Tiffany James posted an articleUpdates from the Peace Corps community — across the country and around the world see more
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.
Have news to share with the Peace Corps community? Let us know.
Eric Scherer 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.
Orrin Luc posted an articleAsian American and Pacific Islander leaders have a conversation on Peace Corps, race, and more. see more
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Leading in a Time of Adversity. A conversation convened as Part of Peace Corps Connect 2021.
Image by Shutterstock
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) are currently the fastest-growing racial or ethnic group in the U.S., but the story of the U.S. AAPI population dates back decades — and is often overlooked. As the community faces an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes and the widening income gap between the wealthiest and poorest, their role in politics and social justice is increasingly important.
The AAPI story is also complex — 22 million Asian Americans trace their roots to more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, each with unique histories, cultures, languages, and other characteristics. Their unique perspectives and experiences have also played critical roles in American diplomacy across the globe.
For Peace Corps Connect 2021, we brought together three women who have served or are serving as political leaders to talk with returned Volunteer Mary Owen-Thomas. Below are edited excerpts from their conversation on September 23, 2021. Watch the entire conversation here.
Rep. Grace Meng
Member, U.S. House of Representatives, representing New York’s sixth district — the first Asian American to represent her state in Congress.
Julia Chang Bloch
Former U.S. ambassador to Nepal — the first Asian American to serve as a U.S. ambassador to any country. Founder and president of U.S.-China Education Trust. Peace Corps Volunteer in Malaysia (1964–66).
Former Director of the Peace Corps (1991–92). Former Secretary of Labor — the first Asian American to hold a cabinet-level post. Former Secretary of Transportation.
Moderated by Mary Owen-Thomas
Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines (2005–06) and secretary of the NPCA Board of Directors.
Mary Owen-Thomas: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing racial and ethnic group in the United States. This is not a recent story — and it’s often overlooked. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the Philippines, and I happen to be Filipino American.
During my service, people would say, “Oh, we didn’t get a real American.” I used to think, I’m from Detroit! I’m curious if you’ve ever encountered this in your international work.
Julia Chang Bloch: With the Peace Corps, I was sent to Borneo, in Sabah, Malaysia. I was a teacher at a Chinese middle school that had been a prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. The day I arrived on campus, there was a hush in the audience. I don’t speak Cantonese, but I could understand a bit, and I heard: “Why did they send us a Japanese?” I did not know the school had been a prisoner of war camp. They introduced me. I said a few words in English, then a few words in Mandarin. And they said, “Oh, she’s Chinese.”
I heard a little girl say to her father, “You promised me I could meet the American ambassador. I don’t see him.”
In Nepal, where I was ambassador, when I arrived and met the Chinese ambassador, he said, “Ah, China now has two of us.” I said, “There’s a twist, however. I am a Chinese American.” He laughed, and we became friends thereafter. On one of my trips into the western regions, where there were a lot of Peace Corps Volunteers and very poor villages, I was welcomed lavishly by one village. I heard a little girl say to her father, “You promised I could meet the American ambassador. I don’t see him.” He said to her, “There she is.” “Oh, no,” she said. “She is not the American ambassador. She’s Nepali.”
Those are examples of why AAPI representation in foreign affairs is important. We should look like America, abroad, in our embassies. We can show the world that we are in fact diverse and rich culturally.
Mary Owen-Thomas: Secretary Chao, at the Labor Department you launched the annual Asian Pacific American Federal Career Advancement Summit, and the annual Opportunity Conference. The department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics began reporting the employment data on Asians in America as a distinct category — a first. You ensured that labor law materials were translated into multiple languages, including Chinese, Vietnamese, and Korean. Talk about how those came about.
Elaine Chao: Many of us have commented about the lack of diversity in top management, even in the federal government. There seems to be a bamboo ceiling — Asian Americans not breaking into the executive suite. I started the Asian Pacific American Federal Advancement Forum to equip, train, prepare Asian Americans to go into senior ranks of the federal government.
The Opportunity Conference was for communities of color, people who have traditionally been underserved in the federal government, in the federal procurement areas. Thirdly, in 2003 we finally broke out Asians and Asian American unemployment numbers for the first time. That’s how we know Asian Americans have the lowest unemployment rate. Labor laws are complicated, so we started a process translating labor laws into Asian, East Asian, and South Asian languages, so that people would understand their obligations to protect the workforce.
We are often seen as invisible. In Congress, there are many times I’ll be in a room — and this is bipartisan, unfortunately — where people will be talking about different communities, and they literally leave AAPIs out. We are not mentioned, acknowledged, or recognized.
Grace Meng: I am not a Peace Corps Volunteer, but I am honored to be here. My former legislative director, Helen Beaudreau (Georgia 2004–06, The Philippines 2010–11), is a twice-Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. I am incredibly grateful for all of your service to our country, and literally representing America at every corner of the globe.
I was born and raised here. This past year and a half has been a wake-up call for our community. Asian Americans have been discriminated against long before — starting with legislation that Congress passed, like the Chinese Exclusion Act, to Japanese American citizens being put in internment camps. We have too often been viewed as outsiders or foreigners.
I live in Queens, New York, one of the most diverse counties in the country, and still have experiences where people ask where I learned to speak English so well, or where am I really from. When I was elected to the state legislature, some of us were watching the news — a group of people fighting. One colleague turned to me and said, “Well, Grace knows karate, I’m sure she can save us.”
By the way, I don’t know karate.
We are often seen as invisible. In Congress, there are many times I’ll be in a room — and this is bipartisan, unfortunately — where people will be talking about different communities, and they literally leave AAPIs out. We are not mentioned, acknowledged, or recognized. I didn’t necessarily come to Congress just to represent the AAPI community. But there are many tables we’re sitting at, where if we did not speak up for the AAPI community, no one else would.
At the root of hate
Julia Chang Bloch: I believe at the root of this anti-Asian hate is ignorance about the AAPI community. It’s a consequence of the exclusion, erasure, and invisibility of Asian Americans in K–12 school curricula. We need to increase education about the history of anti-Asian racism, as well as contributions of Asian Americans to society. Representative Meng, you should talk about your legislation.
Grace Meng: My first legislation, when I was in the state legislature, was to work on getting Lunar New Year and Eid on public school holidays in New York City. When I was in elementary school, we got off for Rosh Hashanah; don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled to have two days off. But I had to go to school on Lunar New Year. I thought that was incredibly unfair in a city like New York. Ultimately, it changed through our mayor.
In textbooks, maybe there was a paragraph or two about how Asian Americans fit into our American history. There wasn’t much. One of my goals is to ensure that Asian American students recognize in ways that I didn’t that they are just as American as anyone else. I used to be embarrassed about my parents working in a restaurant, or that they didn’t dress like the other parents.
Data is empowering. We can’t administer government programs without understanding where they go, who receives them, how many resources are devoted to what groups.
Julia Chang Bloch: I wonder about data collection. We’re categorized as AAPI — all lumped together. And data, I believe, is collected that way at the national, state, and local levels. Is there some way to disaggregate this data collection and recognize the differences?
Elaine Chao: A very good question. Data is empowering. We can’t administer government programs without understanding where they go, who receives them, how many resources are devoted to what groups.
Two obstacles stand in the way. One is resources. Unless there is thinking about how to do this in a systemic, long-term fashion, getting resources is difficult; these are expensive undertakings. Two, there’s sometimes political resistance. Pew Charitable Trust, in 2012, did an excellent job: the first major demographic study on the Asian American population in the United States. But we’re coming up on 10 years. That needs to be revisited.
Role models vs. stereotypes
Elaine Chao: Ambassador Julia Chang Bloch and Pauline Tsui started the organization Chinese American Women. I remember coming to Washington as a young pup and seeing these fantastic, empowering women. They blazed so many trails. They gave voice to Asian American women.
I come from a family of six daughters. I credit my parents for empowering their daughters from an early age. They told us that if you work hard, you can do whatever you want to do. We’ve got to offer more inspiration and be more supportive.
Julia Chang Bloch: Pauline Tsui has unfortunately passed away. She had a foundation, which gave us support to establish a series on Asian women trailblazers. Our inaugural program featured Secretary Chao and Representative Judy Chu, because it was about government and service. Our next one is focused on higher education. Our third will be on journalism.
I want, however, to leave you with this thought. The Page Act of 1875 barred women from China, Japan, and all other Asian countries from entering the United States. Why? Because the thought was they brought prostitution. The stereotyping of Asian women has been insidious and harmful to our achieving positions of authority and leadership. That’s led also to horrible stereotypes that have exoticized and sexualized Asian women. Think about the women who were killed in Atlanta.
That intersection of racism and misogyny that has existed for way too long is something we need to continue to combat.
Grace Meng: There was the automatic assumption, in the beginning, that they were sex workers — these stereotypes were being circulated. I had the opportunity with some of my colleagues to go to Atlanta and meet some of the victims’ families, to hear their stories. That really gave me a wake-up call. I talked about my own upbringing for the first time.
I remember when my parents, who worked in a restaurant, came to school, and they were dressed like they worked in a restaurant. I was too embarrassed to say hello. Being in Atlanta, talking to those families, made me realize the sacrifices that Asian American women at all levels have faced so that we could have the opportunity to be educated here, to get jobs, to serve our country. And that intersection of racism and misogyny that has existed for way too long is something that we need to continue to combat.
Julia Chang Bloch: We’ve talked about the sexualized, exoticized, and objectified stereotype — the Suzie Wongs and the Madame Butterflys. However, those of us here today, I think would fall into another category: the “dragon lady” stereotype. Any Asian woman of authority is classified as a dragon lady — a derogatory stereotype. Women who are powerful, but also deceitful and manipulating and cruel. Today it’s women who are authoritative and powerful.
Mary Owen-Thomas: Growing up, I was sort of embarrassed of my mom’s thick Filipino accent; she was embarrassed of it, too. I was embarrassed of the food she would send me to school with — rice, mung beans, egg rolls, and fish sauce. And people would ask, “What is that?” Talk about how your self-identity has evolved — and how you view family.
You do not need to have a fancy title to improve the lives of people around you. I became stronger myself and realized that it was my duty, my responsibility, as a daughter of immigrants, to give back to this country and to give back to this community.
Grace Meng: I don’t know if it’s related to being Asian, but I was super shy as a child. And there weren’t a lot of Asians around me. I was the type who would tremble if a teacher called on me; I would try to disappear into the walls. When I meet people who knew me in school, they say, “I cannot believe you’re in politics.”
What gave me strength was getting involved in the community, seeing as a student in high school, college, and law school that I could help people around me. After law school I started a nonprofit with some friends. We had senior citizens come in with their mail once a week, and we would help them read it. It wasn’t rocket science at all.
I tell that story to young people, because you do not need to have a fancy title to improve the lives of people around you. I became stronger myself and realized that it was my duty, my responsibility, as a daughter of immigrants, to give back to this country and to give back to this community.
Julia Chang Bloch: At some point, in most Asian American young people’s lives, you ask yourself whether you are Chinese or American — or, Mary, in your case, whether you’re Filipino or American.
I asked myself that question one year after I arrived in San Francisco from China. I was 10. I entered a forensic contest to speak on being a marginalized citizen. I won the contest, but I didn’t have the answer. At university, I found Chinese student associations I thought would be my answer to my identity. But I did not find myself fitting into the American-born Chinese groups — ABCs — or those fresh off the boat, FOBs. Increasingly, my circle of friends became predominantly white. I perceived the powerlessness of the Chinese in America. I realized that only mainstreaming would make me be able to make a difference in America.
After graduation, I joined the Peace Corps, to pursue my roots and to make a difference in the world. Teaching English at a Chinese middle school gave me the opportunity to find out once and for all whether I was Chinese or American. I think you know the answer.
My ambassadorship made me a Chinese American who straddles the East and the West. And having been a Peace Corps Volunteer, I have always believed that it was my obligation to bring China home to America, and vice versa. And that’s what I’ve been doing with the U.S.-China Education Trust since 1998.
We should say representation matters. Peace Corps matters, too.
WATCH THE ENTIRE CONVERSATION here: Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Leading in a Time of Adversity
Orrin Luc posted an articleWriter Peter Hessler made an unexpectedly early return to the U.S. this summer. see more
Renowned writer Peter Hessler had planned on spending five years back in China with his wife and daughters. But the university he was teaching at did not renew his contract.
By NPCA Staff
Writer Peter Hessler made an unexpectedly early return to the U.S. this summer. In 2019, the New Yorker correspondent, who served with Peace Corps China 1996–98, moved to the city of Chengdu to teach — more than 20 years after he taught at Fuling Teachers College as a Volunteer. He was planning on a five-year sojourn with his wife and daughters. In May he learned that his contract for teaching nonfiction at Sichuan University-Pittsburgh Institute had not been renewed.
The university emailed a statement to Reuters explaining that they had been unable to reach terms for renewing Hessler’s contract. Reuters also noted that in March, Hessler participated in the China Development Forum, “a high-profile government-run event, where he spoke on a panel on media perspectives of how the COVID-19 outbreak was handled in Wuhan.”
And as Foreign Policy noted, the government of China expelled 18 international journalists from the country in the first half of the year alone.
Steven Saum posted an articleIn January it was announced the China program would “graduate.” Then came evacuation. see more
Nobody wanted it to happen this way. Evacuation stories and the unfinished business of Peace Corps Volunteers around the world.
Photo: Family portrait with Andrew Avitt, right, and his host family, Mr. and Mrs. Zhen and host brother Yanyu. “We received a lot of instruction during training about language, culture, and teaching. Perhaps the most invaluable part of that experience was getting to know my host family,” Avitt writes.
China | Maura Joul
Home: St. Cloud, Minnesota
My cohort came in summer 2019. We had one semester teaching, three to go. All China Volunteers served in the education sector: teaching English at universities, colleges, technical schools, teachers colleges. I was at Tianshui Normal University in a city of 3.8 million with, it seemed, fewer than 10 foreigners. I taught first-year students, most female; some wanted to be teachers or translators, some to work for corporations or teach abroad. Our program manager told me and my site mate, Callie Dick, “They look to you not only as a teacher, but also strong female role models.”
Peace Corps had been on my radar since high school. I went with my local Rotary club to the Dominican Republic, where I met a returned Volunteer who was working on a water project. What struck me was her relationship with the community; people treated her like family. I studied abroad my senior year of college in Hong Kong — and decided China was where I wanted to focus my work and career.
A lot of my students had never seen or interacted with a foreigner. For them, the experience is transformational.
We had in-service training in January; come spring I was looking forward to teaching an elective course on current events, Callie a course on film. All the Volunteers were together on our last day of training when we got news of the program closing in China. That was jarring. We went back to our site, wondering: What’s going to happen? It was a holiday; students were gone, colleagues were at home. The second the news of the virus broke, nobody wanted to leave their house. A young couple owned a restaurant near our apartment; they had invited us to come to their relatives’ home for the spring festival. A few days later, things started to escalate. They rescinded the invitation. As the virus outbreak became more serious, I started preparing for the worst. We got our evacuation order and had about 48 hours until our flight out of China to Thailand. Within two days we learned we would be COSing.
Coming home, I was thinking: Now what? In true Peace Corps fashion, I did what I could with what was within my control. What was outside my control, I let it be.
Photographer Andrew Avitt writes: “The first group of students I taught at Southwest University in Beibei, Chongqing, China. The picture is of them holding up their 3,500 word academic English paper on the last day of class.”
The political noise back here about, “Why is Peace Corps in China?” The value — it’s immeasurable. A lot of my students had never seen or interacted with a foreigner. For them, the experience is transformational — to hear about different values and beliefs. For Americans, we have the opportunity to understand China — a rising global superpower — through its people. Building relationships at the grassroots level is essential; as they grow and multiply, they have the potential to influence international relations. There’s a great need for communication and understanding in every part of the world.
In April I was getting messages from my students: “The virus is very serious in the U.S. How are you doing? Stay inside, wear a mask.” And, “Don’t worry, the Chinese rescue team is coming to help. We’re going to get you through this.” It is gratifying that they still try to uphold up these relationships just as much as we do.
Photographer Andrew Avitt writes: “During our summer project in July 2019, when Volunteers serving in Chongqing Province taught grade school teachers in a more rural part of the province, I had a moment to wander the streets of Wuxi City in Eastern Chongqing. I saw a grandfather and his grandchildren out for an afternoon ride. Although the grandpa seemed to be thinking of past times, his grandchildren were looking straight ahead.”
China | Reed Piercey
Home: Mountain View, California
I was in the International Relations Department of Sichuan International Studies University in Chongqing, a city of 30 million in central China. The university is well-regarded; most students had English good enough to discuss their lives and talk about ideas. Their curiosity was insatiable. Classes I taught were content-based, using speech and debate. The diversity of viewpoints was striking, especially because China is often seen as a monolith in the U.S.
My site mate and I ran a debate club, starting with topics we thought more relatable: strategies for managing tourist crowds during the national holiday. Then bigger topics: artificial intelligence, nuclear proliferation. In speech class, for the final assignment we included a few controversial topics — like should there be more LGBTQ representation in the media. One student who was a class monitor, a student leader, gave a speech on LGBTQ representation. I expected a more of a conservative take. He got up and gave a very passionate speech about a close friend of his who was gay and had recently taken his own life. So he argued for the value of same-sex representation in the media. That blew me away.
My interest in Peace Corps was specific to China — though I’d had an interest in it since high school, since my uncle served in Sierra Leone in the ’70s. My junior year at Boston College, I studied in Beijing and interned at the U.S. Embassy. I wanted to come back and immerse myself; my goal is to work in foreign policy.
The value was the window that opened between people of both countries. We were never told what to teach.
One takeaway: To assume that the Chinese government and people are the same is a fallacy. Granted, a lot of opinions can’t be expressed openly. But get to know people and you see there’s as much depth and complexity to their population as ours. After the program closed, some of us wrote a memo for Peace Corps and Congress on why that’s a mistake. The value was the window that opened between people of both countries. We were never told what to teach. We had freedom to interact with students. A senior staff member of Peace Corps had conversations with a Chinese government representative who referred to our work as “planting seeds.” She was struck by that statement and all the implications.
The part that hit me emotionally was the fact that our Chinese staff — some who had devoted ten-plus years to the program — were now told they weren’t needed. In terms of intercultural competency, they would blow anyone out of the water. I have kept in touch with my program manager. I spent Chinese New Year at her family’s house with my dad — he visited in January, just before we evacuated. He arrived right after the bombshell that the program was going to graduate. Two days before he was scheduled to fly out, we got the evacuation email. We ended up leaving the same day. That was surreal.
China Volunteers—before the program was closed. Photo by Andrew Avitt
China | Andrew Avitt
New Home: Washington, D.C. Area
Peace Corps was something I first heard about in high school. I thought, you can join at any age — but you need some education or experience. So I put that on the back burner. I joined the Marine Corps right out of high school. That reaffirmed my desire to join Peace Corps. Both were good experiences; I learned more about myself, others, and the world than I could have imagined. I learned that having the right mindset in even the toughest situations is essential. In the military, it’s: The mission needs to get done, no matter what. And in the Marines, you are with other people. Peace Corps is a very independent assignment; mission-wise, day in and day out, we do the work but never really arrive at the end.
In Peace Corps I learned to laugh at myself in some situations. I had always taken myself very seriously. Being in a foreign country, there’s an opportunity for a lot of misunderstandings. My Mandarin is terrible. But I would always try to speak the language to my students and people I met. They would laugh, and I would laugh — really a bonding. People realized, Surely my English is better than his Mandarin! I would get so many people to talk to me.
All Peace Corps Volunteers in China receieved pre-service training about language, culture, and teaching. But perhaps the most invaluable part of that experience was living with and getting to know my host family, Mr. and Mrs. Zhen and my host brother, Yanyu. I feel like it was that experience that really opened a window onto the culture and informed my day-to-day life there.
Every day after our training sessions I would come home to eat dinner with my host family. Mom always cooked, and every day it was a different meal. I once asked Yanyu how many dishes his mother knew how to make. He guessed around 700. After dinner each night we would go to a nearby park and walk around a 10-kilometer lake. I was well fed and in shape that summer.I missed dad. I also benefited from the early guidance of my host father, a middle school teacher of Chinese. He would teach me new Chinese words as we walked around the lake, pointing at things and explaining how to sound out the words.
We all think we have time. But there’s not always a tomorrow.
I served in Beibei in Chongqing province, at Southwest University, teaching classes on oral English, academic writing. I also partnered with the International Media Center, to help tell their story to an international audience. My cohort was in the final stretch of completing our service. A year and a half is a short time. And then it is a very long time.
When we got the news that we were going home, it was surprising how quick it came; it was the holidays and I was traveling in the Philippines. I left on a trip thinking, I’ll be back, see all my friends and colleagues in a couple weeks. My students still message me; colleagues, other Volunteers — you just don’t get to say goodbye. As a photographer, I was going to spend that last semester documenting everything and everyone about my sites. We all think we have time. But there’s not always a tomorrow.
China: Fisherman on the Jialing River, which runs through the city of Beibei. Photo by Andrew Avitt
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Kaylee Jensen posted an articleUpdates on all that is happening for the Peace Corps Community as of Spring 2020 see more
The eve of the Lunar New Year brought some startling Peace Corps news: The program in China — which has sent 1,321 volunteers to teach English in different provinces — would begin winding down immediately. No new Volunteers would be sent—though the 139 Volunteers currently serving would be allowed to finish. That was the word on January 16. But plans changed with the dismaying spread of coronavirus, beginning in the city of Wuhan.
The outbreak led to an unprecedented quarantine and evacuations of Americans. On Feb. 5, Peace Corps announced that all Volunteers had been evacuated from China. And they would not be returning. “My heart goes out to the extraordinary volunteers and staff who are participating in the Close of Service conference and preparing for the next steps in their lives,” said Peace Corps Director Jody Olsen.
It was a sudden end to a program that spanned more than a quarter century. Volunteers served in China beginning in 1993, teaching alongside educators at scores of schools and colleges. But there had been increasing pressure from some quarters Stateside to close the program. Two outspoken critics were U.S. Senators from Florida: Rick Scott and Marco Rubio.
“Peace Corps Volunteers in China are not propping up an authoritarian government. They’re building relationships and teaching young Chinese about American values.”
A Jan.16 statement on Rubio’s website said of the initial announcement to close the program: “Today’s decision by the Peace Corps to withdraw its volunteers from China confirms what we all know — China is no longer a developing country.”
Senator Scott sounded a more triumphant note: “I’m glad the Peace Corps has finally come to its senses and sees Communist China for what it is: the second largest economy in the world and an adversary of the United States.” Scott introduced a Senate bill in 2019 calling for the withdrawal of Peace Corps from China by September 2020. That same bill proposed that the administration of Peace Corps as a whole be folded into the State Department.
Dismay was the initial reaction among much of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer community. Rob Schmitz, a National Public Radio correspondent who served with the Peace Corps in southwest China 1996–98 and worked as a China correspondent for the program “Marketplace” before his current role, gave a first-person take. “Peace Corps China volunteers are English teachers throughout less developed parts of western China,” he said in an NPR interview. “What I think critics of the program do not understand is that Peace Corps Volunteers in China are not propping up an authoritarian government. They’re building relationships and teaching young Chinese about American values. You know, when I was a volunteer, I taught Western civ, U.S. history. And that included concepts like democracy and how it works in the U.S. … This is likely one of the most important, unintentional soft power programs the U.S. has in China.”
End of the Journey: Writer Peter Hessler, an early Volunteer in China. Now the program has closed.
Steve Hess is an assistant professor of political science at Transylvania University. He served as a volunteer in China 2006–08. In January he started an online petition calling for Peace Corps to reverse the decision to withdraw. “At a time in which Sino-American relations are more critical than ever,” he wrote, “we cannot afford to lose this important program.”
But now the program has ended.
Writer Michael Meyer served as a volunteer in China 1995–97 and has written a trilogy of books on China. He penned an op ed for the Wall Street Journal about the work of Peace Corps Volunteers in China. “They maintain the steady daily habits of being engaged, learning the language and helping out in communities whose own national government falters,” he wrote. “Is there a better or more cost-effective form of public diplomacy?”
Update: Not long after we went to press with this story, Volunteers from Mongolia — and then all Peace Corps Volunteers around the world — were evacuated. See our blog for extended coverage of that.
Farming with Winrock
NPCA staff met recently in Senegal with Winrock International’s regional staff to assess our successful first year with the Arkansas-based nonprofit sending RPCVs on overseas agricultural projects to share their expertise.
“We are striving to continuously increase our global social impact as a community,” says NPCA International Programs Coordinator Bethany Leech. “We love finding initiatives that conduct international development projects that fulfill our Peace Corps values.”
In 2019 NPCA recruited six short-term, and three long-term RPCVs to fulfill Winrock’s USAID-funded Farmer-to-Farmer assignments in West Africa. “We’re geared up to fill many more short-term projects in 2020,” Leech said. Travel and living expenses are paid. Volunteer consultants donate their time and expertise.
Winrock is a private, nonprofit organization implementing more than 150 agriculture, environment, and social development projects in over 40 countries. They are also one of the largest contractors implementing USAID’s Farmer-to-Farmer program.
Through NPCA’s partnership with Winrock, our members have unique volunteer opportunities to serve abroad again by performing short-term technical projects. These assignments allow RPCVs to re-engage in international development work, connect with people and organizations on the ground, and work hand in hand to build a better world.
While NPCA’s International Volunteer Opportunities are on hold amid the global pandemic, we’ll share news on peacecorpsconnect.org when we have an update.
Kay and Kevin Dixon (Colombia 62-64) of Spokane, Washington have come to Washington for our Day of Action many times as citizen lobbyists. This year they met Arianna Richard, a newcomer to NPCA’s Capitol Hill advocacy. Arianna had just returned six months ago from eSwatini—the new name for the country formerly known as Swaziland.
As we go to press, these RPCVs are gathering with hundreds of other members of our Peace Corps community. March 5 marks NPCA’s 16th annual Capitol Hill National Day of Action, when RPCVs meet with members of Congress and staffs to persuade Congress to let Peace Corps be the best it can be.
“We’re really fortunate to have so many long-time advocates and newcomers converge on Capitol Hill each year during Peace Corps Week,” says Jonathan Pearson, NPCA’s advocacy director. “There is no doubt that when it comes to Peace Corps, Congress is aware there is an active and passionate constituency.”
On this Day of Action these advocates wanted to thwart a proposed budget cut of $9.3 million to Peace Corps. They urged no less than $450 million for the agency in Fiscal Year 2021 to address crucial program and personnel cuts stemming from five consecutive years of static funding.
Supporting Peace Corps also means supporting its independence. In Senate meetings, RPCVs, former staff, relatives, and friends—and some highly motivated Peace Corps applicants—are speaking out against legislation to place Peace Corps under the authority of the State Department.
Teams of advocates are also asking for new legislation to improve healthcare, readjustment allowances, and future federal employment opportunities for serving Peace Corps volunteers and RPCVs. They’re asking members of the House of Representatives to sign onto the Peace Corps Reauthorization Act (H.R. 3456) that was authored by Congressman John Garamendi (Ethiopia 66-68) of California’s third Congressional district.
‘Critical voice of dissent’ in health
Monica Kerrigan was named the new executive director of Planned Parenthood Global in October 2019. It’s a role to which she brings four decades of international experience, starting with her service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kendie, Mali in 1979. How did that shape her work? “It’s where I saw firsthand the struggle of women and girls that were forced into early marriage, no access to contraceptives and frequent childbearing,” Kerrigan told a DevEx reporter recently. “Many of my friends died during childbirth, and also put their life in their hands with unsafe abortions,” she said. “That experience changed my life.”
That’s one reason why in her first interview as executive director she spoke of the need for Planned Parenthood Global to be the “critical voice of dissent” in opposing what’s formally known as the Mexico City Policy—and informally as the “global gag rule.”The policy prohibits foreign nongovernment organizations who receive U.S. aid from engaging in abortion counseling or services. It was first implemented in 1984 by the Reagan administration and reinstated in 2017. When funding has been cut, it has also affected programs in cervical cancer screening as well as contraception and HIV programs.
Prior, Kerrigan was vice president for technical leadership and innovation at jhpiego, an international nonprofit health organization affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, and helped lead family planning programs for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Afghanistan: No-Drama Advice
Brookings Institution senior fellow on defense matters Michael O’Hanlon (Congo/Kinshasa 82-84) has some advice for the next president of the United States on Afghanistan. With a little help from NATO allies, he writes, draw down U.S. troop levels by about 60 percent. He made the case for that in “A No-drama approach to Afghanistan for the next U.S. president,” published on the Brookings’ Big Ideas blog December 4, 2019. For starters, he writes: “By the time America’s next president is inaugurated on January 20, 2021, America’s role in the Afghanistan war will be approaching its 20th anniversary. Afghans themselves will have been at war continuously at least twice as long, if one dates the beginning of the modern conflict to the Soviet invasion there in 1979.
“Americans are understandably tired of this war. It has by any measure been a frustration, especially when measured against the more ambitious ‘nation building’ goals of the first Obama term.”
Black Hawk: The U.S. military is giving 53 to Afghan forces. Photo by Nikayla Shodeen/Dept. of Defense/Wikimedia Commons
O’Hanlon reviews earlier White House decisions, the initial “light footprint” of President George W. Bush, a 2009 review by Gen. Stanley McChrystal to increase troop levels, a surge issued reluctantly by President Obama, and the search for an exit strategy by Obama and President Trump.
“But the mission has not been an abject failure,” he writes. “The Afghan government continues to hold all major and mid-sized cities as of this writing, and even more to the point for Americans, the United States has not again been attacked by a group that plotted or organized its aggression from within Afghan borders.”
His proposal is that until the U.S. adopts an exit strategy, there is an affordable way to sustain these modest, yet real, accomplishments: “The United States needs a policy that recognizes Afghanistan for what it is—a significant, but not a top-tier, U.S. strategic interest—and builds a plan accordingly. That overall strategy should still seek peace, but its modest military element should be steady and stable, and not set to a calendar. Roughly 5,000 U.S. troops for at least five years could be the crude mantra.
“A future force of 5,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, aided by 2,000 to 3,000 other NATO military personnel, would contrast with the late-2019 figure of 13,000 GIs there. It would be 95 percent less than the 100,000 U.S. troops commanded there by General David Petraeus and then General John Allen at the peak of the American presence in 2010–11. This lower level could probably be achieved by 2022, though the glide path could be slowed if conditions required.”
Update: After we went to press, the signing of a peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban has shifted the landscape in Afghanistan. Listen to a March 2020 conversation about Afghanistan for the Middle East Institute here.
Originally published in March 2020 in the Spring 2020 print edition of WorldView. Updated April 30, 2020.
Kaylee Jensen posted an articleA look back at travel in China see more
Photos by Jamie Fouss. Introduction by David Arnold
In 1984, Jamie Fouss and a Peace Corps Samoa friend, Liz Alperin, spent six weeks traveling in the People’s Republic of China. The United States had established diplomatic relations only five years prior. China had recently removed the requirement that all foreigners travel in groups; Jamie and Liz were some of the first foreigners to travel on their own. Traveling in those days was quite challenging. Few Chinese people spoke English. Foreigners needed special permission to visit certain cities and could only stay in hotels that accepted special foreign exchange currency.
Traveling by train, bus, and boat, Jamie and Liz visited the south, west, and northern parts of China. With a Berlitz phrase dictionary and a Canon AE-1 camera, Jamie found it simple enough to engage with locals, whom he found to be friendly, hospitable, and curious. Wanting to depict typical Chinese life, Jamie photographed the people, their food, culture, neighborhoods, and lifestyle.
Twenty years later Jamie returned to Beijing as a diplomat. He would often ride his bike to a nearby village to photograph people there. He made it a practice to make prints and deliver them to those he had photographed the previous weekend. The villagers, who were eager to see Jamie and receive their pictures, often invited him into their homes, shops, and restaurants for him to photograph them some more.
Jamie’s interest in photographing people began while serving as a science/math Peace Corps volunteer at Ulimasao College on the island of Savai’i in Western Samoa from 1981 to 1983. He later served as Peace Corps Country Director in the Marshall Islands and then returned to Samoa as Associate Director. He is now the U.S. Consul General in Wuhan, China, having had earlier diplomatic postings in Taipei, Beijing, Guangzhou, Dhaka, and Hyderabad. He has often given his 1984 slide presentation, endearing himself to Chinese audiences, who marvel at what China was like in simpler times. But the outbreak of coronavirus in Wuhan upended life for so many. In January, Jamie was evacuated to California and put in quarantine.
Piece work: a burlap bag factory in Guangzhou. Long a trading hub, the city had a population of less than 3 million in 1984. Now more than 14 million people live there.
Connected by water: Sailors enjoying a day off near the Pearl River in Guangzhou. Ninety miles from the South China Sea, it was the first port to be regularly visited by European traders.
The journey: an overland bus station in Yunnan Province. This area in southwest China is renowned for its diversity of people and landscapes. It’s now interconnected by high-speed rail.
Tile work: A farmer and his wife repairing their home’s roof. Clay tiles were first used for roofing by humans in China, in the Neolithic Age.
This story was first published in WorldView magazine's Spring 2020 edition