Peace Corps hits big 5-0
March 21, 2011 —
In the late 1970s, associate professor of geography John Grolle took a leap from white-collar Toledo, Ohio, to the Congo region of Africa. His two-year stint of teaching French to high school students was because of his involvement in the Peace Corps.
For the Peace Corps, 2011 marks 50 years of promoting peace and friendship around the world. The organization has affected hundreds of thousands of people, including students from SVSU.
On March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order to establish the Peace Corps. Since then, more than 200,000 Americans have served in the organization to promote better understanding between Americans and the people of 139 host countries. Today, there are 8,655 volunteers working with communities in 77 countries.
Service in the Peace Corps comes with benefits that include the opportunity to combine service with graduate school credit and financial assistance, full health and dental coverage while serving and $7,425 upon service completion. The organization also provides increased job skills, employment potential and special eligibility for federal jobs.
March 2011 has been recognized as “National Peace Corps Month” and the year will continue with anniversary celebration events.
The Peace Corps is an important part of the lives of SVSU faculty members Grolle, professor of English Kerry Segel and Interim Director of International Programs Stephanie Sieggreen, who served in Congo, Iran and Kazakhstan, respectively.
After graduation at the University of Toledo, Grolle decided to strive for experience in the world instead of going straight to graduate school. He spent two years in what was the Belgian colony of Congo, Africa, teaching French to high school students.
“The Peace Corps has excellent language training,” he said. “I learned intensive French and Lingala [the language of the Congo region].”
He said that his experience in the Peace Corps was eyeopening to the region’s everyday difficulties of severe poverty and draught.
“The Peace Corps is a blend of physical, intellectual and emotional challenges,” he said. “Imagine going weeks without seeing another American or speaking English.”
Despite the challenges, Grolle said that he credits the Peace Corps for giving him the opportunity to travel the world and help others.
“I am glad to have been part of the Peace Corps and served my country,” he said. “I was able to help provide education to students in the Congo, but I feel as though I got more benefits than those I was helping including language skills, job skills and cross-cultural experience.”
He added that being a member of the Peace Corps set him apart from others upon his return to the U.S. He had a graduate school offer from the University of Miami and chose to study physical geography to learn about why there was draught in the Congo region.
Segel was a Peace Corps volunteer from 1969 to 1971 and taught English to middle school and high school students in Khonsar, Iran. He said that he is honored to have been part of the Peace Corps.
“To have been in the first decade of this incredible organization and be able to be able to witness its 50th anniversary is a singular moment for me,” Segel said. “Not only this organization the foremost vehicle for providing a cross-cultural opportunity for U.S. citizens, young and old, it is the most powerful positive diplomatic force that our country has.”
Segel’s involvement in the Peace Corps was the catalyst for other achievements in his career. He spent an additional four years over a ten-year period teaching English at the university level, pursued graduate work in teaching English as a second language and developed a lifelong connection with Iranians and the Persian community.
His participation in the Peace Corps also inspired him to spearhead the establishment of TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), a program available to students of any major to earn certification in teaching English abroad.
Segel said there are numerous benefits to being involved in the Peace Corps, including a two year, fully paid language and cultural experience with travel opportunities no tourist agency can match.
He said that his immersion into the Iranian culture was a major but worthwhile adjustment.
“As I began to develop my language skills and adjust to the culture, my initial struggle turned into a wondrous adventure, a humbling experience that I as a foreigner, an outsider, was so privileged to be witness to this historical civilization, this vibrant society that accepted me so readily, giving me more of themselves then I could ever hope to reciprocate,” he said.
In 2000, Sieggreen served as an economic development volunteer in Astana, Kazakhstan. She was assigned to a nongovernmental organization to work with small-to medium-sized businesses on different projects. She also taught macro economics in Russian and English at two universities and a local high school.
Sieggreen said that the Peace Corps allowed her to experience as much as she wanted to.
“The beauty of Peace Corps is that you can be creative and take on as many projects as you want,” Sieggreen said.
She said the Peace Corps is commonly referred to as “the toughest job you’ll ever love” and that she feels a sense of pride and accomplishment during this anniversary year.
“When you reflect on what you were able to accomplish and then compound this by all the other wonderful things returning and current volunteers in the field have done, it is simply amazing,” she said.
While Grolle, Segel and Sieggreen are reflecting on their experiences in the Peace Corps, others are looking at joining to create their own memorable experiences. English and history senior Carolyn Payne is looking to apply for Peace Corps membership with graduation on the horizon.
“I have had a lot of friends who have big dreams to help people and then get married and get a job and don’t have time,” Payne said. “I am planning on taking a year off before graduate school anyway, so I figured why not take two years and be a part of something that can help people during that time.”
Peace Corps service is a 27-month commitment. Volunteers must be U.S. citizens and at least 18 years of age, but there is no upper age limit for service. Those interested in the Peace Corps and application process are encouraged to contact Sieggreen in the Office of International Programs and visit the Peace Corps website.