The University of Iowa

Peace Corps volunteers recall service on 50-year anniversary

March 2nd, 2011

By Alexandria Skalla, The Daily Iowan

See the original article and a video feature.

Buddhist prayer bowls and other souvenirs decorate Scott McNabb’s office, along with portraits of Hanuman, a famous monkey warrior from the Thai Ramakiyana.

A photo album containing cards and old photographs rest on his desk, recalling the days the University of Iowa associate education professor spent in the marketplace or playing sports with his students during his time in the Peace Corps in Bangkok, Thailand.

On the weekends back then, he visited Kham Sing Srinawk, a famous 80-year-old Thai writer and politician who lived on a dairy farm in the country.

“He was a good teacher for me,” McNabb said. ”I hope to see him again.”

Roughly 20 people, including several volunteers, gathered Tuesday night at the Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St., to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the agency, which sends volunteers overseas to live and work. Returned Peace Corps volunteers relived their memories of time spent teaching children, traveling, and learning the language of the country.

Five speakers told stories about Iran, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Honduras, as visitors listened while eating North African and Asian cuisine. Together, the speakers expressed their satisfaction with serving in the Peace Corps, as well as the emotional roller coasters they experienced from being in a foreign country.

“So, how do we change the world?” asked speaker Katy Hansen, who served in Nigeria from 1967-1968.

Art and art history Professor Christopher Roy, who served in Burkina Faso from 1970-1972, said there was a simple answer: join the Peace Corps.

“When people ask me if they should join the Peace Corps,” Roy said. “I say, yes.”

President John F. Kennedy established the international service program on March 1, 1961. Since then, 200,000 Americans have served in 139 countries — 585 from the UI. There are currently 32 UI alumni serving.

“The Peace Corps helped me slow down and enjoy life at a slower pace,” said Meredith Mahy Gall, the UI Peace Corps campus representative. “I could live life through human interactions as opposed to through to-do lists.”

Gall lived 27 months in Botswana from 1995-1997, in which she taught English at a community school. Living in a culture so different from her own gave her the opportunity to see the world as a global citizen, she said.

But life as a volunteer wasn’t easy. Every day required adapting to conditions that were dramatically different from what she was used to, with even the most basic lifestyle practices taking different forms in the host country.

But Gall said those who are successful at adapting to their host countries are rewarded with the understanding of a new culture and the potential lifelong relationships it brings.

More than 30 years after his initial trip, McNabb still keeps in touch with the people he met in Thailand. On Friday he will embark on his 19th trip to the country with his 29-year-old son, then he will deliver art supplies for a children’s hospital in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Allowed to only bring two 40-pound bags on the plane, he will use them for art supplies, leaving the rest of his belongings for the overhead bin.

“I was very lucky in my Peace Corps placement,” McNabb said. “The experience had a profound impact on my profession in international education.”

To him, the experience gained from the Peace Corps is “an impossible debt ever to repay.”