By Katelyn McBride
Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.
– John F. Kennedy, 1961
On Oct. 14, 1960, in a presidential campaign speech, Senator John F. Kennedy first challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. His words inspired a new organization that has now provided over 200,000 American volunteers to countries in need. Fifty years later, the Peace Corps is still going strong.
The 50th anniversary of the Peace Corps is officially on March 1, 2011, but the celebration and preparation has already begun, commemorating that initial spark that Kennedy ignited in Ann Arbor.
“The Peace Corps is this incredible opportunity to live as part of another culture and community, share your skills, make a difference and learn about yourself along the way,” said Meredith Mahy Gall, the new University of Iowa Peace Corps campus representative.
Meredith Mahy Gall poses with a cheetah and Botswana woman.
Meredith graduated with degrees in German and English education, spent three years teaching in Wisconsin and then took the opportunity of a lifetime to teach in the Peace Corps alongside her husband, Dan. The two were assigned to Botswana, Africa, and fulfilled their 27-month commitment beginning in 1995.
Meredith taught English in a junior secondary school in rural Botswana to classes of around 30-40 students, each with vastly different English language skills. She noticed that reading for pleasure wasn’t common in the country, so she started an after school reading club so students could be exposed to non-academic books in English.
Besides their primary assignments, Peace Corps volunteers are encourages to undertake secondary projects. For Meredith, that included organizing a career development conference for girls and starting a student welfare fund.
“Discovering her Future,” a weekend conference in Botswana’s capitol, Gaborone, allowed high school girls to meet professional women from their own culture. The girls had a chance to listen to the inspiring stories of female dentists, government works, architects and other role models.
Students are required to wear uniforms to school.
Meredith’s other project helped provide the funds to buy new shoes and school uniforms for students in need.
“Education in Botswana was free to students and paid for by the government, but students were not allowed to come to school if they didn’t have the proper uniform,” Meredith explained.
Peace Corps stereotypes and realities
Meredith knows that some people have this image of Peace Corps as young idealists working on farms and providing manual labor, but she is here to set straight those misconceptions.
Firstly, agriculture only constitutes 4% of all programs sectors. Volunteers with expertise in education, health, business or environmental issues are most in demand. Meredith said that teaching is always a big part of the Peace Corps but everyone, regardless of their placement, is bringing awareness of HIV/AIDS to their countries.
Another stereotype Meredith is aware of is that volunteers are in “shorts and t-shirts” all the time; she said most people are actually wearing professional clothes. For example, her husband wore a tie every day for his assignment with library youth programs.
While living in Africa, Meredith had no electricity or running water and she lived in traditional housing with a thatched roof — but only for the first three months. After that she lived the remaining two years in a comfortable cement duplex on her school’s campus, complete with running water and all amenities.
Lastly, to those that say they can’t afford being in the Peace Corps, Meredith will tell you it’s a great deal compared with other volunteer experiences. It doesn’t cost anything to join and the Peace Corps pays for everything — your flight, your training, medical and dental needs — plus you receive a monthly stipend to cover your living expenses and a readjustment allowance upon your return to the U.S.
Join the Peace Corps community
Besides visiting classrooms and events, meeting with interested students and community members to answer questions, and conducting preliminary application interviews, Meredith hosts a monthly get-together for local Peace Corps returnees to connect and reflect on their time abroad.
“You’re part of a community when you return,” she said. “When you meet someone that has been in the Peace Corps you immediately have a connection, even if your experiences may have been very different.”
An upcoming information session during International Education Week will feature several returned volunteers sharing stories, photos and experiences of teaching in developing countries, on Monday, Nov. 15, at 4 p.m. in Jones Commons, third floor of the Lindquist Center. The event is free and open to the public.
Peace Corps Quick Facts for 2010
| Host Countries represented: 77
| Current volunteers abroad: 8,655
| Gender of volunteers: 60% female, 40% male
| Average age of volunteer: 28
| Application process: 9-12 months
| UI alumni who have been in Peace Corps: 585
For more information about the Peace Corps or to have Meredith speak in your classroom, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 319-335-0347.