Opinion Columns & Blogs

Peace Corps was the toughest job I ever loved

As our nation produces its Class of 2015 graduates, many are asking the same question my wife and I asked upon graduating, “What next?”

Forty-five years ago, we wanted our next step to make a difference, and we took up President John Kennedy’s call to serve and represent our country abroad and joined the Peace Corps. We were fortunate to have been sent to South Korea, a country that many only recalled from the Korean War history books and from its bellicose northern neighbor.

When we arrived, we learned that besides leaving our families behind, we would also leave behind our American names. Each new Peace Corps volunteer was given a Korean name. Besides shedding my native name, I also cut off my moustache. All Peace Corps members were required to shed any facial hair because beards and mustaches were a sign of old age and wisdom, which none of us had yet acquired.

After our three months of training, we were dispatched to a rural village in the mountains where we would teach English in a boys and girls middle school for the next two years. We arrived in a charming little town of 30,000, where there was an occasional city bus, but private cars were a rarity. Bicycles and walking were the main modes of transportation. The town teemed of smells, colors and sights that were exotic to us.

Being the only westerners in the entire area, we immediately became objects of curiosity and attracted attention and crowds of people wherever we walked. Eventually, the shopkeepers realized that we were good for business because when we bargained for a watermelon, a crowd of 50 onlookers soon gathered. Walking quietly in the cover of night became a welcome relief.

After our initial culture shock began to wear off, we started to appreciate traits in the Korean people that would take their country far — such as their love for education, family and hard work. All children attended school, which was compulsory through the eighth grade. After that, most children attended high school, then many went on to university.

We were both quite busy teaching five classes a day in classrooms brimming with 60 mostly eager students. In winter, the only heat in the building was a lone sawdust stove in the middle of the classroom. In the bitter winter months, we occasionally taught while sheets of ice formed on the inside walls. At that same time, the U.S. was in the midst of its first energy crisis during the OPEC oil embargo. Schools in the U.S. were closing when the inside temperature dipped below 55 degrees.

We befriended several of my students, some of whom we still maintain contact with. Two of my students needed heart operations that were not possible in Korea. Norma and I used our connections in Seoul to arrange for the two boys to travel to the U.S. some years later to have their operations. While one boy did not survive, the other became a Buddhist abbot. We have seen him several times over the decades.

Another boy — whom we nicknamed “The Admiral” — was always enthralled with the Navy. Two years ago, I received a call from a Korean navy midshipman off the Atlantic Coast who explained that he was calling on behalf of his admiral — my former student! The nickname had become reality. The admiral invited us to a celebration in the Baltimore Naval Yard where he would honor Korean War veterans for their sacrifices.

The U.S. Peace Corps ceased operations in Korea in 1981, but in the early 1990s, South Korea developed its own version of the Peace Corps and now sends young people to more than 60 countries for international aid.

The lesson of the Peace Corps for this young couple was that while countries have different customs, ways of thinking and international strategic priorities, we all share in laughter, relationships and wanting the best for our children and our countries. The other lesson was seeing how a debtor nation could transform into a creditor nation.

The Peace Corps is one of the best international aid programs of the modern era, one that sends legions of well-meaning and perhaps naive young Americans abroad to teach and, most important, to learn. One of the best compliments given to the Peace Corps in the 1960s came from China’s Mao Zedong who said that the greatest threat to communism in Africa is the U.S. Peace Corps.

Friendships and memories last a lifetime. Today’s graduates have a wealth of opportunities awaiting them. I urge you to take full advantage of them. Your life will be richer for it.