K-Staters reflect on their experiences in Peace Corps

K-Staters reflect on their experiences in Peace Corps

For Steven Graham, joining the Peace Corps was a lot like going away to college.

“It is very similar to coming to this university, especially if you are coming from a small town,” Graham, assistant to the dean of the College of Agriculture and assistant to the director of K-State Research and Extension, said. “You’re going to a new place. It’s a foreign culture. You don’t know what to do. You don’t know people. You don’t know where things are.”

The Peace Corps in an international service organization that currently has 7,209 volunteers and trainees serving in 65 countries. To join the Peace Corps, volunteers must be U.S. citizens over the age of 18. Ninety percent of volunteer positions also require a bachelor’s degree.

‘New and exciting’

Graham was in the Peace Corps from 1973-76. During that time, he built cement silos and grain dryers in Benin, a country in West Africa.

“I grew up in the time of John F. Kennedy, and he’s the president who created the Peace Corps,” Graham said. “So, the Peace Corps was very new and exciting,”

The Peace Corps often looks for graduates with experience in agriculture, natural resource management and health, like 2010 alumni Emily Kraus. Kraus graduated with her MS in entomology, and then spent two years in the West Africa country of Senegal as an agricultural extension agent.

“I lived in a mud and grass hut,” Kraus said. “It kept me safe. The doors and windows were made from sheet metal. There was no electricity or plumbing.”

Kraus’ hut was located within the compound of a large extended family that helped teach her the language and customs of Senegal. She also learned the local language of Wolof in the Peace Corps training center and training village.

“It was an amazing experience,” Kraus said. “It is only going to improve your abilities of communication or getting your next job. It is an experience like nothing else.”

Deeper appreciation

Gloria Freeland, assistant professor and internship coordinator for the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications, also served in the Peace Corps. She traveled to Ecuador after she graduated from K-State in 1975, and spent two years here.

“I learned a deeper appreciation for other cultures,” Freeland said. “I learned a little bit about what it is like to be a minority, because everywhere I went I was the tall, white-skinned ‘gringa.’”

Freeland said her Peace Corps experience increased her respect for people new to the U.S.

“I learned to appreciate people who came to our country, learned our language and how difficult it is,” Freeland said. “I really admire our graduate students who come here and teach really difficult subjects like math and physics in English when it is not their native tongue.”

Freeland lived in an apartment near the ocean with another volunteer. She had to boil her drinking water and wash her clothes by hand.

“We waste a lot of resources here,” Freeland said. “Whereas other people don’t have enough to drink or have to wash their clothes in dirty streams.”

In Ecuador, she worked to educate the local population on health and nutrition while integrating a rural development program.

“I wanted to change the world,” Freeland said. “I was idealistic. I wanted to learn about other cultures and get out of my comfort zone.”

‘Relax, live, do your job’

While in Benin, Graham lived in a cement house with a tin roof and no running water.

“It’s an easy way to go abroad your first time and live,” Graham said. “It’s going to train you well. You’re part of a system that is going to take your health and welfare extremely seriously. That allows you to relax, live, do your job and learn about international living and international travel.”

Like Kraus and Graham, 46 percent of Peace Corps volunteers serve in Africa. The minimum term a volunteer can serve is 27 months, broken down into three months of training and two years serving.

Graham said the number of recruits from K-State has grown in the last few years to about 18-20 volunteers per year. He hopes to have a part-time Peace Corp recruiter based on campus soon, Graham said.

Freeland said she is thankful for the lessons the Peace Corps taught her.

“I
never regretted it,” Freeland said. “It made me a better person.”