From the Hill to the World
Five decades of Hamiltonians in the Peace Corps
By Cheryl Sternman Rule
Between May and October, Meg Jones '96 learned to take a break at noon and stop working. She wasn't lazy or tired or burnt out. She didn't have errands to run. But when the mercury in Bolama, Guinea-Bissau, neared 120 degrees, she followed the lead of her friends and colleagues, sat in the shade and lay low. Soon they would all continue teaching, but not until the sweltering heat had passed.
Five years later and halfway around the world, Pete Shelton '01 also observed those around him. He spent his first six months in the tiny hillside village of Cruz Alta, Honduras, absorbing details and forging relationships, following the daily travails of the subsistence farmers in his community, helping them plant maize and beans. Only after getting to know them, and they him, did he begin demonstrating the soil conservation techniques he'd come to impart
Jones and Shelton are but two in a long line of Hamilton alumni who left families and preconceptions behind. They leapt across continents with little more than a swollen duffle bag and a gnawing hunger for service and adventure.
Since its inception in 1961, 206 Hamiltonians have served in the Peace Corps. They've worked in 72 countries — from the island of Djerba off the southern coast of Tunisia (Garry Brinton '72) to the industrial city of Kirovograd in the agricultural heart of Ukraine (Ken Sommers '97). Some joined as an alternative to military service, some to test and expand personal boundaries, and some to see the world from a wholly different vantage point. While their reasons for serving varied and their directions spanned the compass, they had all stopped at a common crossroads: four formative years on the Hill, curiosity blooming.
According to Molly Jennings, a Peace Corps public affairs specialist, Hamilton alumni have volunteered in categories as diverse as agriculture, business advising, fisheries, forestry and apiculture (beekeeping). The largest number, though, have been educators, specializing in everything from environmental education, hygiene education and special education to primary, secondary and university teaching. The breadth of placements — in both geography and job focus — cuts a remarkably wide swath.
Even today, seven alumni will read this article from their Peace Corps posts overseas — two from South Africa and one each from Morocco, Albania, Ghana, Guatemala and Moldova.
President Kennedy launched the Peace Corps on March 1, 1961, during a period of great hope and optimism. According to Doug Raybeck, professor of anthropology emeritus who began teaching at Kirkland College in 1970, the bright-eyed idealism of those early years was soon replaced by a burgeoning social consciousness, brought on largely by the disillusionment wrought by Vietnam and Watergate. Still, young Americans across the nation, and across campuses like Kirkland and Hamilton, continued to believe they could shape the world and lead it in a more positive direction.
"There were a number of Kirkland graduates who joined the Peace Corps" during the 1970s, Raybeck recalls. "The attitude on the part of their friends, the faculty and the institution was that this was a good endeavor and a splendid way to enter the world."
Even during the "Me Generation" of the 1980s, when, according to Raybeck, there was less interest on campus in voluntarism and service, some newly minted alumni continued to pursue Peace Corps service. And by the early '90s, the tide was turning again, with students' overall focus broadening once more. "People became more expansive, more outwardly interested," Raybeck says, adding, "There was more interest in traveling abroad."
Leslie Bell, associate director of Hamilton's Maurice Horowitch Career Center, has seen this latest trend intensify since she arrived on campus in 1990. When the Peace Corps holds on-campus information sessions, she says, the turnout is "huge."
"Even when students have so many other things on their schedules, the sessions can draw 25 to 30 students over all the class years." It's not uncommon for first-year students to seek out Bell in the Career Center and inquire about the Peace Corps years before they actually apply.Bell has noticed other trends as well. Hurricane Katrina sparked an upsurge in domestic voluntary service. Groups of students mobilize themselves and travel overseas and to national areas of need during college breaks. And those who may once have studied abroad in countries like France or Spain are heading instead to Latin America or Francophone Africa. Today's students "don't perceive the world to be closed or scary," she says. Globalization has swept through Clinton, and it has taken more than a few students along for the ride.
But not all follow through on their initial expressions of interest. For one thing, they learn the work is tough and the conditions bare-bones. They find that volunteers can't choose their countries of service and must commit to two full years away from home.
Those who do pursue this path, however, find their lives enriched in ways both measurable and immeasurable, and their service often becomes a hallmark event for decades to come. As Bell puts it, "Most students' first jobs won't have that kind of lasting effect on their lives."
"Of course," she adds, "the Peace Corps isn't for everyone."
It was, however, for 206 Hamiltonians, eight of whom are profiled in the following pages. They were chosen for generational and geographical balance on the basis of suggestions from the Hamilton community. In truth, however, their experiences mirror those of scores of their Hamilton contemporaries who have served. The individuals matter deeply — that, in fact, is one of the great shared lessons of Peace Corps service. But their accounts are in many ways histories held in common, stories of the hopes they have pursued, the principles they have forged, and the small victories they have won.
Arthur J. Massolo '64 (Malaysia, 1967-69)
Three days after arriving in Malaysia, Art Massolo heard a rumbling outside his hut — then a crash. A tree 50 yards away had been halved by a mortar, and local warriors streamed past him. While U.S. troops fought a savage war in the jungles of Vietnam, Massolo was thrust into an unacknowledged war zone too, something he hardly expected as a newly trained Peace Corps volunteer. And the irony doesn't escape him for a second. "I probably saw more military action in the Peace Corps than I would have seen in Vietnam," he says.
Joining the Peace Corps wasn't his original plan. After graduating from Hamilton, Massolo earned a law degree from the University of Chicago and wanted to pursue his doctorate. The draft board, however, had other ideas. Tired of granting him deferments, the board rejected Massolo's application and three subsequent appeals. His noncombat options were limited.
He considered joining the Judge Advocate General's Corps (JAG), the legal branch of the Navy, but the lengthy commitment gave him pause. "I would have loved to go into the Navy and do my service that way," he reflects, "but I wasn't prepared to give them seven years of my life." The Peace Corps required only two, so in 1967 off he went.
Massolo taught English, history, geography, social studies and physical education at the Dragon School, a boarding school in Sarawak attended by an ethnically and religiously diverse mix of students. The Iban and the Land Dayaks, long ago headhunters in Borneo, shared classrooms with Malays and Hocka Chinese, members of an indigenous population interned by British soldiers. (The Hocka children were permitted to board at Massolo's school.) Some of his students were 10 years old, others were 20; Christians, animists and Muslims co-existed.
Breaks in the oppressive jungle heat came in the form of drenching monsoons. "It didn't stop raining for six months of the year," Massolo says. One day, on a bus ride back from the capital, the sky opened, flooding the road and preventing the driver from reaching Sarawak. "Some villagers threw a rope across the water," he remembers. "We got off the bus, pulled ourselves across this raging river and boarded another bus on the other side." That's just the way things worked.
Even with the harsh conditions and political drama, Massolo reveled in his chance to live the life of an internationalist. "The young people I worked with were wonderful," he says. "And talk about diversity.… Between the Iban, the Land Dayaks, the Chinese and the Malays, it was one learning experience after another."
Massolo's service ended two months early when he assumed a principled stance and helped expose an explosive scandal. He'd learned that USAID food aid — milk and meat — was being supplied to his school but knew that it never reached the students, who ate only greens and soup. He approached Peace Corps officials for help, but per agency policy they prohibited him from getting entangled in local politics. Soon he discovered that his school's headmaster was in cahoots with an Australian expatriate; the two men had been selling the food on the black market. Massolo wrote a letter to the Malaysian prime minister, telling him of the scam. He then resigned his Peace Corps post, unable to stomach what had happened. "Until that point, I certainly had not been exposed to corruption in the way I was there."
Since his service four decades ago, Massolo has been a prominent member of the Hamilton alumni community. In addition to serving as a charter trustee, he and his wife Karen have sponsored about 15 students through their long association with LINK, a Chicago-based mentoring program that provides at-risk inner-city students with private school educations. "We look for students with the internal fortitude to break out of their environments," he says. The Massolos also established a scholarship at Hamilton for LINK participants.
Perhaps the seeds of Art Massolo's philanthropy took root in the Malaysian jungle. "I learned there that if you could help one person you were a success," he says. "There was no way we were going to save the world."
Richard Bedient, Professor of Mathematics (Philippines, 1970-72)
Traveling through the developing world isn't, especially for those accustomed to five-star lodging. But for Professor of Mathematics Dick Bedient and his wife Betsy, threadbare 75-cent-a-night hotel rooms didn't faze them a whit. Of course, the year was 1972, and the Bedients had just completed a two-year stint in the Peace Corps, where home had been a grass house on stilts with neither running water nor electricity. With their thirst for adventure not fully sated, the two took the long way home, visiting Hong Kong, Bangkok, Kabul, Istanbul, Agra, Calcutta, Darjeeling, Katmandu, Delhi, Athens and Vienna. And the amenity-free accommodations suited them just fine.
Bedient had met his future wife as an undergraduate at Denison University in Ohio. During the next two years he earned a master's degree in math and tied the knot. A year into their marriage, the Bedients joined the Peace Corps together, celebrating their next two anniversaries in Bayawan, a village on the Philippine island of Negros.
"We joined the Peace Corps to travel and see other cultures," he says. "It was an opportunity to do something useful and help people who actually needed help." Unlike volunteers in the 1960s, many of whom were given vague assignments under the "community development" rubric, the Bedients, who served from 1970 until 1972, were tasked with concrete jobs as teacher trainers — he in math and she in English as a second language.
"Earlier volunteers would arrive and be told, 'Here's your village. Now figure out what's broken and go fix it,'" Bedient explains. "But when we came along, the campus culture had shifted toward viewing that as cultural imperialism." As a result, Peace Corps assignments became better defined, and by 1970 education-related assignments were increasingly common.
As a teacher trainer, Bedient was charged with conducting year-long math workshops for elementary school teachers in his district. He wasn't supposed to teach them math per se, which they presumably knew already, but was instead to provide pedagogical training to make them better teachers. Local principals had been asked to send their strongest teachers to Bedient's workshops since they, in theory, would be best suited to take the improved methods back to their own schools and share them. "Some principals understood what was supposed to happen and sent me their best teachers," Bedient says. "But others sent me weak teachers who didn't understand the math. So I had to spend a fair bit of time teaching math rather than teaching them how to teach math." Bedient also worked to convince the teachers of a basic educational premise we take for granted: that getting students to discover the laws of arithmetic through experimentation would be more effective than teaching them through rote memorization, as was the custom.
When asked whether he made a difference, Bedient pauses. "I think I helped a handful of teachers," he says slowly, "but whether they're still using the new teaching methods and passing them along to others I have no idea." What's more important, he adds, is the impression he left on the people with whom he interacted on a daily basis. "Given the times we live in, having Americans anywhere in the world doing good things makes a difference. The more people who know individual Americans, the better."
Bedient began teaching at Hamilton in 1979, a job he describes lovingly as his "first and only" teaching job in the United States. "Since I came to Hamilton," he says, "one of the bigger changes I've seen is an increase in student involvement in volunteer activities. I spend a lot of time with students during office hours, and a huge number of them are involved in HAVOC [Hamilton Action Volunteer Outreach Coalition]. Those really committed to that program are those I end up talking the most with about the Peace Corps."
Brooke Finn K'78 (Central African Republic, 1980-83)
When Kirkland College shut its doors in 1978, Brooke Finn had just graduated. The decision to fold the institution into Hamilton, and for Hamilton to go coed, had come during the spring of her junior year, when she was off campus studying at a United Nations-focused program run by Drew University. "Because I was away when the decision to go coed was made," she remembers, "I missed the immediate shock."
Finn had been interested in the Peace Corps for some time, but she credits Kirkland and its atmosphere of personal empowerment with reinforcing her decision to volunteer. "Kirkland encouraged a willingness to take risks and not follow the conventional path," she says. "Part of the environment was being respectful of individualism and supporting people in pursuing their own goals and directions." That encouraged her to see the Peace Corps as a genuine career step, "as opposed to a 'checking out' kind of thing. It was an intentional choice, and Kirkland created the environment where it was a legitimate choice, too."
Finn points to the flexible curriculum and the alternative approach to education as hallmarks of her college experience. But she was also highly directed in her academic pursuits: Though it was not her major, she spent a good bit of time studying French, knowing it would be a useful skill if she ever traveled to Francophone Africa.
She also recalls Channing Richardson, Hamilton professor of international affairs emeritus, under whom she studied as an American studies major. "He and his wife [Comfort Richardson, assistant professor of physical education emerita] had done relief work in Chad and told some colorful stories about their experiences there. I'm sure they influenced me, too."
Before taking the plunge, Finn headed to Georgetown for a master's degree in foreign service. "Part of me was afraid that if I went into the Peace Corps immediately I might never go to graduate school," she admits. She earned her degree in 1980 and then submitted her Peace Corps application.
Finn was posted in the village of Boguila in the northwestern part of the Central African Republic, where she worked as a primary school health educator. She and a local counterpart taught lessons in sanitation, health and nutrition, largely for other teachers. The pastor of the village church owned a retirement home — "a top-of-the-line mud-brick house" with neither water nor electricity — which he rented to Finn. Her many neighbors and their children were a constant source of entertainment and companionship.
"The CAR was a great place to be a Peace Corps volunteer, because anything you did was appreciated, since they hardly got any support from the government," she says.
Finn even extended her service for a third year, moving into the capital and serving as a liaison to a teacher-training school. "It was rewarding," she says of the change, "because I could have some impact at the system level."
Her supervisors then nominated her to become a Peace Corps fellow, an honor given to volunteers the agency identifies as strong candidates for future staff positions. She spent a year at PC headquarters in Washington, D.C., before heading to the Philippines to take on the role of associate Peace Corps director. She continued her international efforts, working with the Fulbright Exchange Program, before switching her focus to domestic community development, the heart of her work with the Boston-based nonprofit NeighborWorks America.
"The community dynamics in a village in Africa and a neighborhood in Boston are different, but the basic principles of helping people determine their goals and aspirations are the same," Finn says. "I've learned not to leap to conclusions or make assumptions about what's influencing a person's point of view. This is a talent I attribute to having been a Peace Corps volunteer."
Stephen O'Dowd '81 (Morocco, 1981-84)
Water. The very substance Americans take most for granted is the one thing new Peace Corps volunteers obsess most about when arriving in their host countries. Drinking, cooking, and bathing suddenly take work, as water must first be obtained — often no small feat — and then purified in a multistep process of boiling and filtering. It's a stark and immediate reminder that life in the developing world is fundamentally different from life at home. For Stephen O'Dowd, water held even greater significance.
Throughout the course of several months, he and a fellow volunteer in Tetouan, Morocco, taught an autistic boy how to pour himself a glass of water when he felt thirsty. Teaching someone else to master what, for most of us, is such a mundane task served as a touchstone event not only for the boy, who could finally identify and fulfill one of his most basic human needs, but for O'Dowd as well. In fact, in the roughly two and a half decades since he returned from Morocco, this experience continues to resonate with him as the most significant moment in his three-year service.
O'Dowd has spent his career with the U.S. State Department, largely in the hotbed of the Middle East. In one challenging post after another, he has learned the value of appreciating small victories. This perspective, he reflects, traces directly back to his days in Tetouan and that seminal glass of water. "In terms of how I approach challenges," he said, "this experience helped me focus on the incremental improvements that help people get through difficult times."
Raised 10 miles from Clinton in Waterville, N.Y., O'Dowd was the middle of five children. His parents worked hard to foster curiosity in their children though they themselves never attended college. "There's always been a heavy altruistic streak in my family as well," he says. In January of his junior year he traveled abroad for the first time, spending a month in Paris, an experience that fueled his desire to live abroad. Two weeks after graduation, he boarded a plane, Morocco-bound.
After a frustrating first year as a high school teacher in the phosphate mining city of Khouribga, O'Dowd initiated a job and site change. "My original Peace Corps experience wasn't what I expected," he said. "I was living in a city, and the English teaching program was very large, I thought there were other things I could be doing." He and a colleague identified a need for a special education program in Tetouan an old picturesque Moorish city 200 miles north of his original post. The Peace Corps brass approved the switch and he was off.
Over the next two years he worked with children with a wide range of disabilities, including Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism. Home was a section of a dilapidated historic house. A shower was down the block and around the corner.
Upon returning stateside, O'Dowd parlayed his Arabic language and cross-cultural training into a job as an intelligence officer with the State Department. From there he moved into posts as a Foreign Service officer in Jordan, Oman, Tunisia and Syria. He now serves as deputy economic section chief for the US Consulate in Jerusalem where he deals exclusively with Palestinian issues. The job's challenges he said can tend to wear you down. "So I learn to focus on the small things that change for the better, and I take my solace in that."
O'Dowd's daughter Caitlin recently joined the Class of 2011, and he couldn't be prouder. "My experience at Hamilton challenged me," he said. "It opened my eyes to other worlds."
Jennifer Rubin '83 (Togo, 1983-84)
In early 1984, CBS sent a film crew to Togo to interview Peace Corps volunteers and ask them to reflect on the larger meaning of their service. The footage of their time in Defale, a small, rural village, captures Jenny Rubin barefoot, ankle-deep in clay, surrounded by village women. Together, the women pack the moist clay into wide, donut shaped-mounds, sculpting earth-based stoves that will reduce their need for firewood, saving them valuable time and energy. Jenny smiles freely — a big, dimple-laden smile — appearing, somehow, both relaxed and intense about the work she is doing.
"A lot of the volunteers here, myself included," she says on film, "feel that it's very important to have some input, to make an impact somewhere." The camera follows her, listening in as she communicates with the women in both French and Lamba, the local dialect, praising them for packing the clay just so.
"It was very important for her to do something for the women of the country, who bore a great burden," says Jenny's mother, Gail Rubin, when asked what motivated her daughter to take on that particular project. "That's why the stoves appealed to her, because it would ease their burden."
According to Bill Piatt, Jenny's country director in Togo, she was originally assigned to be a school garden volunteer. But early in her training she'd done some research into clay-based, wood-conserving stoves, and requested a job change to make their construction her primary assignment. She'd already spoken with more seasoned volunteers and had even met with local officials, identifying someone in the Ministry of Social Affairs who could train her. Her initiative and organization made a sizable impression on Piatt, particularly given how recently she'd arrived in the country. "She had everything all lined up," he remembers incredulously. "I'm still not sure how she pulled all that off."
Jenny was born in Louisiana in 1961 to parents active in the civil rights movement. Her father Steven is reluctant to ascribe motives to Jenny's decision to join the Peace Corps, but he does acknowledge that her surroundings made her sensitive from an early age to the world's many injustices. "The Peace Corps seemed like a natural thing for her to do," he says. "She was actually thinking of making it a career and applying to be a staff member after her tour was over." Her mother adds, "She really was where she wanted to be."
Piatt says the people of Defale appreciated Jenny's many contributions to village life. "They loved her," he remembers. "The walls of her house were absolutely lined with greeting cards the kids had made for her. She was a star."
She was also a prolific letter writer, an accomplished weaver, a poet and a loyal friend, says Melissa Chesnut-Tangerman '82, who corresponded regularly with Jenny from her own Peace Corps post in Kenya. "She was just so vibrant."
In June 1984, roughly a year after she arrived in Togo, two men from a neighboring village killed Jenny in her home. They had been recruited by a young woman whom Jenny had discovered stealing from her. A senseless, brutal act of violence, and Jenny Rubin was gone.
And yet, even 23 years after her death, her legacy continues to shine bright. Thanks to Chesnut-Tangerman, several classmates and a supportive administration, the Jenny Rubin Memorial Prize Scholarship has been awarded year after year, honoring "a senior woman who has evinced interest in, and ongoing commitment to, helping others improve their lives." Along with a cash gift, the honoree receives a copy of a 10-minute DVD, which includes clips of the original CBS footage. And there's Jenny on screen — barefoot, hands and feet caked with clay, smiling, reflective, content.
"Jenny was the real thing," Chesnut-Tangerman says, trailing off. She and her husband Robin Chesnut-Tangerman '82 named their first child, a daughter, after their mutual friend.
As the CBS footage from Defale draws to a close, the reporter asks Jenny if she ever wonders whether her contribution might just be a drop in the bucket.
"Yes," she nods her head slowly, considering. "Yes. Yeah, I do. But a drop in the bucket is what I can do."
Marian Berryhill '98 (Dominican Republic, 1998-2000)
Serving in the Peace Corps can certainly be life-changing, but few volunteers credit the agency with their very existence. Marian Berryhill does. "I'm a legacy," she says proudly, explaining that her parents served as volunteers in Afghanistan in the mid-1960s. "I owe my life to the Peace Corps because my parents met there."
In fact, of the 50-odd volunteers who traveled with Berryhill to the Dominican Republic, eight were second-generation volunteers. Berryhill is also a Hamilton legacy. Both her great-uncle Douglas Kuhn '44 and his son Eric Kuhn '74 are alumni.
Her decision to join the Peace Corps, then, didn't provoke the cocked eyebrows or anxious twitters it inspires in many parents. On the contrary, the Peace Corps was a frequent topic of conversation throughout her upbringing in Shrewsbury, VT. "The Peace Corps was very present in my childhood," Berryhill says. "I was raised to believe that joining would be a perfectly reasonable course of action after I graduated from college." Her younger brother Hunter (Vassar '01) was equally inclined toward voluntarism, joining AmeriCorps a few years later.
After graduation, Berryhill packed her bags, headed to Miami and hopped the short flight to the Dominican Republic. Because of its proximity to the United States, the country isn't as immune to the trappings of western society as farther-flung Peace Corps sites. In fact, many young Dominican men head to the U.S. to work, regularly sending money home to their families. One of Berryhill's fellow volunteers lived in a village completely devoid of 20- and 30-year-old men; they'd all left the island to find work in the United States.
Berryhill's home was the mountain town of Rancho Francisco, population 160, a remote settlement in which everyone was somehow related to everyone else. She was assigned as an agriculture volunteer, primarily in charge of pest management. "I had to come up with nontoxic, useable methods of farming and create organic fertilizers," she explains. "There's a heavy reliance on toxic pesticides there, with no safety precautions at all. I'd frequently rant and rave about the dangers of pesticides, saying things like 'Do not mix pesticides over your water supply' and 'Do not use empty pesticide containers as drinking containers.' But if the pesticide containers were the only lidded containers around, what else could the villagers do?"
So Berryhill threw herself into a secondary project: raising funds and mobilizing her community to build a permanent hurricane shelter. In 1998, the year she arrived, Hurricane George had decimated the island, killing hundreds of people and driving thousands, newly homeless, into the capital. Hurricanes are a frequent threat, but families in outlying hamlets like Rancho Francisco have few shelter options when one pummels them. Berryhill organized a workforce, and together they built a concrete shelter. "I was a foreman!" she laughs. "Before this project, there were no concrete buildings in town, only thatched huts. So when Hurricane George came, everyone had to flee to the next town on foot. Now there's a big cement-block shelter in town."
Since her return to the United States, Berryhill earned her doctorate in cognitive neuroscience from Dartmouth and now holds a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies visual perception. "I decided to go into research," she says, "to discover things that are unknown. I want to add to the body of knowledge of the world in a meaningful way."
And she continues to do what she can for the people of Rancho Francisco. She goes back every other year to visit. "There are people there who call me their daughter, sister, friend," she says. She has offered to foot the bill for any local students motivated to apply to college — so long as they do the legwork themselves: "My goal was always to teach them, 'You can be in charge of your own life, but you have to work for it.'"
Sharon Hakim '06 (Moldova, current)
Sandwiched between Romania and Ukraine, Moldova doesn't spring to mind when one imagines a traditional Peace Corps site. Unlike the Philippines, for example, where 8,000 volunteers have served over the course of 40 years, Moldova and its Eastern European neighbors are relatively new to the Peace Corps lineup. But Sharon Hakim wants to dispel any notions that her site is somehow less challenging, or her experiences less meaningful, than those of volunteers stationed on remote islands or deep in the bush.
"Sometimes I get the impression that friends at home think I am in the 'fake' Peace Corps," she writes by e-mail. "'Who does the Peace Corps in EUROPE?' they ask. Yes, I can read by REAL light in my room, and yes, the people in Moldova are white, and yes, we watched Eurovision on TV. But this concept of the 'Posh Corps' can be really disheartening when I am having a hard time with something in my community."
Raised in New Jersey, Hakim had never left the East Coast until her junior year at Hamilton, when she studied abroad in Samoa. "Instead of curing my travel itch, it instilled a wanderlust in me," she writes. "Also, it broadened my perspective — thinking about how much I didn't know, and especially about how many perspectives exist on the world at large."
Hakim has recently begun her second year of Peace Corps service. She lives in the city of Singerei, two hours from the capital of Chisinau. While it has some infrastructure, the area is largely rural, with one main road snaking through town and various dirt paths branching off to either side. The weather is cloudy, she notes in a blog. "I would definitely compare it with Clinton, without the allure of the yellow Beinecke — but not quite where clouds go to die."
Hakim lives with a host family, a must in a culture where the family unit is paramount. "It is unacceptable for women (or anyone really) to live by themselves in a village in Moldova since families are systems of support." A wood stove provides heat, a well in the yard holds water, and electric power, though not completely reliable, keeps things bright.
Though she was assigned to work with a local nongovernmental agency as a community development volunteer, Hakim has also initiated an impressive variety of secondary projects. "Peace Corps does not send us into the community with goals or specific tasks to do, more like guidelines," she says. "It is understood that there is no 'typical day.'"
One mainstay of her schedule is teaching twice-weekly art classes at Dezdna, a center for handicapped children who've fallen through the cracks of the public school system. On other days she coaches a girls' basketball team she organized. Coaching in Romanian has posed unforeseen challenges. "How do I say, for example, such complex sentences as, 'If she cuts through here, pass her the ball and then move toward the hoop'?" She also taught the children in her Outing Club how to use a compass and is instilling in them an appreciation for the outdoors. Early in the fall, the club's pending three-day hike had Hakim especially excited.
Empowering youth is the daily fuel that drives her and keeps her spirits high. She yearns to inspire in the Moldovan children a sense of agency, a fire that will motivate them to set goals and work to achieve them. Whether it's through the Peace Corps-sponsored girls' leadership camp she directs or her many clubs and initiatives, Hakim focuses on boosting the youngsters' self-confidence.
The children are the agents of change in their own lives, she says, but they don't necessarily know it. If she does her job well, they may soon: "I see myself as more of a catalyst than anything."
John D. Adams '06 (Ghana, current)
If you're looking for John Adams, you'll find him on a Ghanaian cocoa and coconut farm about 20 kilometers from the Ivory Coast in West Africa. There, in the midst of a deciduous rain forest, he lives in a concrete-and-thatch tin-roofed house, very much a part of his tiny community of a dozen people. "We don't have electricity or running water," he writes by e-mail, "but I have found the absence of these luxuries doesn't bother me until my rainwater barrel is empty, resulting in me having to carry water on my head from a spring."
He spends his days working with a nongovernmental agency focused on natural resource management around the virgin rain forest. Its core mission, he says, is to introduce alternative ways to make a living, rearing small animals, for instance, so that locals are less dependent on "practices that degrade the forest," such as poaching for meat in the bush and the illegal harvesting of cane. He also helps develop tree nurseries and improve farming methods.
A public policy major at Hamilton, Adams began considering a post-graduation move overseas during his junior year. He was yearning for an experience that would involve both service and the chance to experience another culture on a visceral level. "Looking back on the decision," he says, "I think I was ultimately seeking to learn more about myself through a drastic change in my environment."
And now Ghana is home. Adams immerses himself daily both in his work and in the relationships he has forged with his community. He is deeply reflective about what influence, if any, he is having, and how best to measure his strides. "There is always the knee-jerk impulse to think I must quantify the difference I am making by listing the changes in my community that I may have inspired or coordinated," he says. But lately he has found himself thinking in different terms: "Now I try to look for differences in how the community treats me as a sign of being integrated and accepted."
These differences are at once subtle and profound. When he first arrived, Adams was treated solely as a white foreigner, with locals referring to him using impersonal monikers such as "Kwesi Bruni" or simply "Obruni" ("white man"). The names were not insulting, but they did reflect a distance and, to him, symbolized a painful cultural divide.
"Then one day," he recalls, "all the kids who used to greet me with 'Obruni' were screaming 'Brother John' or 'Kwesi John.'... Even if none of our projects together produce the slightest long-term improvements, I would be absolutely content to know that the community genuinely wants me around for my unique personal qualities and not for the possibility that I may help them improve material aspects of their lives. I don't expect this could ever happen completely, but I continue to work toward it."
It's easy to assume that volunteers who transition from the Hill to the developing world are leaving one world and entering a completely separate, unrelated one. But for some, Adams included, the Hamilton educational experience serves as a natural springboard to the overseas journey. "I do feel Hamilton is at least partially responsible for my decision to volunteer," he writes. "The small size of Hamilton forces individuals to be held personally responsible. This extends to macro-issues, even those that in larger communities appear to be far beyond the reach of a single person to effect change.
"I largely credit Hamilton with empowering me with the strength of mind to trust that I can handle the responsibilities of my work here, and that the small impact I can make is meaningful."