News and updates from the Peace Corps community — across the country, around the world, and spanning generations of returned Volunteers and staff.
By Peter V. Deekle (Iran 1968–70)
Gloria Blackwell (pictured), who served as a Volunteer in Cameroon 1986–88, was recently named CEO of the American Association of University Women — a nonprofit organization advancing equity for women and girls through advocacy, education, and research. In April, Colombia bestowed citizenship upon Maureen Orth (Colombia 1964–66) in recognition of her lifetime of work supporting education in the country. Writer Michael Meyer (China 1995–97) recently published Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet, which explores Franklin’s deathbed wager of 2,000 pounds to Boston and Philadelphia with the expectation that the investments be lent out over the following two centuries to tradesmen to jump-start their careers. Plus we share news about fellowships, a new documentary, and poetry in translation from Ukrainian.
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Eric Scherer (1975–76) was appointed as state executive director for the USDA Rhode Island Farm Service Agency (FSA) by the Biden Administration in late April. He previously worked as a USDA technical service provider and USDA certified conservation planner, providing technical consulting work for the public and private sector on natural resource issues. Prior to his work as a technical consultant, he served as the executive director of the Southern Rhode Island Conservation District, where he provided program leadership for the conservation district programs that focused on conserving and protecting natural resources. Scherer brings to his new role 37 years of federal service experience, including work for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in six states in various positions. As state executive director, he will oversee the delivery of FSA programs to agricultural producers in Rhode Island.
Gloria Blackwell (1986–88) was named chief executive officer of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) last October. She is also AAUW’s main representative to the United Nations. For nearly two decades, Blackwell managed AAUW’s highly esteemed fellowships and grants program — awarding more than $70 million in funding to women scholars and programs in the U.S. and abroad. Before she joined AAUW in 2004, Blackwell’s extensive experience in fellowship and grant management expanded during her time with Institute of International Education as the director of Africa education programs. While in that position, she oversaw girl’s education programs in Africa and mid-career fellowships for global professionals. In addition to serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Cameroon, she served as a Peace Corps staff member in Washington, D.C.
The latest book from Michael Meyer (1995–97) is Benjamin Franklin’s Last Bet (Mariner Books), which explores Franklin’s deathbed wager of 2,000 pounds to the cities of Boston and Philadelphia with the expectation that the investments be lent out over the following two centuries to tradesmen to jump-start their careers. In an interview on NPR’s Morning Edition, Meyer shared his own surprise at discovering the story behind this wager. “I didn’t know that his will was essentially another chapter of his life,” he said, “that he used his will to settle scores with family, with enemies, and he used his will to pass on his legacy and his values and to place a large bet on the survival of the working class in the United States.” Meyer was among the first Peace Corps Volunteers who served in China. Since serving there, he has written three reported books set in China, starting with The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a City Transformed. His writing has earned him a Whiting Writers’ Award for nonfiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lowell Thomas Award for Best Travel Book from the Society of American Travel Writers. Meyer’s stories have appeared in various publications, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Time, the Los Angeles Times, and the Paris Review. He was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to Taiwan in 2021.
On April 27, Maureen Orth (1964–66) was honored in a ceremony in which she was sworn in as a citizen of Colombia — in recognition of her lifetime of service to the people of Colombia. That all began with serving in the Peace Corps. By video conference, President of Colombia Iván Duque Márquez administered the oath of citizenship to Orth during an elegant ceremony hosted by Colombian Ambassador to the U.S. Juan Carlos Pinzón at his residence. In 2005, at the request of the Secretary of Education of Medellin who asked her to empower the children in her school to become competitive in the 21st century, Orth founded the Marina Orth Foundation. It has since grown to include 21 public and charter schools offering computers for every child K-5, STEM, English, and leadership training, including robotics and coding. In 2015, then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos awarded her the Cruz de San Carlos, Colombia’s highest civilian award for service to the country. She also was awarded the McCall-Pierpaoli Humanitarian of the Year Award from Refugees International.
Elyse Magen (2018–20) assumed a new position in April as program associate for the Udall Foundation — an independent executive branch agency providing programs to promote leadership, education, collaboration, and conflict resolution in the areas of environment, public lands, and natural resources. Magen brings to her new role diverse experience addressing economic, social, and environmental issues by working with diverse communities in the United States and Latin America. While earning her bachelor’s in economics and environmental studies at Tulane University, Magen worked as a peer health educator at the university’s wellness center, and she served as an environmental economics intern at the U.S. Embassy in Ecuador during the summer of 2017. In 2020, Magen was evacuated from her Peace Corps service as a community economic development analyst in Colombia due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Refusing to let that be the end of her Volunteer story, she obtained an NPCA Community Fund grant to complete one of her unfinished secondary projects with “Chicas de Transformación,” a womens’ chocolate cooperative in Santa Marta, Colombia. With the support of a NPCA community fund grant, Magen helped the collective build a new workspace and purchase machinery that would allow the cooperative to start selling a new line of chocolate products they were unable to produce before, increasing their profit margins.
Jessica Pickering (2019–20) is a 2022 Templeton Fellow within the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Africa Program. In May 2022, she graduated from Tulane University with a master’s degree in homeland security and a certificate in intelligence. From the University of Washington in Seattle, she received her bachelor’s in international affairs, focusing on foreign policy, diplomacy, peace, and security. Her research interests include international security, foreign policy, and the effects of gender equity, climate change, and governance on policy and stability in West Africa.
Mathew Crichton (2016–17) is now a senior consultant at Deloitte, advising government and public sector clients through critical and complex issues. From 2018–22, Crichton served as an IT and Training Specialist with the Peace Corps Agency and president of its employee union.
Charles Vorkas (2002–04) is a faculty member at Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine. With a diverse background in research and international patient care, Vorkas is leading efforts in his newly-established lab to better understand disease resistance. It was while serving as a Volunteer in Mozambique that he witnessed the effects of infectious diseases and was often in contact with individuals who were suffering from diseases such as HIV and tuberculosis. “It definitely confirmed that this was a major global health problem that I would like to help to address in my career,” Vorkas said.
Matt Sarnecki (2004–06), a journalist, producer and film director at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, had a world premiere in May at Hot Docs 2022 in the International Spectrum Section of his documentary film, “The Killing of a Journalist.” It tells the story of a young investigative journalist, Ján Kuciak, and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, who were brutally murdered in their home in Slovakia in February 2018. Their deaths inspired the biggest protests in Slovakia since the fall of communism. The story took an unexpected turn when a source leaked the secret murder case file to the murdered journalist’s colleagues. It included the computers and encrypted communications of the assassination’s alleged mastermind, a businessman closely connected to the country’s ruling party. Trawling these encrypted messages, journalists discovered that their country had been captured by corrupt oligarchs, judges, and law enforcement officials.
Ali Kinsella (2008–11), together with Dzvinia Orlowsky, is the translator of the poetry collection Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow (Lost Horse Press, 2021) by Ukrainian writer Natalka Bilotserkivets. Eccentric Days of Hope and Sorrow brings together selected works written over the last four decades. Having established an English language following largely on the merits of a single poem, Bilotserkivets’s larger body of work continues to be relatively unknown. Natalka Bilotserkivets was an active participant in Ukraine’s Renaissance of the late-Soviet and early independence period. Ali Kinsella has been translating from Ukrainian for eight years. Her published works include essays, poetry, monographs, and subtitles to various films. She holds an M.A. from Columbia University, where she wrote a thesis on the intersection of feminism and nationalism in small states. She lived in Ukraine for nearly five years. She is currently in Chicago, where she also sometimes works as a baker. The collection is shortlisted for the 2022 Griffin Poetry Prize.
PEACE CORPS STAFF
Kechi Achebe, who directs Office of Global Health and HIV for the Peace Corps, was recently among those honored as part of a special event recognizing leaders in the Nigerian Diaspora in the United States. Themed “The Pride of Our Ancestry; The Strength of Our Diaspora,” the event was hosted by the Nigerian Physicians Advocacy Group and Constituency for Africa and included special guest Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director-general at the World Trade Organization. “There is no greater blessing than to be honored by your own community,” Achebe said. “I stand on the shoulders of women and other global health leaders who started the fight for global health equity for all, especially for disadvantaged communities all over the world.” Achebe has served in her role with the Peace Corps since December 2020. She previously led leadership posts with Africare and Save the Children.