A foreigner in a fishbowl

Last year, Meaghan Eicher (’13) was riding a roller coaster of time, emotion and effort. The JMU English graduate with a minor in humanitarian affairs was eagerly seeking a spot in the American Peace Corps. Recently, we heard from a jubilant Meaghan who has finally finished the extensive application and interview process, finally gotten her invitation to join, and finally — in a matter of days — will begin her Peace Corps service. She’ll be traveling to the Republic of Benin in West Africa, on the adventure of a lifetime. While in Benin, Meaghan will serve as a secondary education English volunteer. She’ll be keeping a blog while she’s gone, and we will be following her.  

Today in a guest blog, Meaghan explains more of the process that has her headed to West Africa…..

Becoming a foreigner in a fishbowl

by Meaghan Eicher (’13)

Meaghan Eicher, JMU alum, is now headed to Benin

Meaghan Eicher, JMU alum, is now headed to Benin

If anyone decides to apply to the Peace Corps, my advice to you would be: buckle up, it’s going to be a long ride. But I promise you, it’ll be worth it.

The Peace Corps application process will test your patience. It will have you sitting on the edge of your chair every moment of every day. You will wonder if in the end it’s all worth the pain and agony of not knowing. Many people drop out of the process because other opportunities arise, they aren’t medically cleared, or the process simply takes too long. It’s not for the faint of heart, but don’t let it deter you. If you have the volunteer experience, if you are healthy, and if you have the desire to serve and see it through, then you have a fighting chance.

My application was on the tail end of the Peace Corps’ old system. This simply means that in my interview, I was not told what I would be nominated for or the region where I would be going. It wasn’t until months later during my placement interview that they told me the general region and the sector. The exact country and program finally came on my Invitation. The newer system, now in place, allows prospective candidates to choose and rank the countries that they would be interested in, based on their qualifications and what programs are open. This isn’t to say the country you choose is the definite location, as anything can change. But it gives you some sense and a general idea of where you’d be going and what you would be doing.

After you receive a nomination, then you must provide your medical history. You will obtain and submit various doctors’ notes, and the PC medical office will review your file and pre-medically clear you. At this time, you will also fill out paperwork for a legal clearance. If you are pre-medically cleared, your application is then moved to the placement queue. They will ask you additional questions about your volunteer experience and about your goals and expectations. A Placement Officer will then contact you and interview you for a placement. If you are deemed qualified, and upon accepting an invitation for service, you must then go through the final medical clearance process. This is when you have to get all the necessary check-ups and shots. Nothing is set-in-stone until you receive that final medical clearance. Though the whole application process can seem lengthy, it is created that way for a reason. Upon receiving final medical clearance, the last step is simply to get ready, physically and mentally.

Preparations too, vary from person to person. One volunteer could end up living in an urban city in a nice apartment with hot water and electricity, while another volunteer could end up living in a little bungalow on a small island with no running water and no electricity. It all depends on the region and the specific site placement. But each volunteer knows that he or she needs to pack smartly — and lightly. You just don’t know what your site placement will be or what you’ll have access to until you arrive and are assigned a site. So, pack culturally appropriate clothes, the proper electronics, and only the essentials but enough of them until you can figure out where and if you can restock. Sound confusing? Yes, it kind of is. But many current volunteers will share packing list ideas with the future volunteers, so in the grand scheme of things, packing is the least of the preparation worries. The most important pre-departure preparation is to spend as much time as possible with friends and family. Their love and support are the biggest things that you will need to take with you when you go.

The last piece to pre-departure preparation is mental. Yet this is something that starts way before the application process — when that first inkling of an idea forms in the back of your mind that you might want to join the Peace Corps. That’s when it starts. Living in a developing country alongside your community members will not be easy. You will be a foreigner, and you will live in a fishbowl with all eyes on you, all the time. You will have to work hard to dispel common stereotypes, and integrate into your community as best you can. You will have to learn a new language, sometimes two, and adjust to a simpler way of living. You might be the only volunteer in your community, and you might have to travel long distances to visit a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer. But they say that the physical hardships will get easier. You adapt and adjust to the weather, the food, washing your clothes by hand, and taking bucket baths. Though tough at first, that turns into the easy part. They say that it will often be difficult in ways that you do not expect. You will have to work within very limited resources, with limited supervision. Working amidst the cultural norms that you don’t agree with will be hard; It will be completely different from everything you were taught and grew up with. It will challenge you mentally and force you to analyze your own culture and question everything you thought you knew.

You will experience culture shock when you arrive in a country, and reverse culture shock when you return home. You will wonder and question what your role is, and what impact you are having.

Yet amidst all the questions, the nerves, the packing, and the saying goodbyes, there is a thread of excitement. There is this prospect of adventure, and wonder, and this mysterious feeling of not-knowing. You will get the opportunity to be challenged in ways you never thought possible, and you will grow from those experiences. You will learn about a new culture, rich with history. Your community will share their culture, and you will share yours. You will get to work and live alongside people completely different from you; they will teach you, and you will teach them. You will share skills, and work side-by-side toward a common goal. You don’t go into the Peace Corps expecting to change the world… that isn’t a realistic expectation. But you can go in with the expectation that you will be able to assist a community with their goals and projects. It will be difficult, but it will be life changing. There’s a reason they call it “the toughest job you’ll ever love.”

One thing to keep in mind is that everyone’s volunteer experience will be different. You could have read a million different PCV blogs (like I did) to gain a sense of what it might be like to serve overseas. You could read some of the hundreds of memoirs and books published about PCVs. Many do offer great insights and realistic views of the PCV life. But while there may be similar themes found throughout each volunteer’s story, each service will be unique and no two people will have the same experiences. Sometimes you just have to take that leap of faith, and let your own story unfold before you.

You can find and follow Meghan’s Benin adventure at her blog: http://meaghaneicher.wordpress.com/




In the eye of a superstorm

Tacloban in the aftermath of a superstore

Tacloban in the aftermath of a superstorm

When Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines last November, new JMU graduate Michelle Taylor (’13) was at ground zero. She and 11 fellow Peace Corps workers were holed up in a hotel, listening anxiously as the superstorm pummeled the city.

Michelle had arrived in the Philippines just months before the storm began gathering strength in Micronesia and feeding off a low-pressure system with the right ingredients to brew a monster storm.

Shortly after graduating from JMU in May 2013 with a degree in social work, the Tidewater Virginia native found herself on Biliran, the fourth smallest island in the Philippine archipelago. The island, she says, “has mountains and water. You name it, we have it.”

To navigate the system

On Biliran, Michelle worked with children, youth and family facilitators through the Department of Social Welfare Development, a Philippine government program that gives financial assistance to families. The program requires multiple layers of accountability, such as classes and parental sign-offs.

“Basically, I was doing social work with at-risk populations,” she says. “I worked with needy families in the local villages in helping them support themselves through various forms of livelihood….I kind of walked alongside families to help them navigate the system.”

She also assisted officials who didn’t have social work backgrounds, using skills learned at JMU. She helped them create case studies. The Philippine system has 1000 individuals in the care of every two workers, she says, adding that they are very dedicated people who work 12-hour days. “They taught me more than I could ever teach them.”

When she first came to JMU, social work was not Michelle’s choice of majors. She switched after working with a valley organization that helps refugees from Ethiopia and Eritrea. Her helping out one day a week turned into mentoring youth. Through the process, she says, “My passion grew for international service.” Serving in the Peace Corps had “always been in the back of my mind.” She applied during her senior year, was accepted and enlisted shortly after graduating. Initially, Michelle expected to be assigned to Africa, but she left the United States in July, bound for the Philippines, only months before the arrival of Yolanda, the storm’s Philippine name.

No one knew where

In early November, a tropical depression southwest of the Philippines began churning. It moved westward and rapidly intensified, becoming a tropical storm on Nov. 3. Warnings went up throughout the region. As the storm approached, Peace Corps officials made the decision to evacuate the outlying islands, consolidating their people in Tacloban, the main city in the Philippines. It made sense. Three hours from Biliran, Tacloban had an airport and a large infrastructure.

Unknown-2“Peace Corps Philippines and headquarters in D.C. had the volunteers’ safety as their first priority and needed us to be in a space where we could have access to resources, if needed,” Michelle says. “Downtown Tacloban provided us with the resources we needed to get out even after the storm. The Peace Corps was also in contact with the U.S. and Philippines militaries who were able to provide them with information about our safety after the typhoon hit.”

Michelle and her 11 Peace Corps colleagues were brought to Tacloban. No one knew exactly where the storm would hit. “No one knew how bad it would be,” Michelle says.

The typhoon made a direct hit on Tacloban.

The dozen Peace Corps workers were barricaded on the second floor in an interior, windowless room of a concrete building in the heart of the city. For several hours, as they listened to the storm rage around them, they heard windows blowing out and the floor above them evaporating into the wind. Below them, the first floor flooded completely. Outside whole neighborhoods were being reduced to rubble.

“We could tell when the eye had passed because the wind direction changed. It was an experience I know I will never forget.”

After the storm passed, “I was in the center of the city, so when we walked out, it was a different place. It destroyed Tacloban,” she says.

According to news reports more than 6,000 people died, and three months after the storm, 2,000 were still missing.

Resiliency and strength

Michelle and her friends were on their own. For three days, Michelle says, “My parents knew I was in the middle of it. They were in constant communication with Peace Corps headquarters and were informed of our safety as soon as possible.”

UnknownVenturing out of the building after the storm subsided, Michelle was invited to share a meal with a family of 10 who had a single pot of rice — and a house that was completely flooded. “They didn’t have enough for themselves, yet they wanted to share it with me.” Incredulous, she asked them: “You’re still inviting me to eat?”

They did.

Michelle has come to realize such generosity is part of their culture — one she has grown to love. “The amazing spirit of the Philippine people — they are endlessly selfless. [It was] easy to focus on the devastation, but I always found something positive…. They have a very strong belief that God is with us,” she says.

“To this day I am still amazed by the consistent resiliency and strength of the people in Leyte and other areas affected by the storm,” Michelle says. “My Peace Corps friend in Tacloban updates me weekly on progress [there]. They don’t stop, every day is a struggle but they continue to appreciate what they have and hope for a ‘better tomorrow.’”

In the storm’s aftermath, Michelle also saw modern day heroes in action. One group of 20 men on motorcycles moved throughout the shattered city, rescuing people and clearing roads. They also found and cooked buckets of spaghetti, she says.

Michelle and friends did what they could to help. They joined the community immediately after the storm to clean up the sewage drains to decrease the flooding.

Realizing they would have to take action to get themselves out, she and one co-worker started walking through the broken city. They followed the helicopters and went to the police station. Eventually, they were able to piece together some communication with the help of a CNN news crew. Through the CNN crew, they learned that the military was bringing in planes filled with relief supplies and taking people out of the city.

The group walked for four hours, making their way through the debris-laden city, to the airport where they flew out on C130s.

What true happiness looks like

After leaving the Philippines, Michelle was sent stateside to wait for reassignment.

Michelle Taylor ('13) and a Filipino friend

Michelle Taylor (’13) and a Filipino friend

“My job is pretty much gone after the storm because the whole area was in a state of emergency. The workers of DSWD (my organization) were mobilized in Tacloban to do relief work in the evacuation center. My counterpart is still working there,” she says.

While waiting, Michelle has taken the Peace Corps message to anyone who would listen. “I had three goals when I joined the Peace Corps,” she says. These were to be a U.S. ambassador, to bring what skills she had to help, and to take what she learned to educate Americans.

“I have learned that you never know what is going to be around the corner,” she says. “Being in the Philippines I have begun to learn what it means to live in the present. The Filipino people have such a strong commitment to community that the loss of material things does not dampen their present joy. They suffer from the loss of their loved ones but rely on their supportive community for peace. I have learned from the people of Tacloban what true happiness looks like.”

She adds: “My hope through sharing this story is to change mindsets of American who only see the devastation from the lens of the news. Tacloban is a happy city. They understand the value of community outside of just the materialistic needs and are beginning to get back into the normalcy of their daily lives pre-Haiyan.”

Michelle will return to the Philippines this spring but to a new area, Bicol, a region on the southern tip of Luzon, the largest island. She will be working with the same department as before but at a center for young children awaiting adoption.

She looks forward to returning. “It’s my family. I was only there for six months but never felt more welcome,” she says. “I have people I want to go hug.”

To learn more about Typhoon Haiyan and its impact on the Philippines, go to an NPR story embedded here.


Pain and glory in Ukraine

Since 1992, more than 2,740 Peace Corps volunteers have served in Ukraine. One volunteer was JMU’s Pete Isaac (’05). When his service was up in December 2013, Pete left behind a country in turmoil and people he came to love and understand. As the world watches Ukraine struggle, Pete offers a unique perspective on the conflict…

Glory to Ukraine (Слава Україні)

by Pete Isaac (’05)

Pete with his host mother on his induction day

Pete with his host mother at his swearing in

Ukraine is a very special place for me. I was lucky enough to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the city of Zaporizhzhia in the southeast portion. Reflection has been hard, however, as just before I left the country on December 1st, 2013, the country was dealt a huge blow at the hands of its president. In late November, then-president, Viktor Yanukovych, made an eleventh hour decision to back out of an agreement to join the European Union. This action, for all intents and purposes, serves as the catalyst for what will be etched in Ukrainian history books as a victory of the people.

When I applied to become a Peace Corps Volunteer, I had no idea where I would be placed. Honestly, to me it did not matter. Location wasn’t the point; service was. Fast forward to my arrival in Ukraine on March 23, 2011. Here, I found myself in a large room, full of people I didn’t know, snow on the ground, and a plate of beet salad topped with mayonnaise and cheese in front of me. The first words out of my mouth were, “So this is what we get to look forward to for two years…”

Like many of my fellow volunteers, we had amazing experiences in what many now consider our second home. As we integrated into our communities, we began to form relationships. We made valiant efforts to learn the local language (which was not always Russian or Ukrainian). We learned where to find the best tomatoes and other fresh produce. We learned which public taxis would take us where we needed to go. We overcame the fear of buying our first train ticket on our own. Some even mastered the local post office (trust me…this deserves a badge of honor). We became parts of our communities, we began to refer to these cities, villages, and towns as home.

This is the Ukraine I remember: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UfjKHjsaQKI  (The original song and video are from two other Peace Corps Ukraine Volunteers.)

Sometimes, the conversations would turn toward a feeling by some Ukrainians that their situation “is what it is.” That there was always going to be economic disparity, corruption was going to run rampant throughout the country top to bottom, any ideas they had would simply be scoffed at, that nothing they did could possibly lead to a change for the better. To sit and hear that come from educated adults and youth is an emotional pain I did not know existed. This is the mindset I and other volunteers set out to change.

Humans are naturally resistant to change. Try this experiment to get an idea of what I mean: Ask a friend, loved one, coworker to raise their hand like they are about to give you a high five. Next, say nothing, and take your hand and push against it. Did he or she push back without you saying to do so? If yes, natural resistance to change. If no…you just gave the strangest high-five ever, congratulations!

Imagine trying to change a mindset that has become woven into a society through the generations. Now imagine the feeling that sets in when you see a group of people collectively stand up to a political regime that has consistently lied to, stolen from, and manipulated the population all while amassing incredible personal wealth while the national economy falls deeper in debt. Enough was enough, and many Ukrainians took to the scene of the 2004 Orange Revolution, Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), to hold peaceful protests voicing their displeasure with the decision.

As the protests grew in number, the pressure built on the president to act. The democratic thing to do would have been to listen to the concerns of the people and figure out some way to compromise. Instead, the peaceful protests were met with violence. On November 30, an order was given to violently clear Maidan (one of my favorite places in Kyiv). A peaceful encampment was met with batons, fists, and boots. Men, women, and journalists were beaten…savagely. This only caused more people to show up at the protests. Protests spread throughout the country.

See more pictures of Ukraine at BusinessInsider: http://www.businessinsider.com/ukraine-protest-pictures-2014-2

See more pictures from Ukraine at Business Insider: http://www.businessinsider.com/ukraine-protest-pictures-2014-2

January 16, 2014 was essentially the tipping point. On this day, parliamentary procedure was thrown to the side and 16 laws were passed to end protests. Among them included police immunity for acts committed dispersing protesters and 7 year prison terms for speaking negatively about a politician. These laws were all passed in less than five minutes using a hand vote that was not even counted. The papers were quickly handed to the president, who in turn quickly signed them. THIS is when it became a revolution in Ukraine. People were essentially stripped of human rights, a dictatorship was created, protesters began disappearing, and people began to die.

This video literally brought tears to my eyes: http://youtu.be/HpgYu2p9CE4

Yes, things can escalate quickly, and they did. I have often told my friends and family about just how resilient Ukrainians are, and in the past few months they showed it to the world. Now, there is a new parliament with elections scheduled for May 25th and a fugitive president on the run. Peace Corps is an apolitical organization that does not get involved with politics, so to see the rest of the world show the support it did for the Ukrainian people was amazing!

There really is no better explanation than right here: http://youtu.be/Hvds2AIiWLA (two weeks ago, this had less than 5,000 views…needless to say, that has changed)

This is not over yet, there is a lot of work to be done. Like I said, people are naturally resistant to change…yet change is inevitable when people are passionate and driven by more than greed. I can’t help but smile in the past few days when I break news to my parents about what is happening and I like to think that, along with the over 2000 other volunteers to serve there, I may have somehow helped. Not sure how, but it sure is nice to think!

Ukraine has a call-response chant that is commonly heard. The past three months have brought new meaning to “Слава Україні! Героям Слава!” (Slava Ukraini! Heroyam Slava) or “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to her heroes!” Glory indeed…

Gaining a new lens

Amanda Cassiday ('08)

Amanda Cassiday (’08)

One of the perks of joining the Peace Corps is the camaraderie that each volunteer finds. April Muniz (’90) calls it “the ultimate bonding experience.” As a former Peace Corps volunteer herself, April has helped us get to know several other PCs, including Lyzz Ogunwo(’08), Kourtney Rusow (’08) — and today Amanda Cassiday(’08).

Amanda graduated from James Madison University in 2008 with a double major in political science and philosophy and religion. She volunteered with community health development in Burkina Faso in Western Africa and with small and medium enterprise development in Senegal.

From an interview that April did last year with Amanda — now a RPCV, a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer —  we learn about Amanda’s PC experience and how it has helped her to change her perspective on life and the world…..

What motivated you to join the Peace Corps after graduation? “As a double major in Political Science and Philosophy I spent a great deal of time thinking about global issues, development, and the meaning of life — of reason, truth and ethics.  The classes I took were incredibly helpful to my intellectual development, but I felt that there was a void in my development. I needed experience!  I had read so much about the struggle of developing nations, and I had yet to really understand it.  I wanted live it and I wanted to help in whatever way I could.  I remember going to a Peace Corps info session my freshman year and being terrified at the thought of living in a village for two years. By my senior year, it was all I wanted to do.” Amanda Cassiday 2

Where have you served and at kind of work have you been involved with in the Peace Corps? “From 2008 to 2010, I started as a health volunteer in rural Burkina Faso [in Western Africa] where I conducted educational activities and projects predominately with women and children with a focus on malnutrition, malaria and HIV/AIDS prevention.  By collaborating with community members, health agents and village leaders, I saw an increase in the frequency and effectiveness of health promotion and disease prevention activities, including community health education in hygiene, malaria, sexually transmitted diseases and malnutrition.  Additionally, I helped organize a group of women in a savings and credit group.  This inspired me to extend my Peace Corps service for a third year in Dakar, Senegal, with the West Africa Trade Hub, a USAID-funded project that serves to help West African entrepreneurs export abroad. I worked primarily in the handicraft sector, helping local artisans develop their businesses and exposing them to international buyers.” Amanda Cassiday 3

What do you consider your most important accomplishment during your service? “I think my major accomplishment was the friendships I formed in the village (Takaledougou, Burkina Faso). I learned French, Dioula, and a little Toussian (both native languages to the region where I lived). Being from dramatically different parts of the world with starkly different languages and cultures, we managed to overcome those differences and be true supports to one another. Those relationships are now important influences on my life, particularly an 18-year-old girl who I now consider a best friend, as we supported each other through hardships and successes. I learned about my community, and they learned about me.”

What are you doing now? “After my stint with entrepreneurs in Senegal, I developed a fascination and passion for business and the value it brings to individuals, families, communities and the globe. I have completed my first year at the George Washington University’s School of Business to pursue an MBA in International Business, which has so far been a phenomenal learning experience. I have helped coordinate a group of grad students to go to Ghana to collaborate with entrepreneurs on their businesses. I have been a part of a consulting group that helped a supplier diversity NGO expand its network. I have travelled to India to partner with a leading automotive manufacturer in the country to improve the efficiency of their supply chain. This summer, I am working at Johnson & Johnson, developing strategies to engage global stakeholders to expand access to medicine for rare and neglected diseases (many of which I witnessed in Burkina Faso and Senegal). While these opportunities have most certainly broadened my perspectives and competencies, I have always carried my Peace Corps experiences with me, and use the lessons I’ve gained — lessons of humility, patience and resourcefulness — as a lens for approaching new situations and challenges.”

From UREC to Ukraine


November marks Pete Isaac’s last month of a 33-month commitment as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ukraine. During his time there, the 2005 Integrated Science and Technology graduate, who was once an operations supervisor at JMU’s University Recreation Center, has helped change lives in numerous ways — most recently, by helping local artisans expand their business opportunities. Since arriving in March 2011 as a community development volunteer, Pete has helped talented Ukrainians market their products and goods internationally through ETSY.com, an e-commerce website that specializes in handmade arts and crafts.

The project is named Eastern Rinok. Here’s how Pete describes it on his blog:

Eastern Rinok is a project designed to help Ukrainian artists and entrepreneurs sell their handmade goods using the online sales platform, Etsy. The name “Eastern Rinok” is a word combination derived from Ukraine’s location in Eastern Europe, and the Russian word for marketplace, Rinok (ринок).  Ukrainian artists of all backgrounds and influences interested in selling their handmade products (such as soaps, dolls, flags, blankets, souvenirs, etc.) are encouraged to join the vibrant and international Eastern Rinok community. With the help and guidance of Peace Corps volunteers in select cities Ukrainians artists will have the opportunity to open online shops to begin selling their products to a wide international market, all the while learning important business and language skills. In addition, the Eastern Rinok Peace Corps community will help promote the products of its members among friends and family in the United States and throughout the world.

One of Rinok's artisans at work

One of Rinok’s artisans at work

“It’s really gaining a lot of steam. We have trainings taking place all over the country now,” Pete told Kelly McCormack (’05) a public affairs specialist with the Peace Corps Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Office who first told us about Pete’s story.

To facilitate the program, Pete and fellow Peace Corps volunteers host workshops for Ukrainians, helping  them set up and operate their businesses. The workshops usually have four to five artisans and one Peace Corps volunteer.

Currently, the volunteers work with eight trainers and 28 shops online. A workshop this month will train an additional 8 Ukrainians and expand the project into new communities. As a result, the variety of products now available through Eastern Rinok includes beautiful beaded jewelry, dolls, knitted apparel, cards, figurines and more. (See the samples below, and go to the website http://easternrinok.wordpress.com to see more.)

It’s been a success. In less than a year, they have sold more than 115 items, earning $3,400, to customers in the U.S., Canada, Belarus, Ukraine, Sweden, Russia and Australia.

Pete, far left, and friends

Pete, far left, and friends

Pete told Kelly how JMU greatly prepared him for his Peace Corps service: “JMU provided a lot of great life lessons about leadership, flexibility, patience, perseverance, how to think outside the box, and civic responsibility,” he said. “I think most importantly, JMU taught me how to ‘fail forward.’ The professors and staff I had the privilege of meeting and working with taught me that not only was it OK to not always have things go your way, but in fact, that makes you a better person. It causes one to seek out potential solutions to problems, not lose control of your thoughts, determine what outcomes are most important, and learn from your past experiences.”

Since 1961, more than 400 JMU graduates have served as Peace Corps volunteers worldwide. Currently, there are 35 JMU grads working abroad in the Peace Corps.

“I often tell people that the two best decisions I’ve made in my life were applying to JMU and applying to Peace Corps,” Pete said. “Both experiences have provided me the opportunity to grow as a person in many different ways. Not only has Peace Corps given me an opportunity to see the world through a completely different perspective, it has provided me an opportunity to try to have a positive impact on the future leaders of a country emerging from the former Soviet Union.”

What Pete will leave behind when he returns stateside is an invigorated work force of small business owners and crafters who have a new, worldwide outlet for their wares.




You’ll find lots more information about Pete’s Ukrainian adventure, the collaboration he helped build — as well as product information at these links:

FB: https://www.facebook.com/TheEasternRinok

Etsy: http://etsy.me/Yo6oT8

Pete’s Peace Corps Blog: http://peteisaac.wordpress.com/

Thanks to Kelly McCormack (’05) for telling us about Pete and his Ukrainian Peace Corp service and for her original article from which much of the content of this blog post comes. The quotations included herein originally appeared in Kelly’s story.

Our kinship with Veterans

Veteran_and_FlagMy favorite veteran, my Dad, would have been 91 on this Veterans Day. I miss him. But he and all Veterans never really leave us because of the unmatched legacy they leave behind. In the same way, those Veterans still with us give us an example of a kind of change that we should all consider every day.

You may think I’m talking about the fight for freedom or liberty or Democracy, but I’m not. While that is a lasting legacy of American Veterans, it is only one part of what they give us. They have another legacy as well, one more subtle but just as important.

Originally called Armistice Day, Veterans Day commemorates the end of hostilities in World War I. This occurred at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. Seven months later, the Treaty of Versailles was signed with the belief that it was ending “the war to end all wars.”

We now know it wasn’t.

There are many wars yet to be fought — and not all of them are on a battlefield. There are battles against poverty, disease, neglect, lack of opportunity, prejudice, hate and misunderstanding.

Veterans provide us with a model that encourages us to stand up for what we believe, to fight for what is important, and to do so with unflinching courage and honor. Most of us are not Veterans in the sense we celebrate today, Veterans Day 2013. We do not have the credentials to rise to their level of service — often in faraway places, in distant lands, and many times under difficult and life-threatening circumstances — but we can emulate their dedication and their commitment to a cause. Whatever that cause may be.

The courage of conviction that Veterans exemplify and their labor to meet challenges and overcome obstacles is essential to any kind of battle. And in that sense, any of us could — and should — find ourselves in shoes similar to those of the American Veteran. Changing anything in the world for the better requires a level of conviction and commitment that Veterans so ably demonstrate.

And while we practice our own commitments to change, we can’t forget that in addition to setting a high bar, American Veterans have guaranteed us with a base camp of freedom from which we can roam throughout the world, where we can carry on with our own missions of change. Consider the hundreds of JMU alumni who’ve served in the Peace Corps, who have participated in Alternative Spring Breaks, who’ve founded and supported missions, who have become teachers through Teach with America, who have provided jobs through business ventures, who serve the homeless, the downtrodden and the often-forgotten.

America’s Veterans have given us the safety to pursue positive change, and they have given us a shining example of dedication and conviction. It is in the long and lasting shadow of their military service that each of us has the opportunity to Be the Change.

A van named Betty

Kourtney Rusow 1Kourtney Rusow (’08) is an RPCV — an acronym familiar to Kourtney and friends. It’s short for Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. Like April Muniz, Erika Bleeg, Meme McKee and others, Kourtney did a two-year stint in the corps. After graduating from James Madison University with a degree in psychology, she headed to Senegal. Read on to learn about Kourtney’s experience and find out what she — and Betty — have been up to lately!

Kourtney and the corps

submitted by April Muniz (’90)

What inspired you to join the Peace Corps?

Kourtney Rusow 3KR:  Joining Peace Corps was a goal of mine since graduating high school. I really admired the people I had met who had served, and thought that I could greatly expand my world view and life experiences by joining the Peace Corps. When I discovered that I could combine my graduate studies with two-years of service through Peace Corps Master’s International Program, I couldn’t ignore what a tremendous advantage this would give me in the international job market. It has been a real chance to put what I have learned in the classroom to the test in the field.

How would you describe your work as a Peace Corps Volunteer?

KR: I was a health volunteer from May 2010 to May 2012. As the first volunteer in my village, I spent a lot of time integrating into the community, doing surveys and feeling out what the community’s wants and needs were. I painted six murals at my health hut, depicting educational scenes on specific issues such as HIV/AIDS, Malaria, hygiene, etc. On a monthly basis I worked with my health committee to discuss issues in the community that need to be addressed. I held monthly baby weighing events and aided in vaccination campaigns. I also became involved in Peace Corps’ Africa-wide initiative to stomp out malaria by educating about malaria prevention and distributing bed nets to keep people from getting bitten by mosquitoes.Prior to joining the Peace Corps, what type of work were you involved in?

KR: Right after I graduated from JMU, I spent the summer traveling, living on a commune in Israel and volunteering in Peru. I moved to New Orleans where I attended Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, focusing on International Health and Nutrition. After finishing my coursework, I spent the summer in Italy working for the ministry of health. The six months before I left for Peace Corps, I lived in Eugene, Ore., the place I call home, and worked for AmeriCorps with the Willamette Farm and Food Coalition as a farm to school and nutrition program assistant.

Kourtney Rusow 2What are you doing now?

KR: Every RPCV returns home with a heightened sense of perspective, and often a large amount of anxiety about the future. In May of 2012, after travelling through Southeast Asia for a little over a month, and nervously turning down a fellowship with the Clinton Foundation in India, I decided to hit the road in my 1969 VW camper van named Betty. I pretty much lived out of my van going across the country, returning to New Orleans, visiting fellow RPCVs and easing into what would be 6 months of odd jobs in the film and restaurant industries.

By November and interview after interview with organizations that just didn’t fit, I found my current job in disaster relief and development at International Medical Corps (where I sit on staff with two fellow Dukes and numerous Tulane Alumni). My current position is a natural segue from my previous education and volunteerism into humanitarian relief work, as I manage the country portfolios of several country programs in health and nutrition within North and Central Africa.

Search this blog for more stories on Madison people who are serving and have served in the American Peace Corps. At last count, there were more than 400 of them. And follow along as we fill out a world map with the places they have served.

The first hill in a roller coaster

Franke DiValerie ('13) and Meaghan Eicher ('13) — on the right — together coordinated ASB programs

Franke DiValerie (’13) and Meaghan Eicher (’13) — on the right — coordinated ASB programs

Meaghan Eicher (’13) is a Peace Corps hopeful. In today’s blog, she describes the process that brought her to her monumental decision to apply. We’ll follow Meaghan’s story and let you know the rest of her story, as soon as she knows it! (And look for the next JMU Peace Corps star on the map at the end.)

Don’t be ordinary

by Meghan Eicher (’13)

August 2005. The first time I heard the words Peace Corps I was 14 years old, walking to field hockey practice during my first week of high school. As a friend and I walked toward the field, she said, “I want to join the Peace Corps someday.” The Peace Corps? What was that? I had vaguely heard about it from somewhere, but couldn’t recall. “What’s the Peace Corps?” I asked her. She said that it was an organization where you get to live in another country doing community service work. Hmm. I was intrigued. Our minds filled with the dread of upcoming fitness drills, we didn’t talk about it again. But when I got home that night, I asked my dad about it. He said that it was a great organization and that maybe I could think about joining someday. The Peace Corps. I continued to roll the term over in my mind for the next 8 years.

Fall 2012. As a senior at JMU, I didn’t have too many classes left to take. I wanted it to be an enjoyable semester, so I decided to do something fun so that I could enjoy my last year at JMU. On a whim, I enrolled in a non-fiction writing course as an elective for my major. The first day of class, the professor, Erica Bleeg, said that her past experiences help shape her writing and that many of those experiences involve her time in the Peace Corps. Thinking back to my childhood, and how my overseas experiences have shaped me, I decided to speak with her after class one day. Though I ended up asking her a lot of questions and talking her ear off, Prof. Bleeg was incredibly insightful and very willing to share her experiences as a Peace Corps volunteer, both the good and the hard. She served in Benin, Africa, in the late 90’s, and continued to keep in touch with some of the people she had met there. Her continued love and dedication for the organization was apparent and inspired me to deeply consider it.

Meaghan helps to hammer on a roof during an ASB in New Orleans

Meaghan helps to hammer on a roof during an ASB in New Orleans

March 2013. My college graduation was less than two months away, and I was nowhere close to answering the question of what I would do with my life. After the millionth conversation with my parents about tweaking my resume and applying to jobs, I was up to my ears with frustration. I didn’t know what to do. It seemed that everyone else had these great jobs lined up, planned to move to far-off places, or knew exactly where they were going to grad school. On one particular day, I was so frustrated that I went up to the Community Service Office where I worked on campus, walked straight to Julie Slifer’s office, sat down in the chair next to her desk, and said: “Julie, I have no idea what I’m doing with my life.”

For the next two and a half hours, we talked. We spoke of my childhood growing up overseas in Kenya, Guyana, and France, of working with the Alternative Break program, of what it meant to possibly live a life of service. It was then that it struck me: I should actually apply to the Peace Corps. I had considered it after talking to Prof. Bleeg but kept putting it off. A friend and fellow Duke Sarah Al-Haj (’12) had left for her service placement in Fiji a few months before and shared her experiences with me, but I never took it seriously or got around to looking at the application.

When I went home that night, I spent hours online researching the Peace Corps. Who can apply? How long does the process take? Where would they send me? Would I get malaria? Will I live in a grass hut surrounded by mosquitoes? Would I have to give up my vegetarian diet? What if I couldn’t do it? It looked as if they wanted hard-core people, with a lot of specialized experience. As an English major, I had no experience in teaching about health, helping with a business plan for non-profit management, and neither did I have experience in agricultural forestry. Now what? My heart sank. I then decided to read a few of the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer stories, and it was then that I knew. You don’t have to be a hard-core person, expecting to change the lives of thousands of people. You just need to have a degree or relevant volunteer experience, dedication to service work — and the heart to do it.

Making biscuit dough for a children's program during an ASB in Canada

Making biscuit dough for a children’s program during an ASB in Canada

I thought back to that day on the field hockey field. A chord was struck in me that day that continued to vibrate into my future. What if I could do it?  A minor in Humanitarian Affairs, and talking endlessly with Prof. Mary Tacy about her service work in Haiti, has taught me about global poverty, and things being done to try and alleviate it. My participation with the Alternative Break Program has taught me the importance of volunteer work. My life growing up overseas has taught me the importance of being a global and active citizen.

So I decided to become a Peace Corps hopeful. For anyone thinking of applying, the application process will test your patience. Just know that going into it. The wishing, the hoping, and the checking your email every single minute of every day can be exhausting. There is long application to fill out, the loan questions, the volunteer experience, the essays. Then comes the interview. And the medical forms to fill out. The legal clearance. The doctors appointments. And more and more paperwork. And the waiting for even the slightest bit of information. The Peace Corps application process is like slowly climbing to the top of the first hill in a roller coaster ride. You can vaguely see what’s coming and the anticipation makes waves in your stomach. But it continues to creep, slowly inching its way to the point at the top of that hill. The point of no return.

So why did I apply to the Peace Corps? And how did JMU help me to make that decision? The Peace Corps seems to be a far-fetched idea for some people. How can one person make a difference? Can you really affect the global community and help create change? Is a two year commitment living at the poverty level really worth it? Deep down, I believe the answer is yes. If invited for a service placement, I will not go in with the expectation of moving mountains or creating unrealistic miracles. I hope to go in with the expectation of helping even just a few realize their potential, and to help them realize the world of possibility that lives out there. If I can change the life of even one person, then my decision to serve was worth it.  My years at JMU haven’t just taught me how to study, how important it is to engage yourself in your studies, what happens when you put off writing a paper until midnight the night before, or what time of the day to not order coffee from Carrier Starbucks. JMU has taught me the importance of participating and being involved in the community, and what being a member of that community is all about.

JMU stresses being the change. But what does “Be the Change” even mean? I think that for each person, it means something different, but the message is the same. Don’t be an ordinary person, living a conventional life. Go out there and do something worthwhile. Use your education, your talents and your dreams to do something extraordinary. You don’t have to go out there and move mountains or live in an impoverished village for the rest of your life. But I think it means, at least for me, using your life to help someone else, even if it’s in just small way. The Peace Corps, for me, is a way to help turn those dreams of being the change into realities. I don’t pretend to know all the ins and the outs of the Peace Corps, nor do I want to be too forward and presumptuous about being invited for service. However, I do know that if offered an opportunity with the Peace Corps, I will do everything that I can to, as my alma mater so simply says, “Be the Change.”

Can you find the stars? Senegal? Benin?

Can you find the stars? Senegal? Benin?

Developing Senegal

Lyzz Ogunwo ('08)(center) and some of her Sengalese friends

Lyzz Ogunwo (’08) (center) and some of her Sengalese friends

The American Peace Corps is an amazing network of people who give their time and talents to change the world in many ways. After publishing a story about a new volunteer Angelique Loverde (’11), we heard from April Muniz (’90) about her Peace Corps experience. It was April’s email that led to more and more JMU Peace Corps people. Over the next few months, we’ll be telling their stories — and populating the map you’ll find at the end of today’s post . Can you find the gold JMU star? (We’ll be adding more!)

Today’s post by April includes an interview with Lyzz Ogunwo (’08).

Finding a deeper understanding

by April Muniz (’90)

Sharing your Peace Corps service with other volunteers is the ultimate bonding experience.  Although we each were assigned to our own posts, often a great distance from one another, we made an effort to meet up periodically to help with group projects and to catch up and socialize. I was happy to find three other JMU graduates among the 200+ Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Senegal with me, Elizabeth “Lyzz” Ogunwo, Kourtney Rusow, and Amanda Cassiday. They had attended JMU much more recently than me (all are from the class of 2008) but we shared a love of the ‘Burg and a common path. We are all now Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCVs) living back in the states. I spent the 2012-13 academic year working as the Peace Corps Campus Recruiter at the University of Virginia and am now working full-time as a Community Liaison/Event Coordinator for Harvest Moon Catering in Charlottesville and am heading up the company’s green initiative and sustainability efforts. I also serve on the advisory board of Better World Better, Charlottesville’s favorite resource for green living.

I was curious about my fellow-Dukes’ Peace Corps experiences and wondered what they are doing now, so I asked them:

First up, Lyzz Ogynwo, (’08) who served the Peace Corps in Senegal from 2010-12 working with community economic development.

What were some of the reasons you decided to join the Peace Corps?

LO: Having majored in International Affairs, with an Africa Concentration at JMU, I aspired to have a deeper understanding of international development on the ground. Ultimately, I wanted to use my talents and strengths to help catalyze progressive change in the community I would be placed in, while helping that community leverage its own strengths. My hope was, and is still, to be a part of sustainable development that will benefit Senegal for years to come.

Lyzz Ogunwo 1Where did you serve and what was the main focus of your work?

 LO: My Peace Corps community was located in Guéoul in the northwestern region of the country. As a business volunteer from August 2010 to August 2012, I developed a waste management system that had a compost profitability component. I also helped the village infomatique (computer learning center) to become profitable through business trainings in marketing and computer classes. Additionally, I helped develop an IT Training University in my town, mentored 75 girls from the lowest income homes through a weekly girl’s empowerment club, and taught English.

Prior to joining the Peace Corps, what type of work were you involved in? 

LO: Prior to Peace Corps, I was a Virginia Field Organizer for the Barack Obama Campaign in 2008 as well as an associate working with senior staff in the White House Executive Office of the President in 2009 where I helped select political appointees to the administration. After that, from 2009 to 2010, I was appointed Special Assistant to the Under Secretary of Energy at the Department of Energy.

What are you doing now?

LO:  After working on the president’s re-election campaign and for the inaugural committee, I moved to New York to work at Living Cities Inc. on poverty-reduction initiatives in our major U.S. cities. Living Cities harnesses the collective power of 22 of the world’s largest foundations and financial institutions that scales new approaches for creating opportunities for low income people and improving the cities where they live. As a member of the staff, we work to prepare people for 21st century employment opportunities; to ensure cities enable and connect people to those opportunities; and to find sufficient opportunities that exist to grow income and reduce income inequality in cities.

Within the next year, I plan to return to my Peace Corps site to help establish a non-profit bakery managed and run by the women leaders I worked with during my time abroad.

World Map Purple

Where in the world?

Where in the world is JMU Peace Corps change?

Where in the world is JMU Peace Corps change?

I’ve learned a few things about James Madison University people who are involved in the American Peace Corps. They meet needs — and they are as enthusiastic and as connected as any group I’ve ever seen. After posting one story about Peace Corps volunteer Angelina Loverde (’11), I heard from April Muniz (’90) about her experience in Senegal. Then April told us about several other JMU volunteers — and followed up by sending information on what they were doing. That led to even more discoveries, including Kelly McCormack (’05) who is a public affairs specialist with the Peace Corps Mid-Atlantic Recruiting Office.  As I dug deeper into the JMU’s many Peace Corps connections, I found more and more stories.

As a result, I’ve been in touch with more JMU Peace Corps alumni and with current and future volunteers. What began as one story quickly snowballed into an avalanche of life changing stories about experiences involving the Peace Corps.

And the stories come from all over the world. Literally.

Curious, I decided to grab a world map and plot all the places that JMU people have served with the Peace Corps. It was a “wow” moment.  The variety of locations is pretty amazing.

Over the next few months, I’ll periodically feature one of our JMU Peace Corps people. And as we do, we’ll populate the map you see here. Follow along to see just where in the world JMU and the Peace Corps is “Being the Change.”

And if those of you located near campus are intrigued and would like to learn more, several upcoming opportunities will let you check out the Peace Corps. Kelly McCormack (’05) will be on campus Mon., Sept. 30, along with recruiter Molly Douglas. They will return several more times throughout the next two months. Below is the fall schedule for the Peace Corps visits to campus and links to the specific event where you can get further information, ask questions, or set up individual appointments.

Mon., Sept. 30, 2013, 12-4 p.m., http://www.peacecorps.gov/meet/events/6325/
Career Conference, Festival Conference and Student Center

Tues., Oct. 1, 2013, 4-5 p.m., Festival Conference and Student Center, Room 3

Tues., Nov. 5, 2013, 12-1 p.m., Festival Conference and Student Center, Allegheny Room

Tues., Nov. 5, 2013, 1-4 p.m., Office hours, Festival Conference and Student Center, Allegheny Room

Thanks to JMU graphic designer Lynda Ramsey for her help in creating this JMU Peace Corps map.
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