Thursday’s Convocation, “The Peace Corps at 50,” featured a panel of Willamette professors and an alumna who have participated with the Peace Corps. These speakers are just a few representatives of Willamette’s long tradition with the international service organization.
Spanish professor Julie Veltman and anthropology professor Joyce Millen, along with Peace Corps recruiter Sarah Kassel ’04, each volunteered with the Peace Corps after completing their undergraduate studies. French and Francophone Studies professor Amadou Fofana worked as a trainer for Peace Corps volunteers in Senegal.
Despite their diverse experiences, each speaker emphasized one thing: his or her expectations about working with the Peace Corps were completely toppled.
Kassel taught English to Micronesian children for a year after she graduated from Willamette.
“It was a huge learning curve for me to take the parameters of my project and make them work within the cultural parameters and context that I was living and working in,” Kassel says. “As a 22 year old, that wasn’t easy. But it’s also something that has served me incredibly well as I progress in my career.”
Millen’s experience with learning Jola, the language spoken in her Senegalese village, was the most challenging part of her four years in the corps.
“I lived with spiders and fruit bats and all sorts of wonderful creatures in my room,” Millen says, “but that was nothing compared to not being able to communicate. The children essentially taught me Jola through repetition.”
When strangers came to the village and heard Millen speaking Jola, they asked the villagers who Millen was and how she learned to speak the language.
“The kids got up and said, ‘She’s always spoken Jola!’ It was great. All that humiliation was gone,” Millen says.
Veltman worked at a medical dispensary and with local midwives in a village in Niger. She had believed her training would adequately prepare her for the job, and had not expected the daunting situations she would encounter.
“What struck me is how completely dependent I was on the kindness of strangers,” Veltman says. “The fact that I was in one of the least resourced places in the world, and that every day people took care of me, is an incredible testament to humanity.”
Fofana applied to train volunteers in French as a way to make money for school. Years later, after he started working at Willamette in 1999, he encountered several of his past students in Portland. He was moved by the evident impact he had had on them years earlier.
“I came to understand and accept that you don’t necessarily take a job to make money,” Fofana says. “The human connections are much more important and much more long lasting. What I got out of the Peace Corps was an understanding of the humanity of it all.”
“The Peace Corps at 50” is part of a series of Peace Corps-related activities and lectures during Alumni Weekend from Sept. 12-14. To learn about other Peace Corps events, check out the Alumni Weekend Schedule.
• Article by Emma Jonas ’15, creative writing major