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Peace Corps' challenge lures students abroad

When Charlie Wood '10 wants to withdraw his monthly paycheck, he leaves home at 4:30 a.m. and spends five hours traveling through southeastern Africa in the back of a pickup truck alongside 20 to 30 people, produce for a local market, a few chickens and a goat. Once he makes it to the closest city ­— Nampula — he stops at the bank, turns around and starts the whole process over again.

The lack of transportation was only one of the difficulties Wood faces as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching physics to eighth and 11th grade students in a rural village in Mozambique, he wrote in an e-mail to The Herald.

"The most challenging aspect of the Peace Corps so far has definitely been getting used to the way the school is organized — or not organized — to be precise," Wood wrote. "It wasn't until the second week that I got my schedule and kids started showing up."

Although Wood said he has to sweep dead insects out of his "really, really nice" home every morning and can expect many of his students to leave school before his classes begin because the teachers of other classes never showed up, he insisted that "(I)can't imagine anything else I'd rather be doing."

Part of the allure of the Peace Corps is its promise of complete integration into local culture, since volunteers live in the same conditions as their community members and see few other Americans, according to the organization's website. Jeanine Chiu '10 said the chance to see a developing nation at a "grassroots level" compelled her to sign up as a Peace Corps volunteer in southern Jordan, teaching English at a girls' school.

"While at Brown, I took Arabic classes and even studied abroad in Cairo for a year," she wrote in an e-mail to The Herald. "However, even during my study abroad experience, I felt that my knowledge was largely academic and that I had little idea what day-to-day life is really like."

Chiu was sworn in as a volunteer last month, so the real substance of her work has yet to begin, she wrote. But because she lives with a host family and fully participates in their daily routines, she has already begun the challenging yet rewarding transition to a new set of traditions and customs, she wrote.

"Integrating into a new culture and society is never easy," she wrote. "It takes time and patience and often includes a fair amount of confusion and self-doubt. Am I doing this wrong? Did I just offend someone? Is this or that culturally appropriate?"

Like Chiu and Wood, 19 other Brown undergraduate alums are currently serving abroad and dealing with their own set of challenges. "Each volunteer brings his own expectations, history, tradition," said Norm Tremblay, a recruiter and return volunteer.

The 21 Brown alums are serving in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America. Though each volunteer has a unique living situation and experience, all work in education, health, business or youth development.

Brown is currently the 25th largest feeder school for the Peace Corps among medium-sized universities and colleges, with 21 volunteers in the field.

Partly because of their "self-directed academic philosophy," Brown students have traditionally been successful applicants to the increasingly selective program, Tremblay said.

Wood offered a similar explanation for Brown's high ranking among Peace Corps feeder schools.

"Some of the core traits that I observed in the Brown community were resourcefulness, flexibility, independence, a willingness to work hard, social conscientiousness and a taste for adventure," he wrote. "These are also some of the most important qualities in successful volunteers, so it's not surprising that many of the people attracted to Brown are also drawn to the Peace Corps."

Part of the reason Jason Reeder '11 decided to apply to volunteer with the Peace Corps in the Middle East or North Africa was his conversation with Chiu, he said. Nearly 600 Brown graduates have completed Peace Corps terms, according to a recent press release, so there are plenty of alums available to share their experiences with potential applicants.

Reeder also found current Brown students on campus to be quite understanding of his decision to consider working for 27 months in minimal living conditions in exchange for only about $6,000 or $7,000.

"I don't feel like an outlier applying to Peace Corps. I feel very supported," Reeder said. "They don't ask why I would want to do something that is difficult and poorly financially compensated."

Reeder has not yet decided whether he wants to commit to the Peace Corps. But he said he sees it as one of few ways to find a meaningful, long-term experience abroad, even if it does involve a lot of personal sacrifice.

"It's kind of a masochism that makes me want to do it at all," he said.

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