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United in PeaceIt began in 1961 with President John F. Kennedy’s clarion call to service and a vision to promote world peace and friendship. Americans heard the call and ventured forth to those huts and villages, in the midst of “strange” cultures and in the absence of accustomed conveniences, determined to make a difference. The notion of a Peace Corps was embraced with open arms, and since then, more than 150,000 people have joined its ranks to aid the social and economic development of many countries and foster improved relationships between Americans and the world’s peoples.
From the beginning, FDU and its graduates have been ready to lend
a hand. In the 1960s, University founder and President Peter Sammartino
was appointed to the Advisory Board of the Peace Corps. And, throughout
the last 37 years, in places like South Korea, Nigeria, Tonga and Chile,
more than 130 alumni have worked alongside the local citizens, helping
them to “help themselves” and, in the meantime, cultivating a deeper sense
of understanding among cultures and learning a little about themselves.
The Toughest Job …It’s billed as “the toughest job you’ll ever love,” but the challenge seems daunting: to voluntarily abandon the luxuries aplenty in the United States, undergo a rigorous training regimen and then spend two years working strenuously in another country among strangers with foreign ways. Why would anyone join? For many early FDU volunteers, the answer was found in the wave of idealism that flowed through college campuses in the 1960s.
David Smilon, BA’59 (R), MA’68 (T-H), enlisted with the first group of Peace Corps volunteers in 1961 and ventured to the Philippines because of the influence of Kennedy. “He inspired me to want to save the world. I was very idealistic and I wanted to do some good.”
Another early volunteer, William Callahan, BA’63 (T-H), recalls seeing Kennedy discuss the idea of a Peace Corps on television. “I remember saying to my mother, ‘I would like to try that.’” Callahan, with the help of John Wong, then-director of student activities on the Teaneck-Hackensack Campus, applied while still a student on campus and soon was off to Chile.
Both Smilon and Callahan recall intensive training sessions. Callahan says there are two components of the training. “The first is the physical preparation. You are trained to overcome obstacles and learn how to handle stress and physical exertion. The second part is intellectual and learning another culture, language and history.”
As the 1960s wore on, many college students grew frustrated with America’s
role in the Vietnam War and were looking for a way to express themselves.
“I was totally opposed to the war and I wanted to do something positive,”
says James Shannon, BA’68 (F-M), who applied to the Peace Corps during
his senior year and then served in Nigeria.
Gottlieb, who underwent training in Hawaii, recalls some very interesting exercises. “At one point, they took all my money away and dropped me off in a remote town with nothing but a toothbrush. I had to learn to talk to the people and get a feel for the land. It prepared me to do the same thing in Malaysia.”
Gottlieb adds that trainees also underwent medical and psychological testing, and many who were not mentally prepared for the rigors of the job dropped out of the program. As with most volunteers, almost all of Gottlieb’s training was done in the foreign language he would soon be using.
Nancy Tiedeman, BA’66 (T-H), was one of the few Peace Corps volunteers who was established in the workforce before she decided to join. “I was working in New York City for a publishing company and was on a good career path.” But she was inspired one day by a talk with a returning Peace Corps volunteer. “Something in me clicked. I thought I should be doing more with my life.”
So in the spring of 1971, Tiedeman began the lengthy application and training process. “They make sure this is really what you want to do. The process tends to discourage those who are not serious.” Tiedeman, who was trained to teach English as a second language for middle school students, says her work experience gave her an advantage over other volunteers and made it easier to step into the intense working environment she faced in Korea.
While many volunteers, like Tiedeman, are attracted to the notion of helping others, the benefits they can receive are no less appealing. Bill Trusewich, BS’81 (R), recalls that after graduation he was eager to use the marine science skills he learned at FDU. He adds, “I always liked to travel and the idea of living in a totally foreign environment and learning another language was exciting.”
Trusewich was offered the chance to volunteer in Tonga. His most intense
training was in the country itself, and included two months of language
and cross-cultural training while each member of the group (13 in total)
lived with a Tongan family.
Over ThereOnce the training was complete, FDU Peace Corps volunteers rolled up their sleeves and “did it all,” from teaching English to working in agriculture, animal husbandry and marine fisheries. The conditions were a far cry from anything they were used to, but the volunteers would not be discouraged.
In the Philippines, Smilon lived in a bamboo hut in a village with no running water or electricity, but plenty of insects. Although he was working as an English teacher, Smilon also got involved in other projects, such as developing a basic sewage system. At times encountering the resistance of people set in their ways, he learned progress doesn’t come overnight. “I remember we brought some fertilizer to the village but some said, ‘My father and grandfather didn’t use this and neither will I.’” At another point, he saw newborn triplets die due to the lack of medical facilities. “There was a feeling of helplessness that was very frustrating.”
Smilon says the real success of his time as a volunteer didn’t lie in any particular project but in the “development of interpersonal relationships. I made many friends. They were wonderful people who were extremely nice to us.”
Americans were very loved, Smilon says, especially President Kennedy. He vividly recalls the somber mood in the village following Kennedy’s assassination. The villagers all lined up as the American flag was lowered to half mast. “One of the Filipino teachers said to me, ‘it should have been our president not yours.’”
In Chile, Callahan first worked with a group of delegates of the Foundation for Rural Education, who would journey throughout the country establishing development projects. “The peasants were very poor people living in a feudal state. They worked and were tied to the land. Picture an adobe hut, a dirt floor, a few pieces of furniture and chickens running around loose, along with a cow, a sheep and maybe a pig if they were lucky.”
Callahan would encourage new ways to raise their animals and crops and to improve their health and sanitation systems, which often meant something as simple as boiling water. “Seeing some of these projects developed and knowing that people were benefiting were my greatest satisfactions, along with the opportunity to get to meet and know the Chileans.”
Callahan also was part of an audio-visual unit that would meet with the villagers, entertain them with music and movies and try to build a level a trust. If successful, the delegates would move in and implement projects. “Sometimes it was tough to gain the people’s acceptance. We were dealing with concepts that were alien to them.” While slow to adopt some improvements, the Chileans were quick to accept the strange Americans. “They would take you in in a second and they would insist you sleep on their bed. The hospitality was incredible. You couldn’t find a kinder group of people.”
In Malaysia and Nigeria, teachers Gottlieb and Shannon encountered education systems with intense levels of discipline. “The students all wore uniforms, and they stood at attention when the teacher walked in,” says Gottlieb, who taught Malaysian middle school- and high school-aged students everything from mathematics to wood shop.
Although Gottlieb was fortunate enough to have running water and electricity, his village was very poor, and school aids were nearly nonexistent. Lacking any examples of a skeletal system, Gottlieb took matters into his own hands and killed a chicken, using its skeleton for his biology lesson.
Shannon, whose Nigerian students were all males who were one step from high school, recalls, “We [Americans] couldn’t believe how a principal thought nothing of using force to maintain discipline.”
On the other hand, some of Shannon’s ways were strange to the Nigerians. For instance, they thought it odd for Shannon to put screens on his windows to prevent flies from plaguing him or to rig a makeshift system of running water. Despite the differences in culture, the “people embraced us. I was taken back by how loving they were.”
Shannon was most impressed by the intensity of the family bonds in Nigeria. “They really believe in the notion of the whole family and that they all have a responsibility to each other. These are ties that cannot be broken. Few Western families have that.”
Worlds ApartThe cultural differences also stood out to Tiedeman, who worked in a small town about five hours southeast of Seoul and lived with a Korean family that spoke no English. As a 5-foot-9-inch blonde, Tiedeman was an instant attraction. “They’ve seen Americans in movies, but many people had never met an American nor someone who was blonde.” Her Korean friends quickly took a familial interest in this 26 year old. “They were concerned that I wasn’t married. Also I was one of two daughters, and in Korea the sons traditionally are responsible for the caring of the aging parents. So, they were worried about who was going to take care of my parents.”
In day-to-day conversations, many such cultural differences were discussed. “I was opening their eyes to American life, and they were showing me their way of life. I really developed relationships on a personal level and helped to give them insight into what Americans are really like.”
Tiedeman taught English to middle school-aged female students and provided lessons for Korean English teachers about American methods of education. “They felt they were very privileged to be taught by an American.” Beyond her role at the school, though, she adds, were the relationships developed and her work “strengthening the bond of friendship between Americans and other people.”
It’s not always easy for Americans to gain acceptance into another culture. Trusewich says in Tonga the easiest way to be accepted was to “speak the language, eat the food and drink kava, a muddy tasting pepper root drink which is mildly intoxicating … Everything opens up for you after that.”
He was especially impressed with the vigor of community life. “They love to dance and sing traditional songs. Community life is central, and people are never alone, something that is difficult for people from our culture to handle. They used to ask me if I was lonely when I was reading a book by myself.”
In Tonga, Trusewich’s job was to help fishermen to de-emphasize reef fishing “because depletion was occurring in these inshore fisheries and the coral reefs also were suffering from wear.” In conjunction with the UN Development Program, the Peace Corps set up boatyards to build 20- and 29-foot inboard powered fishing vessels, trained the fishermen to switch to the fisheries abundant in surface tuna and sea mountain bass, and then taught them how to preserve and market the catch. Trusewich also established courses for Tongan marine officials and took part in a humpback whale survey. “I got to tape whale songs on a hydrophone and one day even swam with a 40-foot humpback female, one of the best experiences of my life.”
Trusewich worked in a simple, rural environment in which electricity was supplied from a generator that went off at midnight. “We had no refrigerator and the shower in my house was cold salt water. Freshwater was limited and rainfall was collected in a tank. I had giardiasis for about a year from bad water.”
Long-lasting LessonsDespite the problems, FDU volunteers unanimously praise their Peace Corps service. Their experiences remain close to their hearts, and the lessons they’ve learned continue to define who they are. “It was one of the highlights of my life,” says Smilon, who didn’t entirely lose his idealism while working overseas, but did learn that “things like economic and social progress take time. I would highly recommend serving in the Peace Corps, but you need to understand that you’re not going to change the world right away.”
After volunteering in the Peace Corps, Smilon suffered a bout of culture shock. “The first day I came back, I was afraid to go out of my room. In the Philippines, everything was low key, but coming back to the metropolitan area was like coming back to the rat race. I had to step back a little.” He certainly didn’t step back from serving others, though. Smilon became a teacher and guidance counselor, and today is the counselor at Ramapo Ridge Middle School in Mahwah, N.J. “I always loved kids, and I still do.” A former Big Brother, he also teaches a history course at Bergen Community College in Paramus, N.J. Last year, Smilon met up with fellow Peace Corps volunteers to celebrate their 35th year reunion. Although most volunteers don’t serve side-by-side, they train together and socialize on weekends and at other opportunities. “We were a very close-knit group, and we came to rely on each other,” he says.
A common refrain sounded by Peace Corps volunteers upon their return
was their newfound appreciation of the abundance in America. “The Peace
Corps really gave me a new perspective,” says Callahan. “Sometimes we don’t
realize how much we have.”
Both Callahan and Shannon continued to reach out to others in the United States. For example, Callahan was a longtime member of the Highland Park (N.J.) Borough Council and also served as board chairman of the Middlesex County chapter of the March of Dimes. After teaching on the high school level, he joined the staff of Rutgers University, where today he is the dean of students at University College. The Rev. James Shannon now is an Episcopal priest in Bensalem, Pa., and is very involved in his diocese outreach efforts. He also is a board member of an independent school and is the executive director of the Philadelphia Theological Institute.
Gottlieb also returned with a greater appreciation for his homeland. “I came back with the conviction that this was the place I wanted to live.” He adds that the Peace Corps was an “absolutely beautiful experience. I came away with a positive feeling for being able to deal with people from other ethnic backgrounds, and I developed a real desire to continue volunteering when I got back.”
Gottlieb became a math teacher (he also taught computer science at FDU
on a fellowship), and today he is the management information systems director
at Bergen Workforce Center, a county- and state-sponsored organization
that provides training and helps locate jobs for the unemployed. Also very
active in B’nai Brith, Gottlieb was one of the members of the Bergen County
Multicultural Task Force, the mission of which was to create programs to
combat prejudice and stereotyping. In conjunction with FDU, the Task Force
developed the Multicultural Summer Camp, which features
In their desire to continue serving others, Gottlieb and the FDU volunteers
are no exceptions. According to the Peace Corps, not only do former volunteers
embrace their decision to join — 94 percent of those who volunteered say
they would make the same decision — 78 percent of former Peace Corps members
remain active volunteers.
Tiedeman has volunteered on behalf of other efforts as well. She is a town meeting member in Arlington, Mass., and has served with parent-teacher groups. “You take away so much more than you ever give,” says Tiedeman of her experience. One lesson she took away was that “American lives are so complicated. There is so much baggage that we don’t need. A lot of the things that we think are important are really not and buying things will not make us feel better.”
After serving in Tonga, Trusewich came to a similar realization. “I
learned that there is an extremely different way of looking at the world
and life than is common in America. The generosity of the Tongan people
made me realize how petty a cash society can be.”
A Renewed EmphasisMore and more people are heeding that recommendation. Today, 6,500 volunteers are serving in 84 countries, sharing a renewed spirit of service. Last year, about 150,000 people, mostly young college graduates, contacted the Peace Corps for information about volunteering, 40 percent more than in 1994. And President Bill Clinton proposed a budget increase to allow the agency to increase the number of volunteers to 10,000.
Perhaps the government is once again poised to take a leadership role.
The investment seems prudent. As Robert Krueger, the U.S. ambassador to
Botswana, recently said, “The contributions made by Peace Corps volunteers
to Botswana constitute as fine a gift as our nation has given. Peace Corps
volunteers generally are our most selfless, and therefore our best, ambassadors.”
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