UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO / Fall 2008
[all abroad]
Peace Corps on Earth
There's good reason they call it the toughest job you'll ever love
by Ryan T. Blystone

Joseph Nevadomsky answered the call just months after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. David Martinez didn’t pack the right cold-weather jacket, but his work will give new generations a warm future. Marjorie Zhou’s passion for the English language turned into a desire to help children in a foreign country.

Three people with a unique experience, but one common thread: the Peace Corps. And its slogan, “the toughest job you’ll ever love,” continues to resonate. The organization has attracted 132 USD graduates and others associated with the institution, to its worldwide cause. In fact, right now, there are currently 10 USD graduates finishing up their service commitments in Belize, Bolivia, China, Ghana, Jamaica, Malawi, Moldova, Panama, Romania and Uganda.

Jenna McKnight is among a new crop of USD graduates in the Peace Corps. McKnight, 22, earned her International Relations degree in May. She left in July for Kyrgyz Republic, a Central Asia country she says is smaller than South Dakota, where it’s expected she’ll teach English in small villages.

“I’ve always wanted to contribute to something bigger than myself,” says McKnight, who has lived in New Zealand. “I’m ready to face the daily challenges, become a better person and help others in some capacity.”

The Peace Corps was an idea made into reality when President Kennedy asked his fellow Americans to devote some of their time to worldwide community service. Since 1961, nearly 200,000 Americans — from college students to retirees — have taken up the cause.

Nevadomsky, now an anthropology professor at California State University, Fullerton, is the first USD graduate to join the Peace Corps. He went to West Africa after earning a B.A. in English in 1964. “Initially, no one knew what to make of us, but generally, the reception by our host country nationals was very positive. People saw us for what we were and for what we did. Most of us were attached to schools or clinics or community outlets. We could do anything.”

Nevadomsky’s experience began a lifelong international résumé that includes academic and community service stints in India, Nigeria, Zimbabwe and Belize.

Martinez, 28, completed his B.A. in English in 2004. While at USD he was inspired by one of his USD instructors. “I remember him saying that as an educated person you’re in a position to use your skills abroad. It’s your obligation to do something about it.”

Martinez did. While he was unprepared for Eastern European winters, when he arrived in Romania in May 2005, he was eager to participate in a national project that plans to provide schools and education for young children by 2020. Martinez says his team had helped put together 35 schools in seven counties before he left in August 2007. Although getting children to go to school was initially a tough obstacle, Martinez used sports as a motivation tool. “We started baseball and softball teams, which were paid for by the Romanian government. The kids had never touched a ball,” he said. “But it helped keep kids in school. Attendance was up and their grades went up.”

Zhou, registrar for USD’s School of Law, spent three years in Thailand (1970-73). She worked in an English as a Foreign Language program at an upper teacher training college in Udorn, near Laos, the northeast and poorest part of the country. She extended her Peace Corps service for a year to work in Buriram, located on the Cambodia border.

“English was mandatory in the Thai educational system from fourth grade onward, so they needed lots of teachers,” she recalls. “We worked on texts that were used throughout the system. In addition to regular language classes, I also had the opportunity to go out to the schools and supervise my students in their student teaching.”

While Peace Corps participants bring their own individual strengths to the projects, they tend to leave with enhanced life skills that last a lifetime.

“My advice is to adapt, adjust and be careful of cultural shock,” Nevadomsky says. “It’s a good way to throw off the shackles of ethnocentrisms and stereotyping that entrap every person.”

For more information, go to www.peacecorps.gov.