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From MWC to Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic
From MWC to Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic
From MWC to the Peace Corps
Ben Peck '01BY AUSTIN MERRILL '91
On Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, Ben Peck got up at 5:30 a.m. in his room at the Omni Colonnade Hotel in Coral Gables, Fla. He and 35 others -- along with their collective luggage of more than 100 bags -- had a morning flight to catch to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, where they were slated to begin three months of training to become Peace Corps Volunteers.
At Miami International Airport, 30 minutes before they were to board their American Airlines flight, the group heard that two planes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York. It was four hours before they could gather their luggage and get back to the hotel. It was nearly a week before they were able to fly to Santo Domingo. By then President George W. Bush, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and a host of other leaders were urging Americans to resume their normal lives. For Ben Peck '01 and the rest of his group, resuming their normal lives meant starting brand-new ones.
Ben is one of the latest to join in what is becoming something of a Mary Washington College tradition. In March 2001, President William M. Anderson Jr. received a letter from Acting Director of the Peace Corps Charles R. Baquet III, congratulating the College for ranking seventh nationally among small colleges and universities with alumni serving as Peace Corps Volunteers. With 16 alumni serving at the time, this marked the third year in a row that Mary Washington had been ranked in the top 10, and placed the College in the company of such schools as Johns Hopkins, Dartmouth, Oberlin and the University of Chicago.
Over the years, a total of 107 Mary Washington graduates have joined the Peace Corps, serving in 53 countries in the developing world -- places such as Bolivia, Madagascar, Uzbekistan, Mongolia and Micronesia. Faculty and former faculty have served as well, including Professor Emeritus of Education Paul Zisman, who was a volunteer in Venezuela from 1964-1966; Assistant Professor of Education George Meadows (Malaysia, 1980-1982); and Professor Emerita of Psychology Alice Rabson, who served in the Marshall Islands from 1986-1988 after she retired from the College.
The idea of joining the Peace Corps had always been in the back of Ben Peck's mind. A business administration major from Lexington, Va., he followed his dad's advice and spent two-and-a-half months backpacking around Europe the summer before his senior year at Mary Washington. It was during that trip that he began to take his Peace Corps notions more seriously.
"Ben was very highly thought of and a leader," says Galen deGraff, one of Ben's business professors. "He was an excellent student who had lots of opportunities, but saw the Peace Corps as a chance for enthusiastic involvement." Ben and Professor deGraff have discussed the possibility of working together on a developmental business project for Ben's village once he gets settled.
Sara Thomas '99 and two local children at Tajumulco Waterfall enjoying soft drinks (in bags).Hermence Matsotsa '99 had Peace Corps in her blood -- her father was a volunteer in Gabon in the 1970s. An international affairs major at Mary Washington, Hermence spent her junior year in Ecuador, where her involvement with a reforestation project whetted her appetite for working in a foreign country. Back in the classrooms of Monroe Hall she concentrated her studies on development work but wanted to get more experience in the field. "I was making the grade in class," says Hermence. "But would I be able to do it on a graduate level? I wanted to see firsthand and discover the truth about what I was studying."
In December 2001 Hermence completed her Peace Corps service in Togo, a sliver of a country in West Africa, where she spent two years as a girls education and empowerment volunteer. In Kabou, her village of about 1,000 inhabitants located in the middle of the country, Hermence spent most of her time working with students at the local school. She created a girls club, set up debate teams, and led several AIDS awareness programs.
Initially Hermence found the adjustment to life as a Peace Corps Volunteer "surprisingly difficult." But her years at Mary Washington had helped her hone a philosophy that was to prove invaluable in Togo -- that by being herself and working hard she could demonstrate the many qualities she had to offer the people there. Now she wants to find a career that will allow her to continue the kind of work she did as a volunteer, and, to that end, hopes to enter graduate school in fall 2002 to study international affairs or social development.
Few people have been as determined to join the Peace Corps as Sara Thomas '99. She arrived at Mary Washington in fall 1995 having spent part of high school studying in the Middle East. That experience piqued her interest in international work and travel, and she set out to structure her college coursework around her goal to become a volunteer. "She's the only geology-Spanish major we've ever had," says Ana Chichester, who was a Spanish professor of Sara's at Mary Washington. "She was just so full of energy and did everything with such dedication, it's no surprise that she was able to connect with people."
Shortly after graduation in May 1999, Sara left for Guatemala, where she spent two years working in and around Tajumulco, her village of about 200 people. For one project, Sara received a grant to build four playgrounds. She also orchestrated a contest among the local children to design educational murals on such topics as potable water.
But that's not the half of it. Sara convinced her municipality's mayor to donate space for the construction of a library, and she helped raise $12,000 for the building's books and computers. She worked with a Canadian organization to provide local women with bicycle-powered machines to grind beans and corn. She taught English in the middle school. She even found time to work on a tree nursery project to help combat deforestation.
Sara arrived home from Guatemala in August 2001, and is now a graduate student at the New School University in New York City, where she is studying urban policy and management. Upon graduation she would like to pursue a career that will combine her interests in minority groups, nongovernmental and nonprofit organizations, and international affairs.
Pete Temple '96 and Kirsten Franklin '97 began dating in 1995. Pete was a business administration major and picked up a Peace Corps application at the College's Career Day in the fall of his senior year. It took him more than a year to go through the application process -- he worked at GEICO in Fredericksburg in the meantime -- and he left for a two-year stint as an economic development volunteer in Honduras in February 1997.
Kirsten, an international affairs major who focused mostly on Africa and the Middle East in her studies, decided to apply to the Peace Corps as well, having received encouragement from Curtis Ryan, a favorite professor of hers at Mary Washington. In July 1997 she went to visit Pete in San Antonio del Norte, his town of about 1,000 people, where he was teaching business skills to high- school students and was assisting with a house-building project. Kirsten says her trip to see Pete was a "shocker," but it reinforced her desire to become a volunteer. "Pete was used to cows roaming around his yard," she says. "And I was being stupid and taking all these pictures. But it made me realize how much I wanted to do it."
On the way home from Honduras, Kirsten called her mother, who told her that her Peace Corps assignment had arrived. Kirsten would soon be off to Gabon in equatorial Africa. She left in October 1997 and spent the next two years in the tiny village of Akok as a forestry and agriculture extension agent. Pete went to visit her in August 1999 once his service in Honduras was over. By December 1999 Kirsten's tour was up, and she and Pete now live in Richmond, where he is working toward an MBA and she works for Refugee and Immigration Services, a nonprofit agency.
That such experiences are becoming commonplace among Mary Washington College graduates is of no small consequence. While Ben, Hermence, Sara, Pete, Kirsten and numerous others clearly have much in common, their greatest kinship beyond the Peace Corps is their Mary Washington tenure.
"We have been proud over the years that our graduates have volunteered to serve their fellow man around the globe," says President Anderson. "Mary Washington College educates students to become graduates who are prepared to be active citizens of the world, and part of that responsibility is donating time and helping others in less fortunate situations." He also says that facets of the College's curriculum such as the global awareness requirement and the Community Outreach and Resources (COAR) program encourage an active exchange of service and learning through community involvement.
"It is not surprising that students have a public and community service interest as well as a global perspective on the world after they graduate from Mary Washington College," says President Anderson. And in Ben Peck's case, it is not surprising that the events of Sept. 11 did nothing to deter him from serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
After being delayed in Florida for a week, Ben arrived in the Dominican Republic on Sept. 17, antsy and eager to begin his work as an economic adviser. He and the rest of his group trained from eight to five, Monday through Saturday, learning everything from Spanish and local dance to technical skills related to their respective assignments. When not in class, Ben spent time in the barrios around Santo Domingo and in the countryside while acclimating to a diet heavy on rice, beans, meat and a long list of tropical fruits.
Although the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon may have strengthened Ben's resolve, they also made his job more difficult. The Dominican economy is particularly sensitive to bumpy conditions in New York and Washington, and in the aftermath of Sept. 11, the economic outlook from Santo Domingo was not good. Mail was held up, many jobs were lost, and with a huge number of Dominicans living in New York City, there were deaths to mourn as well. But through it all, Ben witnessed the strength of will of the residents of the small nation that will be his home for two years. He has been told over and over by those he meets that the Dominican Republic supports the United States, and that the people there feel great sorrow for what America has endured. Ben and his fellow trainees have received extra briefings from the U.S. embassy on safety, but he does not feel that his mission there has been adversely affected.
When, in October 1960, John F. Kennedy asked a group of students at the University of Michigan how many among them would be willing to serve their country by volunteering in the developing world, could he have foreseen that more than 40 years later nearly 165,000 people would have taken up his challenge?
It is a safe bet that Mary Washington College graduates will continue to follow in the footsteps of Ben Peck and those who went before him. Perhaps in the wake of Sept. 11, Kennedy's challenge resonates more than ever.
Austin Merrill '91, who majored in history at MWC, worked as an assistant dean of admissions at the College until he joined the Peace Corps, spending two years in the Ivory Coast. In 1999 he received a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University, and is now a writer and editor living in New York City.
If you have served in the Peace Corps and would like to send us a paragraph about your experience, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or write Editor, MWC Today, Publications Office, Mary Washington College, 1301 College Ave., Fredericksburg, VA 22401-5358.
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When this story was prepared, here was the front page of PCOL magazine:
This Month's Issue: August 2004
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and who can come up with the funniest caption for our Current Events Funny?
Exclusive: Director Vasquez speaks out in an op-ed published exclusively on the web by Peace Corps Online saying the Dayton Daily News' portrayal of Peace Corps "doesn't jibe with facts."
In other news, the NPCA makes the case for improving governance and explains the challenges facing the organization, RPCV Bob Shaconis says Peace Corps has been a "sacred cow", RPCV Shaun McNally picks up support for his Aug 10 primary and has a plan to win in Connecticut, and the movie "Open Water" based on the negligent deaths of two RPCVs in Australia opens August 6. Op-ed's by RPCVs: Cops of the World is not a good goal and Peace Corps must emphasize community development.
Read the stories and leave your comments.