World-Class Women

A total of 56 Scripps College alumnae have served in the Peace Corps; of this number, 7 alumnae are currently serving: Kathrine Barnett ’03 in Paraguay, Rika Hayashi ’02 in Vanuatu, Anne-Marie Marra ’02 in Kazakhstan, Sarah Rich ’03 in Mali, Sarah Stevenson ’01 in Niger, Caitlin Phillips ’03 in Madagascar, and Kira Ricketts ’03 in Nepal.

Of 32 alumnae for whom the Peace Corps has graduation-year records, 15 started their Peace Corps service the same year they graduated, 11 began in the Peace Corps within a year or two of graduation. Three women waited the longest to join: 9, 10, and 38 years after graduation.

Suzanne Pardinton ’93 joined the Peace Corps in 1994. Her assignment: Cameroon, West Africa. Like many volunteers, she dreamed of traveling the world, helping others, and seeking adventure. Little did she know this adventure would come sans electricity, phone service, and running water. Or, that she would return home one night to find two men armed with machetes waiting for her. “They didn’t hurt me, but they took all my cash, my short wave radio, camera, and Walkman,” she recalls. “I was frightened and traumatized.”

Yet, like virtually any Peace Corps volunteer you talk to, Suzanne counts her journey as one of the richest, most educational-and most overwhelmingly positive-experiences of her life. “The Peace Corps gave me a great deal of confidence,” she says. “To know that you can go anywhere and not just survive, but make a life for yourself is incredibly empowering.”

Encountering New Frontiers

The Peace Corps was initiated in 1960, when then-Senator John Kennedy challenged a group of University of Michigan students to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration arose the Peace Corps, a federal government agency devoted to world aid. Since its founding in 1961, more than 169,000 volunteers have served in 136 countries, where they assist indigenous communities in everything from AIDS awareness, public health and language, to trade education, community development, and environmental preservation. Scripps College has 56 alumnae who are either currently serving or have served in the Peace Corps in 40 countries and on four continents.

Of course, one’s experience in the Peace Corps often makes for colorful storytelling. This is largely because participants must live like local inhabitants-with privations that most Americans would never dream of. There is a logic behind this: The Peace Corps was founded at a time when many overseas Americans had large homes, servants, and country club memberships, all of which created resentment among the local populations. Getting along with the villagers, then, means not only taking months of language and cross-cultural training-it means getting along with less.

This can lead to some unforgettable experiences. Angela Meyer ’91 found herself in one of the poorest rural villages in Sri Lanka. She lived in a mud house, with a mud kitchen, cooked on a wood stove, and hauled water a half mile from the well. Her bathtub: the river that ran by her hut. “At the time,” she says, “I had blonde hair, and the local villagers thought that my hair was so ugly.They would talk about it, and how they hoped that my hair would turn dark. They were sure that the sun would turn it darker.”

JacquelineYounger ’51, who joined the Peace Corps when she was in her sixties and was assigned to a rural Filipino village, remembers trying to sleep while pigs grunted outside of her bedroom window. She also recollects a man who lived on a nearby street, who butchered and ate dogs-a staple food for that village in generations gone by.

Suzanne Pardington notes: “Because I was a foreign guest, I often was asked to eat first or sit next to the city officials at a head table. It was embarrassing when you’re not sure what you are eating or how to eat it, and everyone is watching you. I seemed to always be given a very gristly piece of meat and only a spoon to eat it with. I never quite got used to feeling like I had a spotlight on me at all times.”

While on the Ivory Coast, Molly Huffman ’71 had several close encounters with mambas-the highly poisonous predator, which not only spans up to 14 feet, but is also the fastest-moving snake in the world. “I found a black mamba in my living room once,” she says. “And then, on another occasion, I ran into a green mamba on the road.To this day, if a bush rustles, I jump!”

Facing the Unexpected

Entering into the tight-knit fabric of a distant culture, thechallenges can be formidable and highly complex. Whitney Zeigler ’99 moved to Poland, where she taught English as a second 1anguage. While the national unemployment rate was 18%, unemployment in her town of Opoczno was 30%. Alcoholism was epidemic.These factors created a byproduct that Whitney had difficulty accepting. “The greatest challenge I faced,” she says, “was students who were being beaten by their parents; they would come into my class with obvious bruises. However, there were no social services that existed to help them. And the very subject was taboo-it was considered ‘a family problem,’ so you could not address it openly without interfering in the community.”

A victim of sexual abuse herself when she was just five years old, Whitney held the situation in her heart, determined to find some way to help. When she returned to the States, she began researching domestic violence resource institutions in Poland; she located a few in some of the larger cities and began making contacts.

Whitney recently returned to Poland this past summer to visit domestic violence organizations, along with her former community, to tell its citizens about the resources available to them. She also decided to write her master’s thesis on strategies for confronting domestic violence in Poland. Once this work is completed, she plans to send copies to some of her former students in Poland, in hopes of encouraging people to bring these issues to the front line.

Distant Lands, Tremendous Discoveries

Peace Corps volunteers are involved in a range of programs, which solve the unique problems of different cultures. Angela Meyer assisted Sri Lankan villagers with the marketing and selling of woven mats and other handmade products to the tourist trade, and increased much-needed income for the very poor rural community. JacquelineYounger taught college students science and mathematics in the Philippines. Kira Rickets ’03, currently volunteering in Nepal, is helping secure funding for an orphanage in the region.

Varied as their jobs may be, Scripps Peace Corps volunteers say there is nothing that matches the personal satisfaction that comes from making a substantive shift in people’s lives.

Whitney Zeigler remembers: “In Poland, I started a softball program for girls aged 13 to 18 in my town. We ended up going to the national championships. The program continues to this day, and I went back and practiced with them last summer. Before I came, they had no idea what softball-or baseball-was. It’s so great to see how the program’s grown and just what exceptional players the girls have become.” Says Anne-Marie Marra ’02, “One of my best days was when one of my students told me he wanted to have class with me every day instead ofjust once a week.” Even the most unlikely instances can end up having positive results. Suzanne Pardington, who was robbed at machete point, notes: “That robbery actually ended up being one ofthe most rewarding experiences, as well as the most challenging. Because the community and my students rallied around me and I found out who my true friends were. On the day after it happened, about 30 of my students came to my house after school to ask me if I was okay, and to ask me to stay and teach them, because they were afraid I would go home. The experience brought me much closer to the community and made me a part of it in a way I wasn’t before.”

Bringing the Experience Home

In 1961, John Kennedy said, ”The logic of the Peace Corps is that someday we are going to bring it home to America.” On a practical level, the Peace Corps helps make participants capable, resourceful, and responsible. It expands their leadership abilities and gives them the confidence of meeting real-world challenges, as they develop valuable skills for a global marketplace.

But perhaps the greatest asset of the Peace Corps isn’t one that can be listed on a resume. As all volunteers agree: once you have been through the Peace Corps experience, your life perspective will never be the same.

“I am unable to describe the wonder of coming back to the United States and walking through a Safewaystore,” reflects Molly Huffman. “The affluence and availability of goods that we take for granted are unheard of in many parts of the world.”

Suzanne Pardington agrees: “It made me realize how lucky we are-it made me appreciate my education in American schools and the opportunities it has given me in life. Every day in my work as a journalist, I draw on the confidence and compassion I gained in the Peace Corps.”

While international relations may have once seemed the province of professors and politicians, it is now a very real part of Americans’ daily lives. Getting to know people from other cultures on an intimate level, Scripps’ Peace Corps volunteers have seen that they all share the same joys, suffer the same pains, and strive for happiness in an imperfect world; from this realization grows a new level of understanding and compassion for others. Molly Huffman, who joined the Peace Corps in 1972, and went on to work at the State Department says: “My personal bias is that all Americans should serve in the Peace Corps. Had President Bush, Vice President Cheney, or Donald Rumsfeld had that experience, we would not be at war today in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

Angela Meyer recounts living in Sri Lanka where a bomb went off in the local bus station. “I remember realizing how vulnerable I felt,” she says. “There, we lived with terrorism daily, and I saw its brutal effects both long and short tertn. I was in NewYork on September 11, and I worked within two blocks of Ground Zero. It was a horrible experience. For weeks I felt as if I had returned to Sri Lanka, seeing- the fear in everyone’s face, people staring at one another in total shock and dismay. In many ways 9/11 brought America closer to the reality ofmost people in the world. we a little bit better what it feels like to feel vulnerable, at the mercy of fate. Perhaps we will collectively have more for a suffering world now that it has touched our shores.”

 

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