the next challenging and meaningful adventure.

Peace Corps Public Affairs Specialist Dennis McMahon explained the appeal. "[Peace Corps] volunteers are creative, energetic, unconventional people," he said. "There's a lot of similarity with the dot-commers. A lot of people got on board in tech because it was an adventure, and that's what the Peace Corps is about -- going into new territory, coming up with novel solutions to fix problems."

The world has changed since the Peace Corps placed its ad. The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the US have all but made the dot-com bust semi-irrelevant. But for the legions of idealistic and able bodied in the San Francisco Bay Area who are taking stock of their lives after emerging from the boom-time work and money frenzy, the invitation to do something in the "real world" still holds a certain appeal.

Three San Francisco residents who signed on for that challenge spoke with me about it in August and then again after Sept. 11. Especially now, as recent events have made the interconnections and interdependencies between peoples and nations more palpable than ever before, their insights are illuminating.

Chris Pemberton, 28, just happened to be ahead of the curve. Pemberton said that when he signed on with the Peace Corps in late 1998, he was mainly looking to advance his career and see the world at the same time. He had already spent several years as an Internet consultant and had decided it was time to get an MBA. "I wanted to do a blend -- focused career path, go to school, see the world, experience things on a different level," he said from his San Francisco office at Natural Step, a consulting firm that advises companies on sustainable business practices.

He entered a program at the Monterey Institute, which consisted of 1 1/2 years of business school sandwiched around 2 years of work in the Peace Corps. Pemberton, who asked to go to Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia because it had just opened up after Soviet rule, said, "It was a fantastic time to go and experience the culture."

Former marketing manager Laura Oppenheimer, too, had worked at a number of technology startups. "The technology boom was very good to me," she said from her San Francisco home in August. "After living in the dot-com world, which is a bubble, I want to give back."

Oppenheimer tracked Eastern Europe as a place for new business opportunities. Since the fall of communism, she felt there would be a demand for knowledge of Western business practices. "My true belief is, you can't be selfless without being selfish," she said. "From living in craziness, I know the pitfalls, and I feel like I can help." Oppenheimer left for a Peace Corps assignment in western Russia in late August.

Other dot-commers such as Shara Karasic, 34, were more idealistic from the start.

Karasic moved to San Francisco in 1995 and, like many of her 20-something peers, began doing Web work. Unlike the majority, Karasic turned toward the educational market and started working for Classroom Connect, a technology company focused on online curricula and professional development for the K-12 market. There she had the opportunity to work on Quest, a project in which students used the Internet to direct expedition teams in exotic locales.

She was struck by how much the kids got out of their online interaction. "I have kids posting on our message boards all the time realizing that they can be an archaeologist or a biologist, through their identification with team members, or really empathizing with the lives of kids with very different kind of lives," she said. "I have seen how powerful positive uses of technology could be." Karasic signed up with Geekcorps, an organization that helps people around the world gain access to information technology and build businesses on the Web. She left for a four-month stint in Ghana on Aug. 23.

Cultural Exchange

All three believed that going overseas to connect with people from another culture and lend a hand was valuable personally and professionally and as a representative of the United States within the international community, and they all approached it with a spirit of adventure.

Pemberton recalled his Peace Corps assignment in Kyrgyzstan: "I liked that when I got there, they dropped me in and said, OK, you've got two years to transition to a market economy. I spent the first 2-3 months asking questions and listening.

"I can see that I made a difference, the more time that has passed since I was there," he said. Pemberton worked for a handicrafts cooperative and helped the artisans promote and distribute Kyrgyzs goods to the world. He taught them how to design and create a Web site and helped them build an e-commerce site. "I was disappointed when I left, because I felt the Web site wasn't being used proactively," he said. "But I logged on a few weeks ago, and they had totally redone it and relaunched it. This was 6-7 months after I left."

How did he feel bringing technology to the Kyrgyzs people? "I see technology as an inevitability," he said. "I'm happy I could bring it to them in a way that was empowering. I was really careful to be nonprescriptive. I showed them things they could do with technology and then told them to do what they wanted with it."

But, he added, "I feel I got a lot more out of it then I gave. It was just the experience of living in another culture as other people live that was so fantastic."

Ambiguities of Technology

For Karasic, a key point that attracted her was that countries were asking for assistance. "Ghanaian companies request a Geekcorps volunteer, and want to learn more technology skills," she said. "I think that the global economy is a reality, and the key to preventing the bad effects of technology use or globalization comes down to engaging with these issues in a hands-on way, not by sitting in some university debating. I feel like I need to experience what's going on, and operate with my heart and be humble and learn from Ghanaian people."

But Karasic is not completely starry-eyed. She lived in north Bali right after college and experienced first-hand the ambiguities of technology: "I was married to a Balinese man whose family were rice farmers. He ended up coming to live in San Francisco with me. Life was very different here, and much more complicated in certain ways. Sometimes he wishes he had never been exposed to such an expanded world. But on the other hand, if you ask him whether he can go back to a simple life like he used to have, it's impossible. And that simple, beautiful life also included half his siblings dying before age 3.

"When I go back to Bali, most villagers have TVs, when 10 years ago they didn't," Karasic continued. "And it's true that the attention span of the younger people is shortening -- shadow-puppet shows traditionally can last 6-8 hours into the night, but with the advent of TV and DVD, they're getting shorter.

"But again, people are choosing to buy TVs," she added. "Farmers are pooling their money for satellite dishes. People everywhere want to be connected. And it was often the tourists in Bali ruing the loss of a more traditional way of life that their cultures had given up long ago, which raised the question of what is says about us if we want to keep other people in some kind of cultural preserve. Culture is dynamic."

Their Lives Today

Pemberton, who has been back in the US since early 2001, said his tenure in the Peace Corps was "a uniquely personal experience -- an incredible opportunity to live in a place at a time that will never be repeated."

Pemberton added that since the events of Sept. 11, he's aware of how much his Peace Corps experience affected him: "My viewpoint is 100 percent different. Living in a Muslim country, you start to understand the viewpoints of those who follow Islam. My perspective on the media and government is different. I'm skeptical. Had I not been in the Peace Corps, I would be less critical, less proactive about seeking different media sources in which to get the whole picture."

Meanwhile, Karasic and Oppenheimer were overseas in their host countries when they heard of the terrorist attacks.

Oppenheimer's assignment in western Russia was unchanged, even though the Peace Corps is bringing home its volunteers from Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. "It's just [that] these countries are too close to the conflict for the Peace Corps to provide safety for the volunteers," said Peace Corps spokesperson Dennis McMahon.

Oppenheimer felt it wasn't appropriate to respond to questions I had posed regarding her response to the terrorist attacks. She indicated via email that especially now, she was required to involve the Peace Corps in press correspondence and her country director had asked her to hold off on answering any official questions.

Karasic felt no such restrictions. "That day at work, as we all sat there in front of the TV, a Ghanaian woman embraced me and said, 'Don't be upset. We love Americans, and we are praying for you,'" Karasic wrote in an e-mail from Ghana. "I have seen a huge 'God Bless America' sign draped over a building in my neighborhood. Ghanaians in the street have said 'Sorry' when I walk by." Karasic added that the response from Muslims there has been mixed but that many Ghanaians, including some who have friends and relatives in the US, were appalled by news of the attacks.

To Karasic, there was an air of unreality around the terrorist attacks. "A lot of us here have felt a need to visit New York, to see for ourselves," she wrote. "It is hard to see everything through CNN and hear our news through e-mail without being there and knowing what it is like.

"I realize it is all too easy to distance ourselves from any remote, tragic events, wherever they may be," she added. "However horrible this event has been, it may be that Americans will now empathize more with other victims of horror around the world."

Her words illustrate the kind of soul searching that many Americans here and abroad are doing as they face what it means to be an American to themselves and to the world at large.

Pemberton said he finds himself wondering what that identification means: "Is it just being born here, or is it how I think and act? It's an open-ended question, and I think that's good."

Making A Difference

"We can't ignore our fellow human beings," Karasic wrote. "I keep hearing on the radio here that Bin Laden spent a lot of money in the Sudan, for example, improving life for poor people, and if we do not help improve their lives, they are susceptible to organizations like that. Most people of the world don't have a safe, predictable life."

Pemberton echoed her concerns when he said that for him, the big questions are, "Now what can we do? And how do we do that?" He believes that the best approach is to just focus on the small steps.

So while the end of the dot-com era may somehow seem unimportant in light of the larger issues facing us, people are still searching for meaningful work and, perhaps, a way to use their skills to help others. And although it's too soon for any official numbers, there seems to be an increased interest in organizations like the Peace Corps and Geekcorps.

"Lately, we've had a lot of people calling, indicating a need to serve, to participate," said the Peace Corps' McMahon. "They're looking for options so they can find a viable way to make a positive impact on the state of global peace. The most important thing about the Peace Corps has always been about bridge building between cultures and people."

Wiring the world and building bridges, one small step at a time. Not a bad way to spend a few years of your life.

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