Language ETC and the Peace Corps: A Long and Strong Connection

Fellow volunteers: need a break from the present perfect progressive? Want to see Lee Griffith, our famously clean-cut weekend volunteer coordinator, with shaggy hippie hair and pig blood makeup on his face?

Okay, you will! But first, some news. Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Washington, DC has chosen Language ETC for their Partnership for Peace award this year. The award comes with a $2,000 check — thank you! — and the association is inviting its members to volunteer with us. We’ll also be doing joint events during the year. The first is May 12, when returned Peace Corps volunteers will come to LETC to offer us free one-hour lessons in the languages of their host countries. It’ll be a fun opportunity to pick up a little Swahili, Arabic, or Russian — not sure yet which languages will be on offer — and to gain empathy for our students in their struggles to learn English.

RPCV/W board members present Language ETC director Mercedes Lemp with a check as part of our new Partnership for Peace initiative.

Actually, connections between Language ETC and the Peace Corps go back a long way. We’ve always had Peace Corps returnees among our volunteer teachers and staff. In fact, I’m one; I was a Peace Corps health educator in Niger, West Africa, in 1975–77. I asked several of our volunteers and staff about the path they followed from Peace Corps to Language ETC. In addition to Lee, they are Kevin Burgess (our Literacy*AmeriCorps volunteer), Jud Dolphin (teaching 1B), Linda Gies (1B), Kaili Mumme (Advanced), and Pat Nyhan (2A). Thanks to all.

Where and when did you serve in the Peace Corps?

Pat: I was in Afghanistan in 1970–71. I taught English to tenth-grade boys who had never had a female teacher before, at a high school in Kabul.

Kevin: I taught English too, at a high school in Kyrgyzstan from 2010 to 2011. In addition to teaching students, I helped the other English teachers, who were Kyrgyz nationals and didn’t really know English very well.

Kevin with faculty members at the school in Kyrgyzstan where he taught English.

Kaili: I served in Benin, West Africa, from 2008 to 2009. I was in a small rural village my first year, working in maternal and child health. In my second year I was promoted to Peace Corps volunteer leader, advising volunteers in the southern region of Benin.

Jud: I returned this past summer from 27 months in Ukraine. I did mentoring around organizational development, working with educational groups, HIV/AIDS organizations, disabled children organizations. As a Soviet republic, Ukraine had top-down planning. In the first decade after independence, a lot of Western money came in and spawned NGOs, but then — money that comes can go, just as quickly. So you had nonprofit leaders with a lot of passion but not necessarily with the know-how for fundraising. I helped them build a local funding base, recruit and train local volunteers. I’m 66. I spent my whole career working with nonprofit organizations, so I had experience in advocacy work.

Linda: I also joined after retiring. I was in Azerbaijan, a Muslim post-Soviet country between Iran and Georgia. I helped with community projects that involved training, personnel development, and leadership.

Linda with a friend in Azerbaijan, a local shepherd.

Lee: As for me, I taught English in Romania from 2008 to 2010. And I did various projects on the side: I organized three national basketball tournaments, summer camps for kids, community concerts, and a town Christmas show.

Did Peace Corps change you as a person? How?

Lee: My experience in Romania completely changed me, personally and professionally. It was an education in how other parts of the world work, in how other people think and view the world.

Kaili: I was always an accepting person, but joining Peace Corps was the first time I had ever left the country. I see the world more as one place now, and not to be cliché, but I do believe we are all global citizens and what we do day to day affects people on the other side of the world. I’m more passionate about women’s rights than I was before. I also have a deeper understanding of my own values and what motivates me to keep going with my work.

Kaili with villagers in rural Benin. She's wearing a pagne, a printed wrapper, as most West African women do. Keeping it wrapped is a challenge to those of us accustomed to zippers and snaps, I can attest.

Linda: I, too, had never left North America when I joined the Peace Corps. I had always been impatient with Americans, because I was friends with people from different countries and cultures, races and socioeconomic groups, and I saw how little some Americans know or care about others who are not like them. I felt that Americans tended to be narrow and prejudiced because they don’t get much exposure to different cultures. My service made me like other countries more and like America even less. But the people that I served with in Peace Corps are the best people I have known.

Jud: I don’t know if Peace Corps changed me in a dramatic way, as it might have if I had been 22. But I got great satisfaction in being able to give back. It also helped me expand my own network of friendships. I’m still in touch with Ukrainian friends. And it let me discover that I really love teaching, much more than I like managing organizations, in fact. And that made clear what my “encore” life will be, to use an AARP term — and that is teaching.

Jud opening a new English literature collection with staff at a library in Ukraine.

Kevin: A lot of things happened to me there, not all of them positive. I learned a lot about myself, became more tolerant and more patient. Also, I wasn’t especially patriotic before I left, but once you live somewhere else, you start to realize what you’re missing. You appreciate some of the things you took for granted.

Pat: My experience taught me not to take life or good fortune for granted. It also helped me see things through the eyes of devout Muslims living in a society about as different from my own as I could imagine.

Lee in his English classroom in Romania.

How does volunteering at LETC fit with the values and skills you developed in the Peace Corps?

Linda: When I was learning to speak Azerbaijani, I realized it was the hardest thing I had ever done in my life, harder than raising children. We were all college grads; Peace Corps gave us extensive language training; and we were immersed in the language — but it was still difficult. I saw why immigrants, without any of these advantages, would have a very hard time. I resolved to help adults learn English because of the experience that I had in being supported, kindly and steadily, as I struggled to speak. I feel that immigrants will not learn a language without support from native speakers.

Kevin: When I came back from Kyrgyzstan I was looking to do something with an international flavor. I help register new students at LETC, so I get to meet people from different countries and cultures. I enjoy that. I also love teaching ESL. Everything I learned about teaching in Kyrgyzstan, through the training that Peace Corps gave me, plus what I picked up through trial and error in the classroom, is now very useful. One thing that helped me become a better teacher was learning to speak Kyrgyz. Peace Corp’s language training was great, and their local teachers were amazing. I learned a lot from them, watching how they taught me. Then I used those techniques with my students in the Kyrgyzstan school, and now I’m using them at LETC.

Kevin with his Kyrgyzstani family.

Lee: I initially viewed LETC as a Peace Corps back home: a multicultural environment with like-minded volunteers. It was a way to transition to life back in America and deal with the reverse culture shock of returning home. At LETC I still feel connected with the world.

Pat: I worked for many years as a journalist, but I eventually returned to teaching ESL because of my great Peace Corps experience and my desire to help immigrants move ahead in their new lives. I’ve always enjoyed people from other cultures. Being with my students is a highlight of my week.

Farmer Lee.

Jud: I see a continuity between what I did in Peace Corps—teaching leaders about organizational development—and teaching immigrants the basic skills needed to survive in America. I’m a fairly new volunteer, but I’m quite impressed with LETC. I feel I’ve been given the support to succeed.

Kaili: I was attracted to LETC by the opportunity to work with adults. Teaching here, I get to know people whom I might never meet otherwise, learn about other cultures, and maybe help them out with some of their goals. I value public service, and it’s important for me to volunteer somewhere where I feel comfortable and appreciated.

Kaili with a Beninois family.

Did serving in Peace Corps affect your attitude toward immigrants in the United States?

Jud: I don’t think I’ve ever had negative impressions of immigrants. All my career I’ve worked with a diverse population. But Peace Corps opened up my understanding of Soviet life and of the people who we had been told were our “enemies.” I discovered that the so-called enemies are actually friends.

Jud says, “I was often invited to cultural events as ‘Our American.’”

Pat: My mother was an immigrant, so I’ve always had a positive attitude toward immigrants, reinforced by volunteering with refugees in Maine for many years. In fact I wrote a book a few years ago called New Mainers: Portraits of Our Immigrant Neighbors, based on interviews. My favorite profile was of an Afghan widow struggling to make a new life in Portland, Maine, after the Taliban murdered her husband at their home. The human connections we make in the work we do with immigrants can make an enormous difference in their lives—a lesson I learned in the Peace Corps. Still, I agree with volunteers who say, “I get back far more than I give.”

Pat Nyhan interviewed immigrants living in Maine, where she lived before moving to Virginia, and published a book of portraits of "New Mainers."

Kevin: I was already sensitive to immigration issues beforehand, so I don’t think it changed me in that respect. But living in Kyrgyzstan gave me perspective that helps me relate to our students at Language ETC. I’m aware of how their lives in their countries may have been very different from their lives here.

Lee: My Peace Corps experience made me realize just how similar people are. You can connect with people from different backgrounds. You can have fun with people who are a little different; you can communicate with people even if you don’t speak the same language. I still appreciate the very positive reception I received in Romania, and I try to do the same for immigrants here.

Lee says, “The red is pig blood. The Christmas tradition in Romania is to kill the pig, then the man of the house puts some blood on your face in the shape of a cross. It symbolizes health and best wishes in the year to come.”

Kaili: I never had negative attitudes toward immigrants in the United States. I’ve always favored immigration and diversity, which goes back to my ideas about us being global citizens. Still, I’m sure that being a Peace Corps volunteer affected me in ways I’ll never fully understand. I valued every moment of it, and to this day I’m still in touch with friends and family from my village. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think of my time in Benin and the opportunity it gave me to experience another culture.

Turning back the clock: In my yard in Aderbissinat, Niger, circa 1976. I worked in maternal and child health, and people often brought their sick kids by. My Tuareg and Bororo Fulani visitors are cooking tea on a charcoal brazier and generally making themselves at home.

This entry was posted in Community Resources, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Volunteer Profiles, Washington English Center, WEC News. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Language ETC and the Peace Corps: A Long and Strong Connection

  1. Michele Pagan says:

    This is a great story
    Thank you for these interviews
    Makes me want to join Peace Corps more than ever!

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