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John and Julia Stock Sarreal were Peace Corps Volunteers in Paraguay
John and Julia Stock Sarreal were Peace Corps Volunteers in Paraguay
John ’96 and Julia Stock Sarreal ’94
Curuguaty, Paraguay, 1998–2000
Senior associate, Zeborg Inc. (JS)
Latin American history student at Harvard (JSS)
Work focus and Swarthmore influence: “Swarthmore was a wonderful experience. The intellectual atmosphere on campus expanded my horizons and view of the world. An especially influential class was Catholic Social Thought, which Professors Hugh Lacey and James Kurth taught. I remember being fascinated with liberation theology and Latin America. This course awakened an interest in Latin America, which has grown over the years,” Julia said.
“We chose PC as a way to live and work in Latin America because of the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the culture and integrate ourselves into a rural community to which we would otherwise probably not have access,” she added. “An important part of PC was the opportunity to give something back and help others, which is important to us because of the various forms of assistance we have received, such as generous financial aid to attend Swarthmore. We never thought that we would change the world or make a major impact, but we wanted to make a difference in the lives of a few people,” added John, who as a senior associate at Zeborg now helps companies save money by transforming purchasing into a strategic cost-savings activity.
“I had two primary projects in PC,” Julia continued. “First, I worked with a group of eight subsistence farmers on an income generation project. After working in an office in New York City for two years, I was very excited to be outside, learning about the basics of life. It was an amazing and unforgettable experience. The work was rewarding—we were able to build a facility for storing grains so that the community would have sanitary corn and beans throughout the year for their families to eat and sell. More important than the work were the personal relationships I made. John and I came to consider the closest of our friends as family. Paraguayans always welcomed us into their homes and were incredibly generous. Families that could not afford to put meat on their tables always shared meals of beans and mandioca with us and frequently sent us home with something harvested from their fields. Some Paraguayans tried to take advantage of us, but the small group with whom we established close relationships were wonderful. We developed a great respect for subsistence farmers—the difficulties and hard work they faced were tremendous—men cultivating their fields by hand, without plows or tractors, and women cooking over fires and pulling all of the families’ water out of a well.”
Then, John said: “I worked with the staff of a small cooperative and taught them accounting, business, and management principles. I developed a customized database application for them to use on their international grant–funded computers, which helped them to apply the business skills I was teaching them. One computer was used as a cash register, tracking sales, inventory, and cash balances. The secretary used the other computer for bookkeeping and financial management for the cooperative as a whole.”
“As a secondary project, John and I taught English at the new local university, Uninorte,” Julia said. “All PC volunteers in Paraguay are asked to teach English. At first, John and I were very reluctant—English would not be useful in a rural Paraguayan town. But we soon were convinced to help the community in their project for the first university in the region. Teaching was challenging, especially because the educational and motivational level of the students varied immensely. But, again, we valued the small impact we made on a few students. This gave me invaluable experience.”
Challenges and rewards: “Being away from our friends, family, and culture for over two years was incredibly difficult. During rainy days, and especially holidays, we felt the distance the most. The cultural differences could be difficult, and frequently, we felt out of place. Fortunately, we served as a couple, so we always were able to talk to each other and share our successes and problems,” Julia said.
“A secondary challenge was the medical difficulties. We frequently had diarrhea and other ailments. Although we avoided dengue fever and other serious illnesses, unlike some of our friends and colleagues, Julia did have an interesting experience with a 10-inch tapeworm,” John continued.
“Despite all of the difficulties, we enjoyed our experience and got a lot out of it,” Julia said.
Impact of PC experience: “Our time in Paraguay further heightened my appreciation for Latin America,” Julia said. “While in Paraguay, like most PC volunteers, I read a lot. In addition to novels, I read a lot of history, especially about Paraguay. The country’s history, in particular, the Jesuit Missions, fascinated me. I started to explore the idea of graduate school. Since I had only taken one history course at Swarthmore, I decided to write a research paper about the Jesuit Missions to investigate the depth of my interest in history. The project was not easy because we lived eight hours from a good library and only went into the capital once a month, but I still thoroughly enjoyed my research. Thus, I submitted applications to graduate school upon returning to the States. I have just completed my second year of graduate school at Harvard and will be writing a dissertation on the Paraguayan Jesuit missions. Academia enables me to maintain a connection with Latin America through my studies and regular research trips.”
She added: “I am also excited about eventually becoming a professor because my experiences in Paraguay led me to believe that teaching is the best way to impact others and facilitate change. Teachers expose children and young adults to new ideas, concepts, and worldviews.”
“PC gave us a good perspective about life and what is important to us. We learned that we could live simply, without amenities such as a car, telephone, and television—and still be very happy,” John said. “Because we always knew that we could and would return to a privileged life in the United States, we realized that we could never fully comprehend the experiences of many of our less fortunate Paraguayan friends. Still, in the back of our minds, we always remember that most people in the world live with much less than we do and that our problems are so trivial compared with those of people who do not have access to health care or cannot feed their children.”
“Two years after leaving Paraguay, John and I returned for a visit. Seeing our friends was wonderful—we were welcomed home like family,” Julia continued. “We can happily report that the co-op still manages its finances with John’s computer program, the community uses the grain storage facility, and many of our students are still pursuing their studies. Unfortunately, Paraguay’s economic conditions have only gotten worse, and there are still many problems,” Julia said.
PC choice for others: “A successful experience requires initiative, flexibility, and creativity. We both were glad that we worked two years before joining the PC. The work experience gave us greater maturity and the ability to work independently and without a lot of structure. We recommend PC, especially for someone curious about other cultures and willing to live at the level of the people. PC provides the extra advantage of good language training, a security network, and health coverage. We think about joining PC again when we retire, in another 30 years,” Julia said.