Some 2,000 Peace Corps Volunteers Served in Korea. They Have Also Helped Shape the Study of That Nation in the United States.Stories of Peace Corps' influence on Korean studies in the United States see more
Peace Corps Volunteers and the Making of Korean Studies in the United States
Edited by Seung-kyung Kim and Michael Robinson
Center for Korea Studies, University of Washington
Reviewed by Steven Boyd Saum
The Peace Corps sent more than 2,000 Volunteers to South Korea 1966–81, to teach English and advise on healthcare. “Their experiences affected their worldview, individual politics, aesthetic sensibilities, and views on gender discrimination,” notes the introduction to this anthology. Those experiences also fueled scholarship on Korea in the States. A small yet significant number of the Volunteers returned to the U.S. and entered academia, forming the core of a second wave of Korean studies scholars.
This volume includes essays by 11 individuals, nine of them returned Volunteers. Years in an impoverished nation still recovering from war — and in which authoritarian regimes sometimes brutally oppressed democratic uprisings — influenced their work: from studies in history, culture, and politics to literary translations and work with Amnesty International and as part of congressional staff.
Carter Eckert (1968–71) describes life in Korea under the dictatorship of Chung-hee Park, a time of censorship, curfews, and surveillance. Laurel Kendall (1970–71) recounts gender discrimination and asks, “Did Women Have a Peace Corps–Korea Experience?” Don Baker (1971–74) writes about traveling to the city of Gwangju just after an uprising there was brutally put down. Other contributors who served in the Peace Corps include Edward J. Baker (1971–73), Donald Clark (1967–69), Bruce Fulton (1978–79), Linda S. Lewis (1970–72), Michael Robinson (1968–71), and Edward Schultz (1966–67). Co-editor Seung-kyung Kim and scholars Okpyo Moon and Clark W. Sorensen make it clear this project is far more than collective cheerleading.
Kathleen Stephens, who served as a Volunteer in South Korea 1975–77, provides the afterword; a career diplomat, she returned to Korea as U.S. ambassador 2008–11, the first woman — and the first Korean speaker — to serve in that role.
This review appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine.
Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView.
How the May 1980 Democratic Uprising in South Korea Was Met with Brute Force: A First-Person AccountPaul Courtright is the first non-Korean to offer a firsthand account of this watershed moment. see more
By Paul Courtright
Reviewed by Steven Boyd Saum
Paul Courtright arrived in South Korea in 1979 to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer, based in a community near the southern tip of the Korean peninsula. He worked with patients afflicted with Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy. On May 19, 1980, on his way through the bus terminal in the provincial capital of Gwangju, he saw a young man being beaten by military special forces.
A phone call to another Volunteer confirmed: “Something big” was going down in the city — part of a mass protest against the dictatorial regime. A couple of days later, Courtright rode his bicycle back to Gwangju; beside a rice paddy was a toppled bus, its side smeared with blood and pockmarked with bullet holes. It was collateral damage in an uprising that would involve a quarter million people and last for 10 days before being fully and finally put down with military force.
In Witnessing Gwangju, Courtright tells the story of the democratization movement and its suppression. As Kim Yong-hee noted in a review for the newspaper Hankyoreh, Courtright is the first non-Korean to offer a firsthand account of this watershed moment. For the project Courtright teamed up with award-winning Time magazine photographer Robin Moyer; the book includes previously unreleased photographs.
During the uprising, Courtright and other Volunteers were ordered to leave Gwangju. They did not, hoping that by bearing witness they might help discourage the worst excesses of riot police and paratroopers. Courtright did head for Seoul on May 26, hoping to tell U.S. diplomats what he saw happening on the ground. No one at the embassy would meet with him.
Gwangju, May 1980: As the democratic uprising is crushed, a man transports a coffin by bicycle. Photo by Robin Moyer
Official accounts say some 600 people were killed. Students who participated claimed the number was closer to 2,000. While the uprising was suppressed, democratic aspirations continued to simmer below the surface. Korea made the transition to direct presidential elections in 1993. Five years later, Kim Dae-jung, who was arrested and sentenced to death for his participation in the uprising, was elected president.
After Paul Courtright’s Peace Corps service, he earned degrees in public health, focusing on eye diseases and neglected tropical diseases. That took him to work in Egypt, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Tanzania, where he and his wife established the Kilimanjaro Centre for Community Ophthalmology. Four decades after Gwangju, Courtright has told that story, with editions of the book simultaneously released in Korean and English.
This review appears in the special 2022 Books Edition of WorldView magazine.
Steven Boyd Saum is the editor of WorldView.
Here Are Three Outstanding Leaders in the Peace Corps Community Honored with 2021 Awards by the Women of Peace Corps LegacyNancy Kelly, Amy Maglio, and Estee Katcoff honored for global service and leadership see more
Nancy Kelly of Health Volunteers Overseas and Amy Maglio of the Women’s Global Education Project are recognized with the Deborah Harding Women of Achievement Award. Estee Katcoff, founder of the Superkids Foundation, is recognized with the Kate Raftery Emerging Leaders Award.
By NPCA Staff
As part of the global virtual conference Peace Corps Connect 2021, Women of Peace Corps Legacy presented awards to three outstanding leaders in the Peace Corps community. Nancy Kelly and Amy Maglio were each honored with the Deborah Harding Women of Achievement Award. And Estee Katcoff was presented with the Kate Raftery Emerging Leader Award.
The awards were presented by Kathleen Corey, president of Women of Peace Corps Legacy, on September 23 at the Peace Corps Connect conference. WPCL is an affiliate group of National Peace Corps Association and is part of a vibrant community that includes more than 180 affiliate groups focused on regions in the U.S., on countries where Volunteers have served, and around causes that matter to the Peace Corps community.
Deborah Harding Women of Achievement Award
The Deborah Harding Award honors Peace Corps women whose contributions have made a significant difference in the lives of women and girls in the world.
Nancy Kelly has worked tirelessly for over four decades to help women and girls all over the world. She began her journey in 1979 as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Korea, working in maternal and child health, and went on to develop a career in global health. As the executive director of Health Volunteers Overseas since its creation in 1986, she has been the driver behind a program which has enabled thousands of women, children and humans to receive improved, dignified, and compassionate health care — and has allowed thousands of health professionals to receive training and mentorship which otherwise would have been near impossible.
Under her leadership, Health Volunteers Overseas has facilitated over 11,900 volunteer assignments globally. The last five have resulted in, on average, 3,200 health professionals receiving training and mentorship each year — benefiting innumerate women and children both directly and indirectly. In so doing, she is helping to build a global cadre of talented, confident, and inspired women who are committed to advancing global health.
Amy Maglio is the founder and executive director of the Women’s Global Education Project (WGEP) which works with grassroots community partners to educate, empower, and promote equality for women and girls in rural Senegal and Kenya. As a Peace Corps Volunteer, Amy saw firsthand the multiplier effect of girls' education in rural Senegal and how access to education — which was extremely limited for girls, not only increased their own opportunities — but also enabled them to provide for their families and catalyzed wider community change.
Inspired by Khady, her host sister who she assisted in getting an education as well as other girls in her village, Amy started WGEP in 2004, at her dining room table, determined to help girls and women succeed in school and reach their full potential. As director of this Chicago-area NGO, she helped ensure the increase of education opportunities for marginalized girls in rural Kenya and Senegal through innovative programs with grassroots community partners.
This NGO has proved to be tremendously successful and has held a 99% retention rate, reaching over 20,000 girls and young women to date. In 2010, she was invited to present WGEP’s model as a best practice approach to girls’ education at the United Nations Girls’ Education Initiative Conference in Dakar, Senegal, and was a drafter of the UN Declaration on Gender Equality.
Kate Raftery Emerging Leader Award
The Kate Raftery Emerging Leader Award is presented annually to a woman with an affiliation to Peace Corps under the age of 35 who has demonstrated outstanding leadership and ongoing commitment to serve women and girls.
Estee Katcoff became aware of gender-based violence as a Peace Corps Volunteer and used this knowledge to lead initiatives preventing it in Paraguay during and after her service. She founded a girls' empowerment club and extended for a third year to continue her work, which included working with the Children's Rights Council of Gender-Based Violence Prevention.
Since then, Estee has piloted a successful youth program, originally called Zero Violencia, which continues now as the Superkids Foundation, working in Paraguay to mobilize children as agents of change in their communities. Seventy percent of the Kid Teachers who have risen to action through Superkids identify as girls and learn the knowledge and skills needed to not only end GBV but work towards equity in their communities, particularly in education.
Estee’s focus has always been on building the capacity of her Peace Corps community to use best practices to effect change, while championing women and girls and always including men and boys in the effort.
Story updated December 28, 2021 to correct spelling
Steven Saum posted an articleHow service as Volunteers shaped careers in public health, teaching, and more see more
How service as Volunteers shaped careers in public health, teaching, and more — for Americans and Koreans alike
By NPCA Staff
Photo: Survival box, delivered to Gary Krzic, President of Friends of Korea. Photo courtesy Gary Krzic
The gifts of more than 500 COVID-19 survival boxes to Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who served in South Korea inspired news stories across the country. Here are a few. As some note, the Korea Foundation, which sent the boxes, coordinated with Friends of Korea, the group of returned Volunteers, to find and thank them.
The Korea Foundation also created a video. A story about returned Volunteer Sandra Nathan in The New York Times, which also apperas in WorldView, drew hundreds of comments as well. Read those comments here.
“Korea taught me … and it gave me my career.”
Paul Courtright’s lifelong work in public health began when he traveled to South Korea as a Volunteer in 1979 to work with leprosy patients. Courtright “didn’t know anything about leprosy, once thought to be so contagious and incurable its victims were sent into isolation in leper colonies on islands and in remote places,” as John Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune and Los Angeles Times. Actually, leprosy is treatable, and it does not spread easily. But, Wilkens writes, “Stigma still surrounded the patients in Korea, Courtright found when he arrived there after three months of Peace Corps language training. And he noticed something else — about 10 to 15 percent of the people were blind.” Accompanying patients to a hospital where an ophthalmologist treated them, Courtright “took what he learned back to his village of about 600 people, and then to other resettlement communities.”
After Peace Corps, Courtright earned a master’s at Johns Hopkins University and a doctorate in public health from University of California, Berkeley. For decades his work has been focused on health work to tackle preventable blindness, particularly in Africa. As Courtright told Wilkens, “Korea taught me many things, and it gave me my career.” Courtright and his wife, Dr. Susan Lewallen, also established the Kilimanjaro Center for Community Ophthalmology, with this mission to foster “high-quality eye care services provided by Africans for Africans.”
When Courtright received a box from the Korea Foundation, he emailed thanks to foundation president Geun Lee. Lee’s quick reply: “Though decades have passed, the country where you spent years of your cherished youth has not and will not forget that affection … We return it and will continue to pass it down from generation to generation.”
“Some hand sanitizer and a few masks.”
That’s what Kathleen and Bud Wright expected when they got word that the Korea Foundation would be sending a box to them in New Jersey. Instead, as the Times Herald-Record notes, “There were 50 KF-94 masks and antimicrobial copper glove sets. There was a good-quality blue nylon backpack, and a tin of red ginseng candy. There was a silk fan.” Also: “In a black velveteen case with a gold-colored clasp, tucked into silk pouches, were two sets of silver-plated chopsticks and spoons with a turtle design.” There were messages sent from Koreans via Instagram put into a booklet of thanks and well-wishes.
The Wrights served as Volunteers 1973–75, teaching English at Konkuk University in Seoul. Kathleen’s scholarship and teaching as a professor at State University of New York, Orange, took her around the world — including back to South Korea for research. She and other Volunteers also returned to South Korea in 2008 for a visit sponsored by the Korea Foundation.
Students and teachers: Seong Su Middle and High School, Chunhceon, 1971. To the right of Volunteer Dan Holt is his co-teacher Youngok Park; they co-authored the Methodology for Teachers guide used throughout middle schools. Holt went on to serve as TEFL advisor for the Peace Corps office in Seoul. Park succeeded him. Photo courtesy Friends of Korea
Russ Dynes traveled to South Korea as a Volunteer in 1972, assisting at a health clinic in a small farming community in the southwestern region of Gochang. The crisis at that time: an outbreak of tuberculosis, he told the Newark Post. As part of his work, Dynes would accompany nurses on visits to the countryside. Post–Peace Corps, he went to work with the Delaware Division of Public Health on a lead poisoning control program. New Jersey is home for Dynes now. As the Post notes, the arrival of the gift box was bringing the journey of service full circle.
Speak your peace
When we at WorldView reached out to Sandra Nathan, she wrote: “The Peace Corps’ mission is ‘to promote world peace and friendship’ … I would love to hear from other returned Volunteers who are continuing their work to promote peace and friendship and interested in the campaign to achieve peace in the Korean peninsula.” About that, she adds: “I am working with a local U.S. organization, Women Against War, to support Koreans’ wishes for a peaceful peninsula and will also be lobbying my Congressman and Senators to co-sponsor a bill to formally end the Korean war.” No peace treaty was signed; an armistice has been in place since 1953. House Resolution 152 was introduced by Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) in 2019, calling for a formal end to the war. “An end to the war would help facilitate the negotiation of arms reduction and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” Nathan writes, and it would facilitate “reunification of divided Korean and Korean-American families, people-to-people exchanges, humanitarian cooperation, and repatriation of service members’ remains.”
Communications Intern posted an articleFrom South Korea, a token of gratitude to the Volunteers who served see more
Decades ago, a young American woman served an impoverished South Korea as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Now the country is an economic powerhouse, and it decided to send her a token of its gratitude.
By Choe Sang-Hun
Photo: Sandra Nathan teaching in South Korea. Courtesy Sandra Nathan
Sandra Nathan spent 1966 to 1968 in a South Korean town as a young Peace Corps Volunteer, teaching English to high school girls. Fifty-two years later, Nathan, now back in the United States, received a care package from South Korea that nearly brought her to tears.
Nathan, 75, had been feeling increasingly isolated at home in Stephentown, New York. Reports about the exploding number of COVID-19 cases in the United States had made her anxious about going outside, where experts warned of second and third waves of infection. Then, early in November 2020, she received a package labeled “COVID-19 Survival Box.” It was a gift from the South Korean government that contained 100 masks and other items “as a token of our gratitude for your dedication to Korea.”
“It was as if this box had been traveling to me since 1968,” said Nathan, a retired civil rights and labor lawyer. “There was something magical about the box. Some people, Korean people, very far away wanted to make sure that I was OK; that I had what I needed to fight a bad disease. They behaved as though they cared and were responsible for me.”
Departure: A Korean student presents a gift to Volunteer Phil Venditti (1977–78). Photo courtesy Friends of Korea
Decades ago, South Koreans felt similarly toward Nathan and 2,000 other Peace Corps Volunteers. When the young Americans served as teachers and health care workers between 1966 and 1981, South Korea was a third-world country stricken by disease, a dictatorship, poverty, and destruction left by the Korean War.
South Korea is now one of the richest countries in the world, and its response to the coronavirus pandemic has been held up as an example for other nations, even as it deals with a small uptick in cases. In October, to pay back some of its debt, the government-run Korea Foundation said it was sending its COVID-19 Survival Boxes to 514 former Peace Corps Volunteers.
“Thanks in no small part to the help received from the Peace Corps,” the Korea Foundation’s president, Lee Geun, said in a letter in the box, “Korea has since achieved an economic breakthrough.”
Nathan joined the Peace Corps after graduating from the University of Chicago. She was among the first Volunteers to arrive in South Korea and was assigned to Chuncheon, in the north, where she taught English at a local high school. She was 21.
Health fair on tour: Volunteer Nancy Kelly (1979–81) dons a white coat to play midwife in a skit in which she talks with a pregnant woman and her mother-in-law, played by two fellow Volunteers, about maternal health and proper nutrition. Photo courtesy Nancy Kelly
The country around Chuncheon was beautiful. Its pine trees were graceful, and azaleas covered its hills in spring. But most of the streets were dirt roads. Children went outside without shoes. After dark, Nathan could hear rats running across ceilings. Plumbing was generally nonexistent.
“An ongoing debate among Volunteers was whether Time or Newsweek was more absorbent,” Nathan said in an email interview. “Toilet paper was unavailable.”
Both magazines came with pages blacked out by government censors. Crude anti-communist propaganda was everywhere. During her stay in South Korea, North Korea captured a U.S. Navy ship, the Pueblo, off its coast and sent armed commandos across the border to attack the South Korean presidential palace. On winter mornings, Nathan broke the ice in a plastic container in order to wash. Her school was a sad and drafty place where classrooms were heated by a single charcoal stove.
“I began to feel uncomfortably cold so that when I was not teaching, I regularly followed the circling sun as it flooded through the windows around the school building,” she said. “Even when it was very cold, students did not wear coats to school or to morning assemblies, and probably no one had a coat.”
But Nathan developed strong emotional ties with her students, who were eager to learn English. She once took a poor and sickly girl to an American military doctor for treatment for intestinal parasites, a common problem in Korea back then. The girl’s mother later arrived at the school and presented Nathan with several warm eggs, soft gray feathers still attached.
“The eggs, which I am sure my student and her mother themselves needed, expressed such gratitude that I was close to tears,” she said.
The irony of the reversal of fortunes during the pandemic did not escape her. South Korea continues to keep the coronavirus largely under control, thanks in part to its aggressive contact tracing. Although it has recently faced a small rise in infections, it is nothing compared to what is happening in the United States, where Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York has announced harsh new restrictions in Nathan’s home state. In August, she received the offer from the Korea Foundation to send her the gift box. She accepted, wondering if it was merely a public relations stunt for the Korean government.
Contents may inspire: what’s inside the box. Photo courtesy Friends of Korea
“I did not think much about it until the box arrived on Saturday, November 7, ironically the day that the U.S. presidential election was called for Joe Biden,” she wrote.
Nathan said she delayed opening the package for about a week because she wanted to preserve the wonderful feeling that it gave her. In addition to the masks, the box also included gloves, skin-care products, ginseng candies, a silk fan and two sets of silver chopsticks and spoons with the traditional Korean turtle design.
“I am a practical person, not usually given to ideas unfounded by fact,” wrote Ms. Nathan. “But there was definitely something magical about the box.”
This story originally appeared in The New York Times. Reprinted with permission.
MORE TO THIS STORY
Communities across the United States have shared the stories of how returned Volunteers in their communities served with the Peace Corps in South Korea — and found their lives profoundly touched by this gesture decades later. We’ve gathered some of them here.