Cobbers in the Peace Corps
By Sheldon Green
When President John F. Kennedy challenged Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country,” eager college graduates responded by joining his newly created Peace Corps.
Since 1961, a large number of them – 172 by the Peace Corps’ count – have been Cobbers.
“I think it’s because of Concordia’s emphasis on service. It influences us. We think we should somehow make a contribution,” says former volunteer Dan Murray ’87, a teacher in Eden Prairie, Minn.
Murray joined the Peace Corps after graduating with a degree in German and political science. He taught English and lived in a tiny plywood hut on a beach in the Marshall Islands for two years.
Like other Cobbers, Murray saw the Peace Corps as a way to combine his interest in languages and other cultures while also seeing some of the world. That curiosity has spanned the decades.
There are two Cobbers in active Peace Corps service, and one recently returned volunteer. They, as others before them, first observed the world as students and were stimulated by the opportunity to serve others abroad.
Kera Halvorson ’09 is a community health worker in Turkmenistan, teaching prenatal health to village women and English to high school students. After graduating with a global studies degree, Catherina Johnson ’10 joined the Peace Corps. She now teaches English to grade school children in Ukraine.
Michele Hockett ’10 spent eight months teaching English in Kazakhstan before the U.S. government brought her and other volunteers home in a “perfect storm” of security and personal safety issues.
“I understand perfectly why our program was pulled, but I wasn’t ready to leave,” she says. Hockett hopes to earn a master’s degree in international development and rejoin the Peace Corps.
Understanding the World
Kennedy’s articulation of a corps of volunteers that would promote world peace and friendship while providing education and technical expertise was an immediate sensation that resounded through America during the 1960 campaign. By the time of his inauguration, 25,000 Americans had asked to join, most of them idealistic, young college graduates. JFK hoped serving in the Peace Corps would help them gain an enlightened worldview while they spread their inherent sense of optimism with the citizens of other countries.
Political science professor Dr. Max Richardson remembers watching Kennedy’s inauguration on television and thinking, “That’s for me. I was completely captivated by his ‘ask not’ challenge.”
Richardson applied to the Peace Corps during his senior year at Texas Tech University in 1966 and, with the blessing of his local draft board, was accepted as a volunteer. He was sent with 125 others to teach English in Libya.
Richardson believes Peace Corps service provides volunteers with many valuable insights. While volunteers may initially join to serve abroad, they return home with more information about themselves and their own culture.
“There is something both awful and wonderful about traveling halfway around the world, being plopped down in the middle of a culture completely different from your own, assuming the role of ‘outsider’ and ‘misfit,’ and examining yourself, your country and your culture from that vantage point,” Richardson says. “I never saw myself, my country and our culture the same again.”
Two former students credit Richardson with influencing their decision to become volunteers. Laura (Hunter) and Jon Halvorson, both 1998 graduates, served in Nicaragua from 2001 to 2003.
“Through conversations with Max and experiencing how Concordia encourages service to others, Jon and I decided the Peace Corps was a good fit for us,” says Laura Halvorson. “We share a love of culture and languages, and a desire to serve abroad, so we volunteered.”
Jon Halvorson worked in agriculture, helping farmers with soil and water conservation efforts. Laura Halvorson taught environmental courses and trained teachers.
Peace Corps service also helped the Halvorsons learn lessons about themselves.
“Both of us changed how we view the world,” Laura Halvorson says. “Our experience keeps us searching for ways we can be more responsible members of the global community by how we live out our lives.”
Jon Halvorson, a Lutheran pastor at Metigoshe Ministries, a summer camp and retreat center near Bottineau, N.D., developed strong community organizing skills by working in a poor, rural village. “I discovered I liked working with people to help them make positive changes in their lives,” he says.
Study Abroad Sets the Stage
Many Cobbers find their calling to the Peace Corps during a study abroad trip.
Johnson spent a semester in India studying social justice issues but grew frustrated by not being able to be more hands on in helping people.
“What appeals to me about the Peace Corps is that you live in the community you serve, and you’re able to dig deeper into it,” says Johnson. “Teaching has helped me see things through Ukrainian eyes.”
Largely because of what he experienced in India, Jeremy Lee ’98 reconsidered his career options, joined the Peace Corps and served in Ecuador as a health educator. He’s proud that a hostel he helped open is still operating.
As a director of service-learning for a Denver university, Lee annually leads students on missions to Ethiopia where he helps future health professionals do health screenings and teach basic care to people living in rural areas.
It was the opportunity to study abroad that most influenced Kera Halvorson to enroll at Concordia, and she subsequently was able to travel to South Africa, Jamaica, Egypt and Nicaragua.
“Certainly, all of my abroad travels helped prepare me for the Peace Corps,” she says. “South Africa and Nicaragua especially taught me to look deeply into the face of poverty and disease and not turn away.”
She also worked with a sociology department mentor interviewing Muslims in Fargo-Moorhead about their faith. That experience helps her in Turkmenistan, a predominantly Muslim country.
“I learned how to be a respectful guest not only cross culturally but religiously as well,” she says. “Our research taught me the power of being patient and building rapport with people. If you do these things first, everything will be easy after that.”
When Richardson returned from Libya, he discovered yet another insight shared by many of his fellow volunteers. Sent into the world to educate, Peace Corps volunteers find education.
“You recognize, at some point during your experience, that you are getting more out of this than the people you came to help,” he says. “If we believed going in that we could make a big difference in the lives of our host population, we typically left knowing that we gained personally far more than those folks we sought to help.”
Photos: Sheldon Green/Submitted