June 1, 2005: Headlines: COS - Morocco: Phi Beta Kappa Foundation: Jack Sundell serves as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Morocco: Peace Corps Morocco : The Peace Corps in Morocco: June 1, 2005: Headlines: COS - Morocco: Phi Beta Kappa Foundation: Jack Sundell serves as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco

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Jack Sundell serves as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco

Jack Sundell serves as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco

It's ironic that, in leaving the United States, I've come to know a group of Americans that has renewed my faith in the future of our country. The United States exercises an enormous economic and cultural influence on the rest of the world. But a regrettably common characteristic of our society is a pervasive ignorance and lack of curiosity about the peoples, languages and customs of other nations. The Peace Corps is a strong antidote to this problem. And, for an organization that relies on its members' self-motivation to effect positive change through grassroots cultural exchange, a voluntary sign-up to spend two years abroad is its own screening process.

Jack Sundell serves as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Morocco

Among Our Key People

By Jack Sundell
The Key Reporter
Phi Beta Kappa Foundation
Summer 2005

I've been in Morocco with the Peace Corps for 21 months now, and it's been one of the most exciting, challenging and interesting periods of my life. It's difficult to capture in words the full flavor of the experience, but I'd like to share a little about what it's like, including some trials and triumphs in what I've come to consider a two-year internship in the subject of life.

I grew up in Monticello, Ark., a town of 9,000 people. After graduating from Hendrix College in 2000, I was a waiter for two years in New York City and then a hall counselor at the Interlochen Arts Academy, a fine arts boarding high school near Traverse City, Mich. During that year I applied to join the Peace Corps, and in July 2003 I accepted an assignment in Morocco.

The program left in September, and the last two months in the United States flew by in a flurry of packing, learning about Morocco and saying goodbye to family and friends. Two years is a long time to be away, and I left knowing that a lot of things would be different when I returned, myself included.

These days the Peace Corps is a 27- month commitment: two years of service preceded by three months of incountry training. The training was a fast and fun ride that focused primarily on giving us the survival skills necessary to begin living and working in a foreign country. After a week in Rabat, Morocco's capital, the rest of training was divided between Fez and our much smaller community-based training (CBT) sites. CBT is the Peace Corps version of on-the-job training, putting volunteers into a situation as close as possible to the one in which they'll spend the next two years.

This was also a chance to see two different sides of Morocco, the urban and the rural, which I've come to consider a distinguishing characteristic of life in a developing country. In a city such as Fez, one can find almost anything that's available in the United States or Europe, be it information, technology or job opportunities. But many rural areas I've seen seem to have been forgotten by the government, a phenomenon marked by unpaved roads, under-equipped and overcrowded schools, and people who dream only of emigrating to the West-for them a mythical Garden of Eden no longer to be found in the Middle East.

Before I came, I'm embarrassed to admit, I thought Morocco was almost entirely desert, filled with nomads, palm trees and camels. In fact, it's one of the most splendid, diverse and breathtaking countries in the world in terms of natural beauty. It has hundreds of miles of coastline along the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, the Rif Mountains in the north and the Atlas Mountains in the center and south.

There are urban centers such as Fez, Marrakech and Tangier, which boast spectacular monuments from bygone eras and walled medinas, old city centers that still bustle with business and commerce. And there's the Sahara Desert (or simply the Desert as it's called here -- sahara is the Arabic word for desert), mostly in the southern one-third of the country. In short, it's certainly not the hot, dry mono-landscape I'd imagined.

After training ended, I shipped off to a small city called Azilal on the western hip of the High Atlas Mountains.

It's a provincial capital of about 40,000 people. Despite its population, it lacks many attributes one associates with an American city this size. There's only one main road, no movie theater, no swimming pool, no university, and very little in the way of industry or cultural activities. I lived with a host family for the first two months, and now I'm renting an apartment in the center of town. My days consist mainly of working, getting to know people and learning Arabic, three activities that are inextricably linked.

My Peace Corps job description is basically "working with youth," a label broad enough to make my imagination the only limit to finding fun and productive ways to spend my time. I'm stationed at a youth center, which functions primarily as an after-school activities center for local clubs and associations. I started out teaching English in order to gain credibility in the community, but I've branched out into other areas.

These include teaching music, playing Ping-Pong, going on hikes, starting chess and cinema clubs, and drawing and -- with help -- painting a giant map of the world on a wall at the youth center. The idea is to get young people involved in constructive and engaging extracurricular activities, something not generally offered in the Moroccan school system. As with any job, there have been ups and downs, but it's never boring.

The second part of my role is the cultural exchange that goes on 24 hours a day. This is very important, given the current state of relations between the United States and the Arab world. The groundwork for peace is laid when people get to know each other well enough to see that they're not really that different after all. Living in Morocco, making friends, learning the language and adapting to the culture, I'm aware that people here are human beings just like me who happen to have been born in a different part of the world. And through these processes, I think Moroccan people understand the same thing about me.

That said, life here is totally different and has taken a lot of getting used to. The most obvious difference is religion: Islam is a part of this society the way that water is a part of ice. There is no separation of "church" and state, and Islamic education is a school subject from grades 1 through 12. A second vast difference is the fact that Morocco is a monarchy. The king is a very powerful figure, and his portrait hangs in almost every nonresidential building in the country.

Another major adaptive issue has been the language, one of the most challenging and thought-provoking aspects of my time here. When I arrived, I didn't speak a word of Moroccan Arabic (a spoken dialect of classical Arabic, the language used in the Koran), and it made me realize the glory and general importance of verbal communication. When I speak English, it almost never occurs to me that I'm putting thoughts and ideas into words. Being deprived of the ability to express these ideas and thoughts is almost like being stripped of my personality.

By now, I understand a lot of what I hear, and I can say most things that I want to say, but not necessarily the way I want to say them.

There have been a lot of frustrating and humorous situations along the way, like being unable to properly explain the rules of "Simon Says" to a roomful of students or accidentally saying something terribly vulgar to my host family while trying to describe a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Overall, learning the language has been a very positive experience, an exercise in patience and humility that has made me put my pride on the shelf and not mind being bad at something in front of other people.

I've also had opportunities to get involved in projects in other parts of the country. I enjoy this because it's a chance to see new aspects of Morocco and to work with other folks in the Peace Corps. The first such experience was a two-week English-language summer camp in Taghazoute, a small beach town near Agadir in the southwest.

The Ministry of Youth and Sports, which set up the camp, requested 18 Peace Corps volunteers to work as camp coordinators, English teachers, activity organizers and kitchen staff.

Most of the campers were from urban, affluent families. They were well-educated, privileged and quite European in their views and attitudes, a stark contrast to the youth I work with in Azilal.

Shortly after the camp, I went to Rabat for an HIV/AIDS conference sponsored by the Peace Corps. This brought several volunteers together with representatives from the Moroccan Ministry of Health and many of the country's largest HIV/AIDS nongovernmental organizations.

Afterward the nine volunteers who attended the conference launched an HIV/AIDS committee to facilitate future Peace Corps projects dealing with this issue by disseminating information on available resources and contacts.

Last September, a new Peace Corps group arrived, and I helped with their training. I presented a session on Moroccan culture from a Western perspective, and I joined a communitybased training group for a week to offer advice on lesson planning and adapting to life in Morocco. I was amazed to discover how much I had learned during the previous year about subjects such as Islam, the Arabic language and teaching English. The learning process had been so gradual that, like watching your hair grow out, I had never noticed the progress I was making.

These experiences illustrate one of the advantages of coming to a foreign country with the Peace Corps: Being a member of a recognized and respected international agency presents unique work opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable.

Another bonus, and one I had not expected, is the quality of people who join the Peace Corps. From the beginning, I have been amazed at the intellectual curiosity, personal integrity and depth of character of the other volunteers.

My group comprises a stunning variety of ages (early 20s to mid-60s), interests and backgrounds, and the two groups that arrived after we did suggest that mine is no exception.

It's ironic that, in leaving the United States, I've come to know a group of Americans that has renewed my faith in the future of our country. The United States exercises an enormous economic and cultural influence on the rest of the world. But a regrettably common characteristic of our society is a pervasive ignorance and lack of curiosity about the peoples, languages and customs of other nations. The Peace Corps is a strong antidote to this problem. And, for an organization that relies on its members' self-motivation to effect positive change through grassroots cultural exchange, a voluntary sign-up to spend two years abroad is its own screening process.

I'm often asked if I'd recommend the Peace Corps to people back home, and the answer is yes. I know that many people, as I did before coming here, have reservations about joining a government agency and the inevitable bureaucracy and restrictions that this entails. However, the Peace Corps offers advantages that are difficult to find elsewhere, such as three months of language training, local host families, health insurance, vaccinations, student loan deferment, graduate school scholarships, and a readjustment allowance to help you get back on your feet once you're finished.

All this is on top of an opportunity to live and work in another country, learn a new language, and become a citizen of the world by volunteering your time and energy to helping people to help themselves. Of course, the Peace Corps is not perfect; it's not always easy; and it's not for everyone.

But for anyone prepared to embark on a life-changing adventure, it's a fun, challenging, unique and rewarding experience that you'll never forget.

Editor's note: Jack Sundell is a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco. A native of New Orleans, he grew up in Monticello, Ark. In 2000 he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Hendrix College in Conway, Ark. He majored in international relations and global studies and spent a year at the University of Caen in France. His career goal is to become a professional flamenco guitar player and to own a chess café/used book store.

When this story was posted in October 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:

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Story Source: Phi Beta Kappa Foundation

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