By Jeff Wilson
Three Whitworth graduates have traveled across the world to face the challenges of mosquito nets in the Philippines, goat meat in Somalia and crumbling plaster walls in Bulgarian classrooms. The Peace Corps offered Stuart Taylor, '61, Paul Postlewait, '61, and Elizabeth (Vernon, '98) Kelly the chance to do something important, to learn about the world and to discover more about themselves.
Over the past quarter-century, 126 Whitworth graduates have answered the call to the Peace Corps.
In 2005, the Peace Corps recorded the greatest interest in its program in the last 30 years, with more than 11,500 candidates applying. And approximately 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers fly out across the world every year. The Peace Corps requires a 27-month commitment and has minimum requirements for recruitment. The volunteer must be a U.S citizen be at least 18 years old; there is no upper age limit. After the volunteer's term of service is completed, the organization pays each one $6,000. Even with such lopsided figures, the popularity of the 45-year-old corps continues to grow.
Peace Corps Public Affairs Officer Maria Lee believes that the number of college and university graduates who participate in the program has climbed because graduates believe that the international experience will enhance their future employment opportunities. In fact, Businessweek.com recently named the Peace Corps as the 38th best place to start a career. And volunteers who complete their Peace Corps service are given a year of noncompetitive eligibility for employment in the federal government.
Lee also believes that there is a new focus on service in the world today. According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, more than three million college students in the U.S volunteered between 2003 and 2005. Overall, the trend of volunteering has been growing since 2002.
The Peace Corps traces its beginnings to 1960, when then Senator John F. Kennedy visited the University of Michigan. While there, Kennedy challenged the university's students to serve their country in the capacity of building peace and helping developing countries. In 1961, then-President Kennedy's administration developed the Peace Corps, an agency dedicated to improving relations between countries and providing international aid. Since that time, 139 countries have invited more than 187,000 Peace Corps volunteers to serve. The volunteers work to educate, protect the environment, assist in business and agriculture development, and train in information technology.
Taylor was not only one of the first volunteers from Whitworth, but was also among the first 1,000 Peace Corps volunteers.
"Every shrink in America wanted to know why," Taylor says. "Why were we all signing up for this?"
A Time to Grow
Taylor took the first Peace Corps qualifying exam that was offered in Spokane. He then went through training and was sent to the Philippines with 127 other volunteers.
"It was the first large group ever sent, and it was kind of an experiment," Taylor says.
His main priority was to work with the Filipino teachers developing classroom materials and techniques to improve the country's education system. Taylor's progress was difficult to measure by American standards.
"Other projects that were going on involved, for example, building roads or improving living conditions; they were measurable," Taylor says.
After seeing no quantifiable results for a year, he became so frustrated that he took up farming as a side project. Taylor wanted to prove to the local subsistence farmers that certified seed and fertilizer would increase their yield. Starting a rice plot, he experimented with the seed and fertilizer so that the subsistence farmers would not have to gamble with their crops. After six months of carefully tending a rice paddy, he awoke one morning to disaster.
"One local farmer had opened the gate and let his water buffalo graze," Taylor says with a sigh. "That was kind of a negative."
For Taylor, being part of the local culture outweighed any negatives. The Filipinos were immensely appreciative towards the volunteers. In one case, the volunteer was invited to sleep on the only bed in the house.
"We got way more and experienced more than what we gave to others," Taylor says.
Of course, Taylor is not referring to monetary payment. Monetarily speaking, the volunteers received a stipend that allowed them to live a lifestyle similar to that of the people surrounding them. While serving in Somalia, Postlewait lived on $130 a month.
A Love for the People
Postlewait, a classmate of Taylor, first became interested in traveling during his college years. He became involved with a group called Crossroads, led by a local pastor. Through Crossroads, Postlewait was able to visit Africa for the first time.
"Once you see Africa you have to go back," Postlewait says.
The first step toward Postlewait's return to Africa was a visit to Whitworth by presidential candidate John F. Kennedy. Postlewait had the honor of introducing Kennedy to the Whitworth student body when the Senator came to Spokane in 1960. Even though Postlewait voted for Nixon, he was deeply influenced by Kennedy's visit.
Postlewait graduated from Whitworth intending a career in medicine, but when he heard the call for Peace Corps volunteers, he could not resist. He passed the qualifying exam and was assigned to Somalia. In 1962, Postlewait left the U.S. bound for Africa to teach biology.
With a land mass the size of Ohio, northern Somalia then had only 12 schools, and only one of those was a high school, Postlewait says.
Even though Postlewait was trained before he left for Somalia, he did not feel prepared. With few other options available to him, Postlewait decided he would just try to learn Somali and become a part of the culture. He found that he was able to cover a lot of ground in a small amount of time.
"Somalis are very easy people to love," Postlewait says.
One day, Postlewait's roommate was sick and not able to teach his class. Postlewait simply took his roommate's notes and went in his place. Phonetics was the lesson for the day. At that time, Somalia did not have an official written language. As a result, Peace Corps volunteers were developing one to use in a classroom setting. However, not all Somali sounds can be represented by the American alphabet.
"The Somalis have a guttural 'h' sound that we don't have in English, so we just represented it on paper with the number eight," Postlewait says.
Postlewait began class by writing a Somali word on the blackboard and having the children sound it out one syllable at a time.
"It was dragging for about 20 minutes, but I stuck with it," Postlewait says. "Eventually, one of the kids shouted out 'This is Somali!' That was the most exciting moment for me."
After Postlewait returned from his Peace Corps service, he knew he was going back to Africa one day. When a civil war broke out in Somalia in 1992, he offered his expertise to the Northwest Medical Team. The group made him site director. After he finished his assignment, he was still not ready to leave. Pondering his next move, he found himself talking to a stranger. Postlewait explained his position and they talked for about 15 minutes. Before Postlewait left, something strange happened.
"He gave me a horrendous stare, like he was looking right into my soul," Postlewait says.
Feeling disturbed by the event, Postlewait switched hotels and became more cautious in his daily routine. It was not until the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks that Postlewait realized the man he had talked to was Osama bin Laden.
Postlewait thanks the Peace Corps for more than giving him the opportunity to meet noted figures like President Kennedy and Osama bin Laden. He also met his wife in the Peace Corps and he now has seven grandchildren.
"I can't imagine how it could have happened any other way," Postlewait says.
When Kelly got tired of sitting at her desk job 40 hours each week, she joined the Peace Corps. Although this wasn't a conventional move, Kelly found that it joined two of her passions: service and travel. She did not expect to discover a new culture that she loved.
"As Americans, we don't really know who we are, but in Bulgaria they had such a strong sense of culture. It was in their food; it was in their music; it was everywhere," Kelly says.
She worked as a copy editor for five years before she volunteered for the Peace Corps. She was invited to Omurtag, Bulgaria, where she taught English to fifth-, sixth- and seventh-graders. One of the hardest things for Kelly was just being different.
"I stuck out like a sore thumb," Kelly says. "It was uncomfortable coming into a store understanding the language just enough to know that the person across the room was talking about you."
It did not help that Kelly was only the second Peace Corps volunteer ever to enter the city.
Kelly's teaching environment was not supportive. Parents did not help with their children's homework and there was no teamwork or comradery from other teachers or from the administration. If Kelly sent a student to the principal's office, the principal would just become angry and send the student back.
"I went home crying at least two times a week," Kelly says.
Teaching in Bulgaria meant standing in front of the children and lecturing all day. The next day, the children would return with the lecture memorized. It was a challenge for Kelly, but she was there to stay.
"I wanted to become part of this town. If you weren't there for the right reasons, then you probably wouldn't stay. Thirty percent of Peace Corps volunteers don't make it to the end," Kelly says.
Sometimes it takes a while to see change, but for Kelly it was worth the wait. She remembers the day she noticed a difference in a Bulgarian co-worker as her most rewarding moment. Her colleague had been very shy when they first met. As time went by, Kelly saw her become more confident and change her teaching methodology to a more interactive style.
Through her experiences in Bulgaria, Kelly discovered a passion for education. When she returned to the U.S, she began her journey to become a certified teacher and began taking graduate classes in education.
"Without a doubt, I would do it all over again," Kelly says.
For more information about the Peace Corps please visit www.peacecorps.gov or call (800) 424-8580.