Erin Taylor remembers holding gold, silver and bronze chains with her home-stay family as she watched the marriage of her new home-stay sister. She had helped the women prepare desserts and flowers by hand for this special day. The groom’s family brought the bride’s family gifts of banana trees, gold and meat, and together the families marched and sang. Taylor had only been in Thailand for three months, but was as much a part of this family as anyone.
“I was so touched by how loving and welcoming they were,” she said.
Now an education graduate student, she is one of many Cal Poly students who have lent their services to the Peace Corps – an American organization which sends volunteers to 138 different countries. The Peace Corps strives to promote world peace and friendship through helping Americans and people of other cultures better understand each other.
There are approximately 7,810 active volunteers in the Peace Corps today – a small number compared to the 182,000 to-date. As of Sept. 30, 2005, about 878 Californians have partaken in the program and 46 of those volunteers have been Cal Poly students. While the organization as a whole has been in progress since 1961, Cal Poly has been sending volunteers since 1963.
“The culture of service is already established on this campus,” said Brady Radovich, former regional recruiter for San Luis Obispo and a Cal Poly alumnus. “The Peace Corps has been fortunate to embrace Cal Poly’s learn-by-doing philosophy.”
While the program offers many benefits – such as nearly $6,000, graduate school opportunities, language fluency, international experience and more – the two years and three months of service is “nothing to take lightly,” Radovich said.
“It can be lonely and isolating to be in another country,” Taylor said. “It was really hard and there were definitely days of crying and tears, but I wasn’t going to go back.”
It is rare for volunteers to be sent to countries where English is the primary language. For Stephanie Ricceri, who volunteered in Sierra Leone from 1983-85, English was the national language but most people spoke Pidgin English or tribal languages.
“It was total immersion,” she said.
“Some people don’t like that surprise,” Taylor added. “The focus was on how to speak and listen. Reading and writing came much later.”
Taylor was forced to learn Thai and was astonished that when she sat in on an English class, students were taught English but never given a chance to speak it. After her time with the Peace Corps was up, she stayed to teach first grade while her husband taught at a university.
“(Thailand) is such a part of us,” she said.
Many countries can also be somewhat dangerous, but the Peace Corps only sends volunteers to countries where they have been invited. Shellye Clark, the San Luis Obispo Peace Corps regional recruiter, said safety and security are the No. 1 priority for the Peace Corps and officials have weekly meetings with the embassies.
When she was volunteering in Guatemala in 2005 and Hurricane Stan swept through the Central American country, the Peace Corps tried to evacuate all the volunteers but “we stayed and helped our communities,” Clark said.
In addition to language barriers and safety concerns, some cultural differences can be shocking for Americans.
“Most countries have very different perceptions of gender roles,” Clark said, noting that in Guatemala, male farmers would only speak to the male volunteers and not her.
To be eligible for the Peace Corps, prospective volunteers must be at least 18 years old, U.S. citizens and hold a bachelor’s degree or an associate of arts degree along with extensive experience.
The application process requires six to 12 months. After filling out an application, prospective volunteers must undergo an interview and receive a nomination from their regional recruiter. From there, the candidate’s information is analyzed at the headquarters in Washington D.C. and assuming everything is acceptable after a medical and legal review, the candidate receives an invitation to a particular country.
Though the applicant has no choice in where they are sent, that person maintains the right to turn down a country they feel uncomfortable going to.
“They try to match you to a place where you have the skills,” Ricceri said, listing business, fishing, health, education and agriculture as a few.
Finally, the applicants are sent to the country for a three-month training period before spending two years applying their skills.
Though the process is thorough and lengthy, Radovich said it is necessary.
“We don’t want people to hear about the Peace Corps, apply and find themselves overseas six weeks later,” he said.
Despite the commitment, Clark recommended that more people should partake in the program. “You’re making friends with people you probably never would have known,” she said.
Taylor often thinks about her old life in Thailand and hopes to take her children there someday.
“My home-stay mom showed me how to live in Thailand – she holds my hand when we cross the street,” Taylor said. “What would she say if she saw my life before?”
For students interested, applications are available on the Peace Corps Web site at www.peacecorps.gov or in Kennedy Library, Room 207.