It was October 1972. The East African country of Uganda was in the grip of the brutal dictator Idi Amin and twenty-two-year-old Peace Corps volunteer Ernie Niemi ’70 was in a tight spot. The Peace Corps had decided to pull its volunteers out of the country, but to avoid retaliation it scheduled a conference in Kampala, the country’s capital and site of its major airport, and said all volunteers were required to attend. On Niemi’s way to Kampala, 300 miles from the boarding school where he had been teaching chemistry and physics for eighteen months, he had to pass through several roadblocks. At one, he was confronted by a security guard whose son was a student of Niemi’s.
“He said, ‘You cannot leave. My son must have a teacher,’” Niemi remembers. With the guard’s rifle pointed straight at him, Niemi used his most persuasive Swahili to convince the man he would be back in two days. The guard lowered his rifle and let him pass. Niemi didn’t return for almost thirty years.
Niemi’s Peace Corps experience involved more than just the dramatic evacuation. “It was a life-changing event in many different dimensions,” says Niemi, now a senior economist at ECONorthwest, an economic consulting firm in Eugene. “It continues to change my life.”
Niemi is one of more than 1,000 UO graduates who have joined the Peace Corps since its founding fifty years ago. For most, their time overseas has left an indelible imprint. In exchange for living without running water, electricity, and easy access to outside communication, for enduring intestinal trials and hot humid climates, these volunteers got the chance to discover how adept they were at adapting. They learned to pilot motorcycles through the jungle. They discovered what it took to dig wells and build walls by hand. They organized community cleanups and sports programs. They got to see their lives back home from the perspective of people who had scant resources and limited opportunities, and who nevertheless opened their hearts to strangers who usually barely knew their language.
They learned to live without cars, to communicate with rudimentary language skills, and to move at a slower, more deliberate pace. And to grow up.
“The Peace Corps throws you in the deep end, and either you pick up on things and get it, or you don’t,” says Erin Tyburski ’08, who served in Kenya from 2009 to 2011. “It opens your eyes to the world in a way you could never expect. You learn that this is life, that it’s real, and these are the challenges.”
Oregon has been a top Peace Corps recruiting state for decades, and the UO has continuously been the state’s leading education institution for producing volunteers. Linda Forthun, a regional recruiter in the Seattle Peace Corps office, attributes the steady flow of UO Peace Corps applicants to the University’s mindset, high energy campus recruiters, and a local, involved cadre of returned Peace Corps volunteers.
“Students at the UO think globally,” she says. “It’s such a cliché, but they get it. And students at the UO are very service-oriented. I don’t know if that exists everywhere.”
In an essay he wrote for Newsweek this past January, Sean Smith ’96, former L.A. bureau chief of Entertainment Weekly, blamed his midlife decision to sign up with the Peace Corps on Angelina Jolie. While on assignment in Mumbai in 2006, he asked the high-wattage star how she coped with the suffering she witnessed in her role as a UN ambassador. “She said it was painful, yes, but it wasn’t debilitating because she was active. Her work was bringing attention to crises in the world,” he wrote. Her comment stuck, and when Smith, now forty-three, became disenchanted with Hollywood’s flash and shimmer, he knew where to turn. He is now an HIV-AIDS outreach volunteer in rural South Africa.
“I don’t think you can attend the UO and immerse yourself in that community without longing to open your mind to the greater world,” he says. “It is a place that encourages students to question and explore and challenge and think about themselves not as isolated entities, but as parts of a great, interconnected whole.”
Interested students also can tap the experience of members of the local West Cascade Peace Corps Association, a group of returned volunteers who appear on panels and at information sessions. “There’s a dynamic interaction between people who have gone and people who want to go,” Forthun says. “It speaks to the value of the experience, that people who went forty, fifty years ago are still so active. It infuses new prospects with enthusiasm.”
James Cloutier ’63, MFA ’69, a recent president of the West Cascade group, was an advocate of international exchange even before President John Kennedy officially established the Peace Corps in March 1961. Cloutier promoted the fledgling idea as a campus recruiter and as student body vice president. His efforts got a boost from then–UO president Arthur Fleming, who had been named a member of the Peace Corps’s first advisory council. “He believed in the importance of internationalizing universities and getting students to see the world,” Cloutier says.
In 1964, Cloutier, armed with zeal and his new degree in arts education, was in the first group of volunteers to go to Kenya. He and his five coworkers were assigned to work in a massive land settlement program as agricultural officers, overseeing the formation of agricultural co-ops and veterinarian programs. “The irony of it all was that very few of us had any experience in agriculture,” he says. Back then, the Peace Corps’ philosophy was to recruit liberal arts graduates rather than individuals with technical skills, he says. “The theory was that liberal arts grads could more quickly adapt to learning what was needed to teach the local population.”
But that approach frustrated some of the first volunteers, says Gregg Smith ’63, who went through ten weeks of training at the UO’s Bean Hall—one of several training sites set up by the Peace Corps in its early years—in preparation for their stint in Nepal. Once in Nepal, Smith’s group was assigned to work in a rural development program. It didn’t take long for them to realize how ill-equipped they were for the task.
“We were supposed to help train Nepali village development workers, but none of us had any education in development or related activities,” Smith says. “We had nothing to offer. We were embarrassed. We were supposed to be helping, but we had no way to do that, because we had no training assets.”
Smith, who became the first employee and then-head of what is now the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services, says his experience, although frustrating, was valuable. “It was a good education in humility—to realize how little we had to offer. And that these other cultures were highly sophisticated, highly intelligent, and wanting a better life, but their resources were very limited.”
For many volunteers, their time in the Peace Corps was more than a memorable experience. Some met their spouses while overseas. It led others to decide on their career trajectory. A few, like Niemi, are still discovering the full impact of their service.
About ten years ago, he was contacted by one of his former students and learned that the village where he had lived had suffered two waves of attacks, one by Amin’s army and later by forces opposing him. The soldiers gutted classrooms, looted supplies, and destroyed the newly built water system. Several teachers had disappeared.
But many villagers still remembered the young chemistry teacher who had taught them concepts they could understand and treated them as individuals. When Niemi returned in 2008, bringing along his wife, son, and some laptop computers, he and his family were greeted as honored guests. The whole school turned out to welcome him. One by one, several of his former students described what his teaching had meant. Some told him that, if not for the education he had provided, they might not be alive. Others said it had allowed them to move forward in ways that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible.
“I helped them find a door that gave them advantages later in their lives,” says Niemi.
Niemi and his family now support the education of several girls in the village. One of his students has visited him in Eugene. He is still assimilating the unexpected gift of learning the full story of his eighteen months of youthful effort, four decades ago.
“I had no idea,” he says.
—By Alice Tallmadge
Alice Tallmadge, MA ’87, is an adjunct instructor at the UO School of Journalism and Communication and a freelance writer. She lives in Springfield. Her last feature for Oregon Quarterly was “¿Podemos?” (Summer 2009).
Sarah Kreisman ’02 remembers the moment when she accepted the jungle on Panama’s steamy Caribbean coast as her temporary home. A year into her stint, she opened her favorite cereal that she had hauled from town, three hours away. It was full of ants. “I never thought I’d eat ants, but being in the jungle, you either give your cereal to the ants, or just deal with it. I said, ‘Dang it. I’m going to eat it.’”
Kreisman decided to join the Peace Corps in part to break out of the safe “bubble” she felt she was living in. Sent to Panama in 2005, she got what she was looking for. “Nothing would ever be the same after being in the Peace Corps,” she says. “I went in as a girl and I came out as a woman.”
Her house in the steamy jungle on the Caribbean coast was a wooden hut with a palm thatched roof that she shared with scorpions and spiders. The people in her village spoke a dialect she wasn’t familiar with. They were deeply religious; she was not. She is outgoing; they were not. “A lot of times there were situations where I didn’t express my true feelings about things—where I thought it was my responsibility not to rock the boat. But it wore on me,” she says.
Despite their differences, the villagers appreciated her. After two years as an agricultural systems extension worker, she stayed another year as a regional volunteer coordinator. Her takeaways? Leadership skills—the ability to take charge, to delegate, and to organize large events. “I would recommend the Peace Corps to anybody,” she says.
When Erin Tyburski ’08 first began blogging about her Peace Corps experience in Kenya, she described “romanticized” scenes, such as running on red dirt roads with barefooted children and participating in a project that used camels for plowing.
But as time went on, the romanticism was replaced by frustration and even cynicism as she became aware of the deeply ingrained challenges of the complex culture she was immersed in. “I am so thoroughly disappointed and disgusted with an overbearing chunk of organized religion that I have trouble even considering the positive implications of its existence,” she wrote, sixteen months into her stay.
Tyburski ended up pouring her energy into a project to build a children’s activity center. The challenge of transforming a barren patch of dirt into a playground took seven months and required a hand-dug well, two plantings of trees, fence construction, water line hookups, and a truckload of patience. She tapped friends and family for funds to buy playground equipment—three sets of swings, three slides, three see-saws, two sets of monkey bars, and a basketball hoop. The project was completed a week and a half before her assignment was up last December.
Tyburski is now back in Kenya, working at a economic development nonprofit in systems and project development. Of her time in the Peace Corps, she says, “I would not take back any of my rich, diverse, challenging, exciting, life-changing experiences for the world.”
Some Peace Corps volunteers decided to attend the UO after their time overseas. Don Messerschmidt ’70, PhD ’74, enrolled at the UO following his two-year Peace Corps stint in Nepal, from 1963 to 1965. There, he and his coworker vaccinated more than 25,000 children against smallpox, using whiskey as a disinfectant and vaccines dropped from helicopters or that they carried in backpacks from Pokhara, a two-day walk from their post. After earning a doctorate in anthropology from the UO, he became an international development consultant. He went back to Nepal and stayed for thirty-five years, consulting, raising his family, and teaching in Nepali colleges. In 2009, he moved back to Vancouver, Washington, but he continues to lead treks in Nepal and take students on summer study trips.
In the early 1970s, Messerschmidt helped resettle a small group of Tibetan immigrants from Maine to the Portland-Vancouver area, and they became the core of what today is a vital Tibetan community. At a recent function, he thanked the community leaders for their generosity. They responded, he says, by telling him, “If it weren’t for you, Don, we wouldn’t be here.”
Andy Biehl was a pole vaulter at Western Washington University, and when the Peace Corps assigned him to the island of Saint Lucia in the Caribbean, he brought his enthusiasm for the sport with him. Pole vaulting wasn’t a popular sport on the island, so he started a club for young athletes. At first, their commitment was spotty—some came, then disappeared. Or different youths showed up every week. But he persevered. At the club’s first national meet, his vaulters walked away with a gold and a silver medal. “It was one of the best nights of my life,” he says.
Encouraged, Biehl took it on himself to further raise the profile of pole vaulting on the island. In December 2009, with the support of the government, he set up a community pole vaulting event in the capital city using a portable plywood runway. “The athletes jumped in front of 200–300 people,” he says. “Everyone was thrilled. Guys in the media were asking, ‘When’s the next one?’”
By the time Biehl, now twenty-seven, returned to the United States, he had jettisoned his former career plans in favor of sports marketing. He’s now enrolled in the University’s Warsaw Sports Marketing Center at the Lundquist College of Business. In December, he’s returning to Saint Lucia to run a coach’s development camp and to oversee street exhibitions. “I’m able to employ everything I’m learning in ways that really change lives,” he says.
Nathan Bucholz ’00 was familiar with the Peace Corps from an early age. His uncle, Daniel Kraushaar ’71, was a volunteer in the 1970s and afterward worked in public health throughout Africa and Asia. Bucholz remembers being dazzled by the family’s photographs and stories when they’d come to visit. As he grew up, he nurtured a desire to live and travel in foreign places, and eventually joined the Peace Corps in 2003, destined for Ukraine. When he landed in Kiev, he says, “I remembered everything being gray—the buildings, the snow, the sky, even the clothing people wore.”
Little by little he mastered the language and became comfortable in his job with a scouting organization. He took on a number of projects, including holding a weekly English club for Ukrainian youths and securing a grant to rewire the electrical system in a local orphanage. And he met his future wife.
While in the Peace Corps, Bucholz says, “I gained confidence and perspective on what I felt was important in life. The thrill of living abroad left me with a desire to do it again.” Today, Bucholz lives in London and works for Google as its travel industry manager. His wife recently gave birth to the couple’s first child. “He will grow up speaking both Russian and English,” Bucholz says.