Peace Corps China volunteer Danny Cassiday hosts "The Dubbing Show," in which his students dub Chinese films into English. Photo: Unknown student.
By David Lepeska
Mary Owen admits to being a bit Jekyll and Hyde about the Peace Corps. "It's a very good ambassador program," the former volunteer said, dubbing the Peace Corps "the best program at widening the minds of Americans." But that might not be enough. "I think we all want it to do more," she added. "But what is more?"
Good question. As its 50th anniversary looms in 2011, proponents and politicians are working to expand the Peace Corps, which suddenly finds itself in the crossfire.
An internal Peace Corps survey found that three quarters found their service rewarding, and nearly 85 percent would recommend it to their friends. Four returned volunteers gave Devex a more nuanced view.
Owen returned a year early from her stint as an educational events organizer and sometime teacher in the Philippines because she "felt like I'm kinda done here."
Her problems began right after her arrival in 2005.
"They used a new training model for my group," she recalled, referring to the three months of training every volunteer receives upon arriving in their host country. The training focused on culture and language and was paired with community walks in which the volunteers were to assess the needs of locals and, later, build programs around those needs.
"A lot of these kids were just totally bored out of their minds, and were lost," said Owen, adding that part of the problem was more volunteers than available positions - the Phillippines program is the Peace Corps' largest, with more than 130 volunteers. "They had a lot of difficulty being useful; many of these jobs weren't even jobs - job descriptions were so amorphous you don't even know what to do."
Still, Owen applauded the Peace Corps for acknowledging such limitations.
"We don't want to go in there and push solutions to problems that they don't think are problems," she said. "I don't envy the people who are going to try to make Peace Corps relevant."
Buoyant in Burkina
Michigan native Kara Tierney taught math and science in Burkina Faso from 2005 to 2007. She had no teaching experience and had never heard of the west African country until the Peace Corps invitation packet turned up at her house. Yet upon arrival on site she was able to adjust quickly because of a very helpful teaching advisor who prepared lesson plans and provided lots of useful instruction. Input from volunteers who had already been teaching in the region for a year also helped.
"They could relate to us well, and knew what we were going through; they gave us a lot of great tips," said Tierney, who was confident she made a difference in the community she was stationed in. "My school had a shortage of teachers and if I hadn't been there the students would've missed out on a lot of class."
It wasn't perfect, but Tierney relishes her Peace Corps experience.
"I joined it basically because I didn't know what else to do and I always wanted to live somewhere really different," she recalled with a laugh. "I didn't have a ton of expectations going in, but I'm really happy I did it."
Tierney admits to days of frustration and some rough patches, but she thinks she's found a career.
"I'd never thought about teaching," she said, "but it turns out I really like teaching."
Chinglish not spoken here
In August 2007, Danny Cassiday began teaching English to college students at a school of traditional medicine in southwestern China.
"The China program is very structured," he said, speaking from Guizhang. "It's clear-cut what courses you're going to teach, and you begin teaching right away."
Guizhou province is poor, so class sizes can be large and unruly. Cassiday taught about 250 students in his first semester - a period he called a "train wreck" on his blog - and had more than 350 students in his second, including a speech class of 78.
"You try to do what you can," he said. "I'm absolutely not going to improve the English of every student with whom I come into contact, but certainly I could have a positive impact on most."
He encouraged the students to create several weekly English-speaking events and is confident he has helped many begin to grasp a language that is never spoken in their day-to-day lives.
Cassiday called his experience "transformative," and said his staff and China's foreign affairs officials have been extremely supportive.
"A lot of the criticisms don't really apply here," he said.
According to Cassiday, there are more than enough available volunteer jobs, many of the volunteers have master's degrees and a good number are older and more experienced.
"One is a retired principal," he noted. "She's got a big advantage, and is so helpful in so many ways."
Cassiday looks forward to his second year with the Peace Corps, and to more older volunteers arriving soon.
Nam Lamore was 35 when he started his 2-year Peace Corps stint in 2005. As an older, more experienced volunteer, he was encouraged to provide more input into his placement and was pleased to end up helping develop small businesses in Morocco. He relished the intensive culture, language, and skills training but his excitement cooled soon after he arrived on site.
The program was completely unstructured, compared to work he'd done in the past with non-governmental organizations. In addition, he was regularly harassed; because of his Vietnamese heritage many Moroccans didn't accept him as an American.
"It took me a good 10 months to get really integrated into the community," Lamore said. "In Morocco it's all about relationships and if you don't have the relationships it's hard to do the work."
Lamore said that he helped many locals run their businesses more efficiently but felt the Peace Corps program itself could have been better organized. He suggested harassment training and a mentoring program for incoming volunteers.
"The idealism I totally believe in," he said. "The execution I'm frustrated with."
-- posted to devex.com on 25 July 2008