Thomas Powers (M63) calls the experience "soul-shaking."
In 1963, with a Northwestern medical degree behind him and residency in the future, he joined the U.S. Peace Corps and headed to Malawi in southeastern Africa. By the end of his two years, Powers had set up clinics across the country to combat tuberculosis, provided medical care to countless Malawians and fellow volunteers, and changed his life.
"I was one of the children of Kennedy, very much caught up in the idealism of the early 1960s," he says.
In a painful irony, toward the end of his service, Powers contracted the tuberculosis that he had worked so hard to prevent. He returned to the United States "too weak to lick a postage stamp."
He recovered and joined the Peace Corps administration in Washington, D.C., first as deputy chief of medicine and later chief of medicine, its top medical position. Powers, now a psychiatrist in San Francisco, spent nearly a decade advancing one of the Peace Corps' primary goals improving health care in developing countries, despite obstacles such as those he faced in Malawi.
"Most of what I learned in medical school didn't count for much in that part of the world," says Powers. Yet his experiences provided perspective on the harsh realities of exporting U.S. technology to the developing world. "It's like a ship of aliens landing in the village courtyard."
But the Peace Corps proved to be a pivotal experience in his life that "changed me substantially and much for the good."
Many of the nearly 800 Northwestern alumni who have served in the Peace Corps were similarly affected by their two years of taking the United States to the world and in turn bringing the world back home. Their experiences have taken them from the Czech Republic to the Dominican Republic, from Mongolia to Timbuktu. They learned demanding languages, lived in sometimes difficult conditions and grappled with exotic diseases.
"The experience changes them in profound ways," says Peace Corps spokesperson Brendan Daly from Washington, D.C. "In the early days of the Peace Corps, it really opened their eyes that the rest of the world lives very differently than we do. That's still true."
The Peace Corps, one of President John F. Kennedy's most enduring legacies, has grown and changed since its inception in 1961. But at heart its three-pronged mission remains the same to promote a better understanding of the United States, to send trained men and women to countries that request U.S. help and to enhance the United States' understanding of the world and its peoples.
The organization's orientation has evolved. In the early days, most volunteers were teachers or health care workers. Now, they are as likely to have experience in business or environmental issues. "The goals are still the same, but the means to accomplish them have changed," Daly says.
The lineup of host countries has also changed. In recent years, volunteers began serving in Jordan, South Africa and the republics of the former Soviet Union. The organization is seeking extra funding from Congress to add to its $244 million annual budget in a move to fund 10,000 volunteers. Among the current crop of 7,400 (average age: 29) in 78 countries are 40 Northwestern alumni. The Peace Corps' popularity is soaring, with volunteer numbers approaching a 25-year high. Some 10,000 apply each year for 3,500 to 4,000 spots, proving that the echo of Kennedy's call still resonates.
That call enticed Candace Kabrick Utroska (S62) and her husband, Donald, to join in October 1963. They went to Nigeria as teachers.
"The thing we learned was that as young Americans going abroad, we thought we were going to be the people who had the answers to every question, that we knew how to do everything and do everything right," says Utroska, who now lives in Lake Forest, Ill. "But I think we learned over the course of our experiences that there are many ways of doing things, and you have to work with people to come to a solution that fits their culture and their needs."
Once, when a student came down with the mumps, the Utroskas' attempt to quarantine him simply didn't make it across the cultural divide, leaving the couple with a mini-epidemic on their hands. On a more successful note, one boy did trust Candace's background in communication disorders. When he told her he couldn't hear her in class, she discovered that tonsillitis had affected his hearing and recommended an operation. In an extraordinary event in his village's life, the boy traveled 500 miles to Lagos for the procedure. The Utroskas later helped support him in his education, and he became a lifelong friend.
They also took to heart the Peace Corps' mission to bring the world to America. Especially in the early years when the rules were more fluid, the volunteers' efforts along these lines occasionally took some strange turns. At one point, the Utroskas sent exotic primates bush babies and angwan tibo lemurs to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. Weeks later, they received a telegram. "We are extremely pleased to receive such rare and handsome animals. What do they eat?"
Teachers are still a significant Peace Corps export, but volunteer skills have diversified. Maria Longi (McC88) used her background in chemical engineering and law at an environmental law center in Wroclaw, Poland, in 1997. She provided free legal services to Poles and nongovernmental organizations.
"I was called upon almost daily to describe how this or that was done in the U.S.," Longi says. "I was able to learn so much about life under the 'prior system,' their postWorld War II experiences and life in Poland today. It was amazing to live in a culture that has gone through such drastic changes in the past 10 years."
Political change is nothing new for volunteers. In the Philippines, against the backdrop of the fall of president Ferdinand Marcos and Corazon Aquino's "People's Power" revolution, Gregg Baker (WCAS82) helped rice producers in the town of Mabini develop a co-op to market their product. From 1985 to 1987, Baker, now director of the Midwest office of the U.S. Agency for International Development, helped foster small businesses.
It was difficult amid several coup attempts, but the co-op managed to spur economic development in a town with few resources. When he returned to the Philippines in 1998, Baker discovered the co-op still existed. He found during service there that the best resource for learning about the country and economy was the family of 14 he lived with.
"I had this whole microcosm of the Philippines with me every day," he remembers. "It was like built-in consultants."
More than 155,000 volunteers have served in 134 countries in the Peace Corps' nearly four decades. But Africa, where need of its services is perhaps greatest, remains significant to the organization's identity. The image of the "mud hut" Peace Corps volunteers living far from civilization is common for many in the United States.
Irwin Arieff (J73) epitomized the image. In 1969, a mud hut in a village of 200 in West Africa's Senegal was his home. "For a soft city boy like myself, it was quite amazing to be living in a region where there were still castes, where some people still worshipped trees and rocks and wild animals, and where half the newborns died before age 5. ...There was no electricity, no running water, no streets, no mail."
Among the lessons Arieff learned was the value of tolerance.
"Different people have their own way of doing things, and no way is intrinsically better than anyone else's," he says. Successful volunteers were those who could look at the world through different lenses.
"I often felt as if I were a child again in the sense that the world around me was completely new and unfamiliar," says Ruth Barber (G95), who served in the tiny West African country of Benin from 1991 to 1993.
Women's roles were especially unfamiliar to her. In a country where polygamy is common and opportunities for women rare, one of her significant accomplishments was helping two girls enroll in high school. "The opportunity to educate themselves has profoundly changed their lives and will affect those of their children," Barber says.
Changing women's lives was not her only challenge. "Perhaps most difficult for me was learning to live at a slower pace. Villagers did not live by the clock, they did not hurry anywhere and sitting under a tree was an activity.
"In an effort to learn to appreciate this pace and to understand more of the culture, I took to practicing doing nothing. I did not sit under a tree, but I did designate a chair near a window. The first day I could only sit there for about 30 minutes, but each day I managed a bit more. Within six months, I was able to sit there doing nothing for three or four hours.
"I came to cherish those hours as my most significant lens to understanding the people and environment around me."
It is often the environment as much as the culture that challenges volunteers. Lindsay Rust (WCAS96) served in Niger, one of the hottest places on earth. Temperatures in the hot season averaged 115 degrees. "You're paralyzed in sweat," she says.
Despite the heat, she was fortunate to be in a village that took advantage of much of what she had to offer. Rust taught children, explained soil erosion and tree-grafting techniques, started a savings-and-loan group for village women and helped establish gardens on the banks of the Niger River.
"I never tried to push them in my direction. They would come and say, 'This is what we want to do. How can you help us?'" says Rust, now an artist and freelance writer in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Her two years also put a human face on her Northwestern studies. "Part of the reason I joined the Peace Corps was that after all those anthropology classes, I was sick of reading about these cultures. I wanted to see them for myself.
"Now I'm more at home in the world than I have ever been," she says. "PostPeace Corps, I was so much more relaxed being with other types of people."
When Beth Whitehouse (J83) recalls Niger in the mid-1980s, she pictures Africa in a fond but realistic way.
"When I think of Africa now, I don't think of this big game park and people who are different from me. I think of my three students I was close to and the other teachers who were my friends, almost like my family.
"I'm sure when they think of America, they think of me and not the Gulf War or President Clinton," says Whitehouse, who is active in the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer group on Long Island.
Her experience was not without its odd moments. Whitehouse, now a feature writer for Newsday in New York, cherishes the memory of one Thanksgiving dinner of tuna fish sandwiches and cold Coca-Colas, luxuries in Niger. She also recalls waking up one night with the village engulfed in a Saharan dust storm. And at school, when she would arrive for her teaching job in pants instead of the traditional skirt women in Niger wore, her students would stand and salute her. Some images are hard to shake, including that of a 5-year-old boy named Yacouba who, after he learned that Whitehouse's service would soon end, burst into tears every time he saw her.
"You always knew you could go home, so the whole thing was like an adventure," she says. "But for the people who live there, it's not an adventure. It was hard to reconcile the fact that you were going to go back to your nice, cozy world and leave everything there."
Some volunteers didn't return immediately to the cozy world. Jim Hochberg (S78) did television production in the Ivory Coast from 1978 to 1980, then returned to Africa and taught at universities for several years.
"In a country like the Ivory Coast, you saw the confrontation all the time between the modern world and more primitive times because it was such a developing nation," Hochberg says.
His time in Africa allowed him success and enduring fame in one of America's most beloved exports: basketball. One day, while casually shooting hoops on a playground, he was recruited by a team that later competed for the Ivory Coast's national championship. When a man from the Ivory Coast came into the Linden, N.J., car dealership this year that Hochberg manages, the African remembered the white fellow who led the league in scoring four years in a row "in the ancient times."
Hochberg wasn't the only volunteer to successfully export basketball. Dan Peterson (SESP58) served in Chile amid the turbulent times of the late 1970s. Through much of the "food riots" and the political unrest of Augusto Pinochet's regime, he coached the Chilean national basketball team. He is now general manager of a basketball club in Italy.
The tangible and intangible U.S. exports through the Peace Corps are legion, but the third element of its mission what volunteers bring home is just as important. Often it comes in memories and continued contact with people who made impressions on volunteers. Judy Eckoff (WCAS87) recently returned nearly 10 years to the day after she left to the Philippine village where she served. She visited her host family, with whom she had corresponded since her tour ended.
"The best way to go into the experience was with curiosity as opposed to an idea that you're really going to change the developing world and have all these concrete accomplishments," Eckoff says. "My accomplishments had to do more with learning the language and getting to know the people and having them get to know and understand at least one American."
Benj, a farmer and fisherman in Gabon, learned to understand several of them. He had been inspired by a Peace Corps volunteer to learn to cope with his river blindness, which afflicts thousands in Africa. By the time he met Robert Johansson (WCAS90) in the early 1990s, Benj had worked with volunteers for a decade.
"He still let me advise him and accepted my offers of assistance with the farm management," says Johansson, a doctoral student in economics at the University of Minnesota.
Johansson says his biggest challenge in Central Africa was "being able to tell myself that the work I was doing was important and I wasn't just wasting everyone's time and money, including my own."
People like Benj, whose life was improved with help from Peace Corps volunteers, reassured Johansson.
"Sometimes the success stories in the Peace Corps are hard to spot while you are actually a volunteer, but visiting Benj each week kept my spirits up and reminded me of the 'idealist wonder' associated with being a Peace Corps volunteer."
But idealist wonder can conflict with ideology as the Peace Corps extends its reach into Eastern Europe, helping to relieve the hangover from half a century of communism.
Sarah Connor (KGSM89) joined at age 39 and served in the Czech Republic from 1995 to 1997. She shatters the image of the "mud hut" Peace Corps. Based in the industrial city of Ostrava, Connor served as an adviser to Junior Achievement, which itself has expanded in recent years to instruct young people in formerly communist countries in the fundamentals of market economics.
Her program taught more than 3,000 students in 90 schools. Connor, who now works for an Internet education company, says overcoming communism's deeply entrenched attitudes was easier with young people.
"There's an entire generation who lived under a system that was going to protect them from the cradle to the grave, whether it was imperfect or not," she says. "I came to understand how frustrating and dreary and grim living under communism was.
"I'm a firm believer in the capitalist system. It's not perfect, but it's the best we've got," Connor says.
However, she learned that going from communism to capitalism is not like turning a switch on and off.
"I don't think we have all the answers as Americans. We can glibly say, 'Yes, it's great that everyone has freedom.' But it's created painful dislocations in some parts of the world."
Programs such as Junior Achievement help smooth the way by unlocking creativity and incentive in Czech youngsters. Connor's work was deemed so successful that she was asked to go to Mongolia to duplicate the program.
Indeed, economic development is increasingly a Peace Corps emphasis. Darrell Williams (McC83, KGSM88) served in the small business development program in La Romana in the Dominican Republic from 1996 to 1999, encouraging entrepreneurs, coordinating small-business development and advising the chamber of commerce. It was challenging work in the country with the second-lowest per-capita income in the Western Hemisphere.
Perhaps his most memorable experience was assisting when Hurricane Georges swept through the Dominican Republic in 1998. Williams spearheaded efforts to distribute food in the region.
Now back in the United States, Williams intends to make his expertise available to the Peace Corps' Crisis Corps, which mobilizes returned volunteers to help in areas around the world hit by natural disasters such as tidal waves, earthquakes and hurricanes.
Many volunteers still feel the Peace Corps' tug for help after returning, says Maxine Gere (GS89), immediate past president of the Chicago Area Peace Corps Association. The organization's 400 members continue to bring the world back home through presentations at schools and clubs, and they raise money to support specific projects of current volunteers around the world.
But in the final analysis, the experience comes down to human contact. Shortly after their 1997 marriage in the Alice Millar Chapel, Scott (GSESP94) and Susan Messer (GSESP94) McBride journeyed to rural Kenya as volunteers. After they got drenched during a long weekly trek to the market, a neighbor, Timothy, knocked on the door and said he went to market to socialize as well as to buy food. He offered to pick up items the couple needed each week to save them the trip. "This experience helped redefine community for us," says Susan McBride. "We're young, industrious Americans, and the idea of relying on others for assistance seemed like a foreign concept. In a developing country, however, it is a necessary way to survive life. The other important lesson was about communication. In America, we rely on phones, answering machines and e-mail. Communities in Kenya often appear to lack the infrastructure needed to support 'development' as we see it as Americans; yet it is the developing society that exemplifies community."
Joanne Allaband Everett (S56) has gloried in the Peace Corps for its entire timeline. "When John Kennedy put the Peace Corps in place in the early 1960s, I had two small children and felt like I'd missed the greatest idea since sliced bread," she says. "Then my girls graduated from college, got married and the Peace Corps was still there! I joined up. ... Twice!"
In 1988, she taught English in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. Four years later, Everett signed on for a second tour, this time in Eastern Europe's Slovakia.
After that stint, she returned to the Marshalls and now teaches English at a small community college. Many of her current students first learned the language from her when they were children.
"When you are in the Peace Corps, you never think you have contributed much because you walk away so full of what the country and people have given you," Everett says. "But when I look in the eyes of former students, I know they would not be here in college if it hadn't been for those Peace Corps days."
Indeed, for everyone, the experience is, as Thomas Powers put it, "soul-shaking."
The toughest job you've ever loved is still as tough as it always was, and it continues to provide lifelong satisfaction. "The need goes on in this world," Powers says, "and there's never enough we can do."
Kieran McConnellogue, a freelance writer based in Greeley, Colo., is the editor of the University of Northern Colorado Spectrum magazine.
[Editor's note: Northwestern received reminiscences from many Peace Corps volunteers, but, unfortunately, space limitations prevented the inclusion of all of them.]