Dr. Douglas recently returned from a Peace Corps 30th Reunion in Belize.

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By Admin1 (admin) on Monday, October 08, 2001 - 9:10 pm: Edit Post

Dr. Douglas recently returned from a Peace Corps 30th Reunion in Belize.

Dr. Douglas recently returned from a Peace Corps 30th Reunion in Belize.

Dr. Douglas recently returned from a Peace Corps 30th Reunion in Belize.

PVCC Faculty Profiles: Dr. Ruth Douglas

Trip Back in Time Provides Learning Opportunity for PVCC Faculty Member

What's it like to step back in time? To visit a place where you had lived 30 years ago? A place far from home, a different culture, a different climate, different standards of living. Ask Dr. Ruth Douglas, division chair and science faculty member at Piedmont Virginia Community College.

Dr. Douglas recently returned from a Peace Corps 30th Reunion in Belize. Now, this is not the Belize that 21st Century Americans typically think of: no resorts, posh hotels, and luxurious properties. She visited Belize City where she lived 30 years ago with no hot water, and running water only when the city water supply had sufficiently high pressure.

Douglas joined the Peace Corps in 1968, only seven years after the first group of volunteers ventured out to serve. "It was something which I always wanted to do," she said. Sent to serve as a science teacher, Douglas already had teaching experience when she joined the Peace Corps, having served as a teaching assistant in graduate school, a high school teacher, and an instructor in a community college.

Preparation for Douglas' group of Peace Corps volunteers began in Philadelphia with two weeks of introductory training. The volunteers were then sent for two months' training in Trinidad Island, selected because of its similarity in climate and culture to the Eastern Caribbean where they were bound. At this stage of the process, the volunteers received teaching training, cross-cultural training, and practice teaching experience. Upon arrival in the host country, they received two weeks of in-country training in the northern part of Belize. Although the country is English speaking, Spanish instruction was also provided. The volunteers were now ready to serve.

Armed with this preparation, Douglas embarked on her Peace Corps teaching career at Belize Teachers College. "'College' there was not what it is here," Douglas hastily cautioned. At the time, there were two tracks in the Belizean educational system for teachers: after eighth grade, students either became apprentice pupil teachers, or they went on to complete high school and were then channeled into the college for further training.

Living Conditions Since Peace Corps volunteers strive to become assimilated into the communities they serve, they live right in the cities or towns in which they work. Douglas shared an apartment in a house in what she called "a quite poor part of town" during her tenure. "It was noisy, hot, and had no grass," she said. The kitchen had a refrigerator and a three-burner propane gas stove, and there was running water only when the water pressure was sufficient. They got drinking water out of rain vats, so always had to boil the water before use.

"We couldn't eat anything that wasn't peeled or cooked," she stated. "And we couldn't use ice from unknown sources in case it had not been made with filtered water." Meat was available locally, although it sometimes contained bone chips. "We ate more meat than most Belizeans." One irony which Douglas marvels at even today was that despite the fact that fresh produce was plentiful, frozen vegetables from the United States were available, although they were very expensive.

Mobility and communication were difficult in Belize at the time as well. Teaching volunteers got around by bicycle and communication was particularly difficult since phones were not readily available. So if you wanted to make a call to the states, you had to physically go to the local telephone company to place the call. "It was very difficult to get messages to anyone," she said. "If you needed to get word out, people would carry notes between villages if they happened to be going your way." And the local radio station had an hour set aside twice a day to announce messages. "We were very isolated from our friends and family, and largely from one another," she observed.

Upon completion of her two years' service, Douglas returned to the U.S to face the tumultuous events of 1970. "We came back to the turmoil of the Vietnam War, racial tensions, and the turbulence of the women's movement. The level of tension in the country was shocking," she said. "While in Belize, we had kept in touch with what was going on in the states by reading the weekly New York Times summary, but that did not prepare us for what we encountered on our return. Coming back was a hell of a shock; the level of anger was hard to deal with," she concluded.

30 Years Later Things today have improved markedly for both the United States and Belize; the dichotomy between then and now is striking. And today things are far different for Peace Corps volunteers, whom Douglas had an opportunity to meet while in Belize this summer. Telephone service is much better, computers and e-mail are now available, and volunteers can even visit the states, provided they pay their own transportation. "It's a global village now," Douglas observed, "It's not as isolated as it was when I was there."

Douglas said that the cultural changes throughout Belize today were "gratifying" to see. The water supply and sanitation systems are much better; the buildings are in better condition, and are more modern. And people's health and living standards have improved significantly over the past 30 years.

"One of the things we learned as Peace Corps volunteers was from being teased by the local people as being 'rich Americans.'" Douglas said. "It struck me, even then, that we are rich beyond the dreams of most of the other people in this world. When we are serving as volunteers, we like to think that we are living on the level of the host country, but in reality we could have hopped a plane and left at any time, whereas the Belizeans could not. We had a lot of support available, such as health care, etc., even medivac, if necessary, that separated us from the local people, even though we were striving to become assimilated into the country and culture."

"One of the lessons we learned 30 years ago is how fortunate we are to live in America. You see your country a little differently. You appreciate all that you have. It's interesting being abroad, but I like being an American," she concluded.

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Story Source: Piedmont Virginia Comunity College

This story has been posted in the following forums: : Headlines; COS - Belize



By Don M. Boileau on Tuesday, June 10, 2003 - 10:26 am: Edit Post

These are great stories. They are also a reminder of the service PCV's do by writing stories for local newspapers.

Don M. Boileau,
Professor of Communication
George Mason University

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