Original Peace Corps Volunteers

Fifty-Five Years of Peace Corps: Memories and Musings from the First Generation of Volunteers

I’ve always considered myself lucky; lucky to be healthy, lucky to have a college education, lucky for a great group of friends–but especially lucky to have a wildly fascinating and worldly family. Growing up, it wasn’t uncommon for me to walk into a room and hear bizarre tales of strange foods or bouts of [insert exotic illness]. I know that we ultimately blaze our own trails in life, but I’m a firm believer that your childhood environment sets you up for said trails.

For instance, my parents reared me under the notion that the unknown should be embraced. When I was barely old enough to spell my own name, I vividly remember the events of one of my parents’ backyard barbecues. I was sprawled out on the porch, metaphorically swimming in a pile of paper and colored pencils, when a spider scampered across my page. I gazed at it, intrigued by its gangly legs and innumerable eyes. It gazed back, seemingly captivated by my lack of fear. The moment only lasted a split second, because when one of my parents’ guests caught a glimpse of the arachnid, she let out a bloodcurdling scream: “AHHHHHHH! EWWWWWW! GET IT AWAY! GET IT AWAY,” she cried obnoxiously. My parents gave each other a look, then calmly asked if I’d set the little spider free in our rose bush. My dad gathered the spider onto a sheet and walked with me to the bush. We lined the page up with a leaf, then watched as the spider darted to safety within a soft pink forest of petals and thorns. My dad glanced down at me as I frantically searched to see where the spider had gone.

“She’ll probably live the rest of her life in this bush,” he said. “She will eat the bugs that will harm the roses, and in turn, we get to keep our beautiful flowers,” he stated, taking a deep whiff of a plump rose. “No matter what people tell you, there isn’t anything scary about spiders. Never judge your world based on the assumptions of others.”

Something about that moment always stuck with me, and while I never developed a fear of spiders, the main message I absorbed from that day was to embrace the unknown without fear–to make the world my own.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” wrote English poet Robert Herrick in his poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” This line echoes the Latin phrase, collige, virgo, rosas, or “Gather, girl, the roses,” which extols the notion of carpe diem, a philosophy that recognizes the brevity of life and the need to live in the moment. Over the past year, I have struggled with what to do after college. The career I’m currently aiming for requires years of graduate education, and while I wouldn’t trade my education for anything, I know there is so much more to life. I want to travel. I want to learn. I want a different point of view.

Waterhouse-gather_ye_rosebuds-1909For years, I had heard of the Peace Corps from friends and family. I struggled with whether I wanted two years of self-discovery, or a two-year head start on my career. After some contemplation (and several glasses of wine), I realized I was just a kid who didn’t want a textbook life—or at least not yet. On this day, exactly one year ago, I applied for the Peace Corps. I was assigned to the country of my dreams, reassigned (a month before my departure date) due to an unforeseen tragedy, and in the thick of all the madness, became closer with two incredible people.

Enter: Tom Schotzko and Rose Marie Araya (Schotzko), a brother-and-sister Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) duo who inspire me to “gather the rosebuds” every day.

Tom and Rose Marie are the oldest of a gaggle of siblings raised Catholic in Clarkston, a small town in Eastern Washington. They’re my mom’s cousins, and neither their family nor my mom’s could afford many luxuries. You could even go as far as to say their families were pretty darn poor. However, their lack of funds didn’t stop them from eventually attending college and pursuing the world. In 1963, Tom was among the seventh group of Peace Corps Volunteers to work in Thailand, and in 1966, Rose Marie was among the sixth group of Peace Corps Volunteers to work in Ethiopia. Though they are now both retired, they manage to stay incredibly active in academia and foreign affairs. I haven’t yet tried, but I’m pretty sure they would school me in any type of trivia game.

They are thrilled to see the next generation of their family continue their Peace Corps legacy, and once I accepted my invitation to serve in Morocco, they wanted to hear everything about my impending adventures. As a means for us to get together, my mom suggested we have an old fashioned barbecue, where we could pick each other’s brains over burgers and potato salad. We all loved the idea, especially because this year is Peace Corps’ fifty-fifth anniversary, and it would be interesting to compare their Peace Corps experiences with those of today’s Volunteers. Peace Corps has obviously changed over the past half-century, but its goals of friendship and peace have always remained.

Tom and Rose Marie have such a great relationship; something about them is still so youthful. Maybe it’s the way they tease each other, or the way they share looks that consequently cause the other to crack up. Even with their frequently goofy demeanors, they both remain extremely classy and refined. They each joined the Peace Corps when it was less than five years old, so I asked them what they thought of the organization when they heard President Kennedy had started it. Rose Marie said she “thought it was a good idea, and still thinks it’s a good idea.” She considers it the perfect way to “look at another person as an equal.” Tom said he “wasn’t ready to finish school, and this was an exciting opportunity for [him] to pursue just for the hell of it.”

Early on in Peace Corps’ history, the three-month training period was held in the United States, rather than in the Volunteer’s country of service. Rose Marie trained at the University of California, doing her language studies with outstanding experts in Amharic, as well as cultural trainings with other professors. While she enjoyed her time in California, she believed that training in-country would have made for easier language immersion, because language was necessary for “buying groceries or going to the market.” Tom trained at the University of Hawaii in Hilo, and someone else in his group trained at the University of Washington in Seattle. Tom’s group had language training every day, and toward the end of their three months, they were “working on Thai at least ten hours a day.” He also mentioned that they did a number of lessons on the sociology and history of Southeast Asia, as well as lessons in roughing it, because they were supposed to be a community development and rural welfare group. “They essentially tried to train a bunch of city kids to live outdoors.”

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On November 22nd, 1963, during Tom’s training period, it almost seemed like his entire Peace Corps fantasy was on the verge of collapsing. “Kennedy was assassinated while we were finishing our training,” he recounted. “The Hawaiians even came out, and I don’t remember this very well, but they joined us that night after we had learned about the assassination. We sat on the porch at the old hospital, drinking beers, basically in silence,” he said, staring disconnectedly into the middle distance. John F. Kennedy was one of the most beloved Presidents in history, and his death shook millions of people. However, for this 21-year-old boy, mere weeks from finishing his Peace Corps training, I can’t imagine what he was feeling. After all, President Kennedy was the reason for Peace Corps’ existence. To commemorate the devastating loss, Tom and his Peace Corps cohort pooled their money together to build a plaque in Kennedy’s name. It was built at the old hospital where they initially received the news of Kennedy’s death. In 2011, nearly fifty years later, Tom’s group reconvened to move the plaque to the University of Hawaii’s Hilo campus. “It was the first time I had seen most of them since I’d gotten out,” Tom stated. From across the table, Tom’s wife Carolyn chimed in: “Tom’s cohort truly had deep feelings for John Kennedy. You could still feel the 50-year-old sorrow when the group moved the plaque to the university. The number of tears were heartbreaking.”

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Next, I asked them to describe their assignments. Nowadays, we have the Peace Corps Volunteer Application Portal, online job descriptions, and seemingly endless resources to help us understand our impending positions. However, when Tom and Rose Marie volunteered, internet was barely a concept, let alone at their disposal. They received one job description, and the rest was left to the imagination. Rose Marie underwent teacher training, but when training came to an end, she was told that she “wasn’t loud enough to be a teacher.” Instead, she was offered a position at the university library in Addis Ababa. She was to help re-catalogue the entire library from the Dewey Decimal System to the Library of Congress classification system. When given this ultimatum, she was actually thrilled. She mentioned that it would be lightyears easier than teaching, grading papers, and dealing with rowdy kids. Plus, she had the opportunity to get to know students. It was the perfect job for such a soft-spoken, calm woman like Rose Marie.

She specifically liked how her position made her feel accomplished. Though she started at the Addis Ababa University library, she eventually moved to the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, which was a research library in Emperor Haile Selassie’s former palace. “After that, I moved to the theology college and helped them switch to the Library of Congress system of classification.” She even took the Library of Congress system and created a schedule for African literature. Before her efforts, African literature was considered colonial, and was classified with the French Colonies and French literature. “I found it offensive that they didn’t have their own system, and that you had to look up French literature to find African authors,” she exclaimed. “I also had a special project where Peace Corps sent me to the Ethiopian provinces to help advise other Volunteers on setting up school libraries and categorizing books.”

Tom’s service in Thailand was slightly more difficult in that he was never given a specific job. His general assignment was to work in rural and community development, but after spending a week of “bowel cleansing” with another Peace Corps Volunteer, he proceeded to Nikhom Phimai, where he was essentially instructed to “find something to do.” The Nikhom became his base of operations for the duration of his service. However, Tom specifically mentioned that he makes no claim in having been successful in “finding something to do.” He stated that “breaking down the age barrier was a major task.” When he looks back on it, he realizes that it must have been extremely overwhelming for a 21-year-old kid who had never been outside the Pacific Northwest to uproot his life and move across the world. “The bottom line is that my time spent at the Nikhom did not result in any significant accomplishments,” he said, a little sheepishly. “However, as a result of my lack of success, I had the opportunity to participate in a number of projects started by other members of my cohort,” including digging a canal and building a water tower for a school.

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Regardless of whether Tom felt like he successfully “found something to do,” he ultimately gained a better understanding of himself while in the Peace Corps. “The fact that you could sit around, and a 60-year-old man would want to hold your hand as a sign of friendship–moments like that were probably more important to me than anything else,” Tom uttered through stifled chuckles. He also mentioned what it meant to him to no longer be considered a foreigner in his village. He picked up the language pretty well, befriended everyone in town, and felt like he belonged. “The only language problem I encountered was on a train coming back from Penang in Malaysia. I was wanting to buy some bananas through the window at a train stop. They were speaking Malay, so one of the other passengers had to help me get my bananas,” he laughed.

As we know, Peace Corps is often the job that may dictate what we’ll do in the future. Both Rose Marie and Tom were influenced by their Peace Corps positions as they continued on in their professional lives—Rose Marie in libraries, and Tom in agriculture and rural development. Rose Marie said she never got her library degree, but she reached a point where even if she continued on in library school, she would be learning concepts that she already knew. “I wouldn’t’ have learned anything that I wasn’t already doing, so I just kept doing my thing!”

Prior to entering the Peace Corps, Tom planned to become a high school English teacher. He mentioned that during his service, each Volunteer was given a footlocker filled with books. “I had time to do a lot of reading,” he said. “It got to the point where we were trading books back and forth because we pretty much read whatever was available. And I think at that point, I realized I really didn’t want to teach English. I came home, changed majors, and never looked back.” The fall after returning from Thailand, Tom resumed his undergraduate studies, but this time as an Agricultural Economics major. After college, he spent two years in New Jersey with the United States Army. “Given that this was during the height of the Vietnam conflict, I was very fortunate to spend my entire military career in New Jersey.” After getting out of the Army, he returned to graduate school, earning an M.S. in Agricultural Economics from the University of Idaho, and then a Ph.D. in the same discipline from Oregon State University. “While I had intended to work internationally after completing my education, when the time came to find employment, I had an opportunity to enter academia.” As it turned out, Tom was offered a job at Rutgers in New Jersey, then two years later, had the opportunity to join the faculty at Washington State University in Pullman, Washington, which is less than forty minutes from his hometown of Clarkston.

As our interview neared its end, I asked them one final question: “How did the Peace Corps influence who you are today, and do you have any advice for me?” With intensity in their eyes, they looked at each other. Tom was first to speak: “I left the Peace Corps in August of 1965. I can’t say that I left any legacy behind me, but I’ve always believed that I came home with a perspective I could have gained nowhere else.” Tom’s voice softened—so much that it was almost drowned out by the afternoon breeze. “I don’t always adhere to this very well, but Dale Carnegie once said, ‘Every man I meet is my superior in some way. In that, I learn of him.’ That’s really true no matter where you go, and you use your experiences to identify what is important to you—and you follow them. Build your life around those ideas. Odds are, you’ll come back and end up doing something that you maybe never expected–and that’s ok. You just take advantage of your experience, your education, and build your life the way you want to build it,” he stated, glancing dreamily into the distance. He then looked over to his sister, curious of what she would say. “Learn everything you can,” Rose Marie uttered. “People all over the world are fascinating; they have a lot to teach us. It’s amazing how much we are the same.”

A silence filled the air around us as we each soaked in each other’s words. Was it their wisdom or their stories that moved me? Maybe it was the fact that these two people were not only perfect examples of everything President Kennedy desired in Peace Corps Volunteers, but perfect examples of everything I hope to achieve in my forthcoming service. Whenever I look at them, I think again about carpe diem, gathering the rosebuds, living in the moment, and I wonder how different my life will be in two years. Will I still want the same things? Will I still know the same people? Will I have traveled to lands near and far? Will I have undergone a bout of Giardia? These are the questions we ask as we begin our Peace Corps journeys. If we take deep breaths and listen to what Tom and Rose Marie are saying, all we need to do is gather the rosebuds, and we’ll surely find our way.

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