The whole world’s a school

by Joe Carlson

Most people who have volunteered for the Peace Corps say the experience changed their lives, but not many can say it as sincerely as Kevin Burns does.
In addition to his eye-opening cultural exposure, Burns met his wife, Ada, while he was volunteering for the Peace Corps in a village six hours from Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. Burns left the United States as a bachelor and returned with a wife and two kids.
His wife managed a restaurant near the hotel in which he stayed when he visited the capital, Burns said. “We developed a friendship, and from there we started dating, and that was basically the story.”
The Peace Corps recruits and trains professional volunteers like Burns to help other nations meet their needs for expertise in fields such as forestry, agriculture and education. It is the smallest federally funded organization in the nation.
The Peace Corps is also dedicated to promoting better understanding both here and abroad between foreign and American cultures.
In fact, Burns said, this second goal is often more important and memorable than the technical training aspect.
“We focus a lot on the first goal to begin with, on the goal of trying to help this community with something technological through education or a new understanding of something,” Burns said. “But a lot of us find that it is … helping to build better understandings across cultural frontiers that is the more valuable thing.
“In the beginning of our service we’re motivated, excited and enthusiastic about going out to change the world, and it ends up in the long run that the world changes us,” Burns said.
Burns said he learned about the value of community and interpersonal relations during his three years of service as a Peace Corps volunteer in South America.
“Small talk always took priority over business,” Burns said. “The greetings and protocol of meeting and asking how things were going was very important before you could get into any kind of professional discussion about the farm.
“I wouldn’t have success in helping communities and farmers deal with their problems unless I also knew their families on a more intimate level,” Burns said.
This idea is also becoming more common in United States, he said.
“Intimate relationships between the client and the consumer (are) something that is being rejuvenated here in our society, but (they are) very important in the society of Paraguay.”
Meredith Cornett, the Peace Corps representative for the University, agreed that the technical goal is only part of the Peace Corps’ overall mission.
“The kind of cultural sharing between you and the community you’re working with is just as important, if not more so, as the technical exchange,” of professional assistance, Cornett said.
A lot of the countries around the world get images of the United States from Dallas’ reruns,” Cornett said.
Before Burns became interested in the Peace Corps, he had earned a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and Latin American Studies from the University, but he wanted to gain more direct experience with the peoples he was studying.
“I needed to put that academic study to practical use,” he said. Of the 6,633 volunteers currently working for the Peace Corps, 97 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree.
Burns traveled briefly to Colombia with the Minnesota Studies in International Development program in 1987, but he found that he wanted more prolonged contact.
“Traveling just didn’t quite satisfy my urge to learn more about other cultures,” Burns said.
So in 1991, he applied for the Peace Corps.
Cornett said after an applicant has been accepted, he or she will receive an invitation for a 27-month position in a foreign nation. Currently, the Peace Corps has volunteers in 93 nations around the world.
While the volunteer is abroad, the Peace Corps pays a monthly stipend roughly equivalent to a livable wage in the nation.
“It is intended to be enough to cover money for clothing, food, rent and water, if you happen to have running water,” Cornett said.
The first three months in a Peace Corps volunteer’s stay are spent in an intensive professional and cultural training program.
In the cross-cultural training, “you learn as much as you possibly can about the cultural norms of the nation where you will be living,” Cornett said. Volunteers also learn the language of the host nation during these first three months.
Cornett lived in Tranquilla, a village in the Republic of Panama, as a Peace Corps volunteer from 1993 to 1995. “I had had a little bit of Spanish before leaving but really felt that I became competent in Spanish in training,” Cornett said.
Instead of the 27 months of service that volunteers generally perform, Burns spent more than three years in Paraguay. The Peace Corps has a five-year limit on paid stays in foreign nations.
Burns spent his first two years in a remote village called Arroyo Moroti, which means “white creek” in English, teaching local farmers about subjects like crop diversification, cooperative farming, and top soil erosion.
In one instance, Burns said that he demonstrated the importance of having a layer of organic plant material over soil to local farmers.
“Farmers don’t go into the sun without being totally covered with a hat and long sleeves because the sun really burns them up,” Burns said. “We showed them that the same thing happens to the soil if it is left bare. The sun will actually burn the nutrients out of the soil.”
Burns said this was an example of what the Peace Corps does best.
“What Peace Corps is really good at doing is actually setting up models and demonstrations so that people can comprehend it for themselves,” Burns said.
University graduate student Melissa Bachman, who recently returned from two years with the Peace Corps in Thailand, said she helped improve school lunches for 3,900 students in 25 schools.
She said most schools had a lunch program already in place, but “some schools provided lunches that weren’t really all that good for you.”
Sometimes she would only have to speak with teachers, and other times she helped prepare and serve lunches. “I would try to get people a little more interested in nutrition,” Bachman said.
Bachman said that although the Peace Corps often involves hard work, sometimes showing interest is all it takes to make a difference.
“Getting praise from a visitor is sometimes a pretty powerful motivator,” she said.
Many Peace Corps volunteers say that the experience helped them focus their career objectives.
Bachman said that before she went to Thailand, she had a general interest in education. When she returned, she knew that she wanted to work in public health and enrolled in the University’s public health master’s program.
Cornett’s experience in Panama mirrored Bachman’s in Paraguay.
“I came out of college with a degree in biology and I could have gone a million different ways,” Cornett said. “My experience in Panama helped me focus on where my career was going to go and it helped me narrow down what I was going to study in graduate school.”
Although the majority of volunteers finish college before entering the program, recruitment efforts are usually directed at sophomores and juniors, Cornett said. This is because the application process takes between one and two years.
Currently, the Peace Corps has the greatest need for people who are skilled in specialized professions. Many of the skills they need volunteers for are taught on the St. Paul campus, such as forestry and agriculture, said Randy Merideth, a Peace Corps public affairs specialist.