Joseph Wroblewski ’67 stared at the bulletin board inside Green Hall, captivated by the flier in front of him.
The Peace Corps Goes to Polynesia, it announced. Destination: South Pacific. Below the text, a group of men rowed a longboat through sparkling water, sunlight beaming down onto their faces. On the upper right, a pretty Polynesian woman with flowers in her hair smiled into the camera.
I’m a social studies major, and yet I’ve hardly left the Trenton area before, Wroblewski, then in his senior year at the College, found himself thinking. Isn’t it time I saw the world I’m going to be teaching kids about? Why not apply?
It’s a feeling that all Peace Corps volunteers have experienced in one way or another since the program began—a moment when the future seems to overflow with promises of international travel and exhilarating adventure and the chance to help others. In fact, at any given moment, thousands of Peace Corps volunteers have signed up to be scattered across the planet, compelled by the same sense of possibility that struck Wroblewski back in 1967.
But what happens when these volunteers arrive at their new homes halfway around the world? It can’t be easy to learn a new culture and a new language, far removed from family and friends, and without that favorite iPhone or go-to brand of boxed mac and cheese. So how do they do it? And how do those experiences impact the rest of their lives?
As the Peace Corps celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, there are decades worth of volunteers out there to offer answers. Numerous TCNJ alumni have served in the Corps over the past 50 years, and several were willing to share their memories of working hard, assimilating into a new culture and, more often than not, eating foods that really freaked them out.
“The toughest job you’ll ever love.”
There’s a popular image of the Peace Corps that exasperates its volunteers to no end. It centers on some spacey-looking American kid, just barely past his teenage years, traveling overseas to stare at the sky, talk about “life,” and occasionally grab his guitar to teach the “natives” songs by his favorite band.
“The Peace Corps is not made up of flighty hippies the way people think it is,” says Brian Cichon ’04, who volunteered in Peru from 2006 to 2008. “Sure, there are some who sign up, but those people are weeded out very quickly—they leave because it’s tough. It rains all the time and you have bad food and everyone stares at you. If you’re flighty or you don’t have the guts, you’re just not going to make it through.”
Maria Jennings ’03, who lived in Senegal from 2007 to 2009, adds: “Many people think that Peace Corps volunteers are all hippies or radicals straight from college. However, they are actually an extremely diverse group of people. They have very diverse political views, career goals, and backgrounds, and some are middle aged or older.”
Then there’s the work part of the job—yes, that says “work” and “job.” Beth Tomala ’01, who volunteered in Kenya from 2001 to 2003, says she struggled to convince her friends and family that serving in the Peace Corps is still a “real job” that sent her into an office every day. “I had to keep telling them that I wasn’t just over in Africa hanging out somewhere for two years,” she says. “I actually had a job and helped putsome exciting new projects in place.”
A Peace Corps volunteer’s work assignment depends largely on his/her host country’s needs, as well as his/her own skills and experience. There are six general program areas—education; youth and community development; health; business and information and communications technology; agriculture; and environment—but individual jobs within those areas range widely by volunteer and by country.
In Peru, Cichon—who already held a bachelor’s in psychology and a master’s degree in public health—worked on community health projects, including kick-starting about 200 gardens and leading demonstrations on how to assemble fresh, healthy salads. His second undertaking required a dip into less familiar waters: Cichon led an animal husbandry project to help locals raise guinea pigs—an Indian delicacy—that would serve as both a food source and an economic stimulus. (They’re actually quite tasty,he says.)
Despite her experience in education, Wendy Rich-Orloff ’94, who spent 1997 to 2000 in Samoa, says she wasn’t fully prepared for the challenges of her Peace Corps job. “The [Corps’] motto, ‘The toughest job you’ll ever love,’ was so accurate,” she says. Assigned as a teacher trainer for early childhood education, Rich-Orloff assessed current programming and developed new teacher-training methods. “It was hard because my boss wanted to improve the early childhood program, but my [Samoan] counterpart saw me as a threat and was not supportive,” she says. “In fact, my boss ultimately gave me a new counterpart to work with so we could advance.”
Tomala and Jennings, both sent to African countries, worked on small-business development projects. In Jennings’ case, that meant teaching marketing, accounting, and other basic business principles to small-business owners, women’s groups, and artisans in Senegal. She met with tailors and retailers to help calculate their profit margins, and she ran a radio show on the same subject. She also organized a girls’ empowerment seminar, promoted tree planting, and facilitated mosquito net distribution. While the work itself challenged her, Jennings says the hardest part was doing it all abroad. “You don’t do your job and go home each day,” she says. “You really live your job. My host family and local counterpart were very patient and helpful, but learning a language and learning how to function smoothly in a foreign environment takes time.”
And what about Joseph Wroblewski—that eager-to-travel student who graduated from the College in 1967, just six years after the Peace Corps began? He was assigned to the second Corps volunteer group ever sent to Samoa and, thanks to his teaching degree, landed in a boys’ boarding school just outside the capital city. He taught English, history, and geography there, and since the students were required to speak only in English, he didn’t experience the same level of culture shock that some other volunteers did. Actually, he says that in some ways, it wasn’t so different from teaching in America.
“I think the biggest misconception about the Peace Corps involves what people do there,” he says. “Volunteers do jobs you would find in any town or city in the United States. The jobs are so varied, and everyone doesn’t do the same thing. And you definitely don’t just go there to sit around and talk—you’re all doing real work.”
“There’s a bit of a travel bug in everyone who wants to join.”
When you’re in a foreign country without access to televisions or computers or cars or cell phones, your surroundings become your entertainment, and brief moments become lifelong memories. It’s those unforgettable experiences in a faraway land that many volunteers crave—and that drive them to sign up for the Peace Corps in the first place.
“I think there’s a bit of a travel bug in everyone who wants to join,” says Cichon, who selected Peru as his first-choice site partly because he knew some Spanish and partly because he’d heard it’s beautiful there. “End to end,” he adds, “you can go from gorgeous tropical beaches to dense Amazon forest to the snow-covered mountains.” And while he certainly remembers climbing an 18,000-foot glacier and floating down the Marañón River for three days, Cichon often reflects on more than just the impressive scenery.
“Peruvians are generally warm, kind, generous, and inquisitive,” he says. His host family considered him one of their own, including him in a family wedding and naming him the godfather of their new baby, born shortly after Cichon returned to the United States. He also met his now-wife there—a fellow volunteer with interests similar to his own, and with whom he shares the unique status of Peace Corps alumni.
Many of Tomala’s memories center on Kenya’s cuisine and cooking traditions—particularly those she learned from her host family. “For the first few months, you live with a family, and they teach you how to do all the stuff you know how to do [in America] but don’t know how to do over there: doing laundry, cooking over an open fire,” she says. “The first time my Kenyan mama let me make dinner for the whole family it was a big deal, and something I’ll never forget.”
Jennings says it’s impossible to boil her time in Senegal down to a few standout moments. Instead, she offers a pastiche of memories that evoke the feeling of living there: getting caught in a downpour with her host sisters and wading through knee-high water, laughing the whole time; sitting under a mango tree with a coworker while waiting to break the Ramadan fast with his family; riding around on the same coworker’s little moped with a backpack full of potatoes, trying to convince hotels to buy from his garden collective; biking out to a more rural area to visit other volunteers and join them for tea and peanuts and naps on woven mats.
“Peace Corps gives you a new life and a new name,” she adds. “For two years, I was Fatou Barry, and it’s difficult to describe that very different life in a few sentences.”
“It impacted my entire life!”
While moving to a new country for two years can elicit severe culture shock at the beginning, some volunteers are more surprised by the disconnection they feel after coming home. “In Samoa, the kids really wanted to go to school,” Wroblewski says. “There were kids crying because they weren’t accepted or their families couldn’t pay the tuition.” When he came back to the U.S. and began working for the Philadelphia School District, Wroblewski saw children who considered school a burden and skipped out often. “That was part of what they warn you about in the Peace Corps—the cultural shock of returning to the U.S.,” he says.
But once the dust settles and they reacclimate to American life, volunteers often find themselves continuing the work they began abroad. Tomala got a job with an international consulting company, and frequently works on projects for African countries. “Growing up in northern New Jersey, most of my friends from high school wound up working in Manhattan in the private sector or on Wall Street,” she says. “I think if I hadn’t done Peace Corps, I probably would have done that, too. But after doing Peace Corps, I found that I really liked doing international development work. I think [volunteering in Africa] completely changed my life.”
Rich-Orloff, who worked as a special education teacher before moving to Samoa, went on to graduate school and earned a master’s degree in international training and education. “Peace Corps clarified what I wanted to do,” she says. “It impacted my entire life!” For the past four years, she’s worked as an international education consultant, including projects in Pakistan, Cambodia, Fiji, Bangladesh, and Rwanda.
And while Wroblewski says teaching abroad solidified his desire to work in education, it affected his life in other ways, too. His Peace Corps delegation remains in close contact, reuniting every few years in different parts of the country. To commemorate their 40th anniversary of joining the Corps, the group returned to Samoa in 2007, revisiting their former homes and meeting the new wave of volunteers.
“I always tell people that for me, the Peace Corps was a great experience,” Wroblewski says. “I don’t regret it, and I would recommend it to anyone who’s considering joining.” That said, “I have a rule of travel: Anywhere the Peace Corps goes is probably not a good place to be a tourist.”