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A Lifelong Peace Corps Dream Comes True

A 50-something woman had to wait two decades, but she’s realizing her goal of volunteering overseas

By Mike Dunphy | June 6, 2012

When I joined the Peace Corps after college, I assumed everyone would be like me: young, hippie-ish, and there to avoid student loan payments or a return to the parental basement. It was a revelation to learn that the actual makeup of that venerable institution included every slice of society: rich and poor, urbanite and farmer, conservative and liberal and, possibly most surprisingly, young and old.
 
Today, roughly 7 percent of the corps’ current crop of 9,095 are 50 and older, a percentage that seems to hold steady, as does the slight predominance of women (60 percent). Perhaps it’s the organization’s motto — “The toughest job you’ll ever love” — and images of mud huts that particularly discourages more older people from joining, but passionate members, like Joan Sara Romm, 61, a former shopkeeper from Ithaca, N.Y., now serving in Saint Lucia, have a different take.

“The older volunteer is more prepared for certain challenges,” she says. “Our survival resources come from life experiences, like solving intractible problems and overcoming challenges in our work life.” Still, she concedes, it’s not exactly a selling point to get running water just 10 days a month or to live in rugged rural conditions where no one speaks English.

So what motivates these 600 or so hardy souls? The slogans may have changed over the years (the current one: “Life is calling. How far will you go?”), but the rewards of public service, cultural exchange and sacrifice are little altered since President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961. For those who take up the call, it also offers a blank page to write a new life story.

Getting Into the Peace Corps

Growing up in Madison, Wis., during the 1960s, Tamara England-Zelenski was one of the millions of idealistic teenagers who was lured to the Peace Corps. “I was attracted by both the romance of travel and helping people,” she recalls. But she put that dream on hold and instead went to France in the summer of ’71 as an au pair. Once she got home, priorities shifted to college and career, then marriage and children.

It took two and a half decades, and a personal loss, to lead England into a recruiting office in Madison. She had just lost her husband to pancreatic cancer, after four rough years of surgeries and chemotherapy, recovery and setbacks. Caring for him had also meant taking a lot of time off from her job as a children’s book editor.

When England did return to work, she quickly realized that after that intense experience of caring for, then losing her husband, her job felt different and lacking in meaning. “I could no longer focus, or even read,” she says. “I was slowly crumbling inside.” She knew exactly what she needed: fresh air and a fresh start.

So England requested a second leave of absence and, at 57, resurrected her dream of joining the Peace Corps. In January 2010, she attended an information session at the University of Wisconsin. Sitting among the much younger audience, she felt a bit self-conscious about her age. Yet she was impressed by the recruiters’ passion. “They were pleased to see my interest,” she says, “and the Chicago rep emphasized the fact that the PC was looking for older volunteers.”

Later, while speaking with her local recruiter, her age did come up, but only in passing — in reference to whether she'd be comfortable leaving her three children on their own for two years. Because they were all in their 20s, she felt they were old enough to take care of themselves.

The corps’ lengthy application process, which involves extensive physical and psychologically screening, as well background and reference checks, face-to-face interviews and even essay-writing, was actually an asset in England’s case. “The fact that I'd have a year before I found out whether I'd be accepted or where I'd be sent was a good thing for the kids and me in preparing ourselves emotionally for yet another change,” she says. 

England’s biggest concern was whether her publishing skills would be translatable to an organization known for agricultural and medical projects. But when she learned that 40 percent of the Corps’ work today is in the field of education, she felt heartened. While completing the application, she enrolled in an English as a second language certification program to beef up her teaching credentials. 

"When the package finally arrived, I remember standing in my garage nervously holding it,” England says. “And I asked myself, ‘Would I be OK with Africa? With China? What about the Caucasus?’” She took a deep breath, opened the letter and saw her future in boldface type: Armenia.
 
Where in the World Is Nurnus, Armenia?
 
In June 2011, England and her 39 fellow volunteers from across the United States landed in Nurnus, a small town of 100 ramshackle buildings perched atop a gorge overlooking the Hrazdan River and surrounded by cherry, apricot, apple and walnut orchards.
 
The first order of business was meeting the host families; the second, pairing off and going to their houses, where the volunteers would be put up for the 11-week training period. “I had no sense of what to expect,” England remembers, “and I noticed this older guy, all alone and smoking up a storm. A little gruff and shy, he put my bags and me into the back of his beat-up Soviet-style van and off we drove.”

Though she was nervous the entire ride back to his home, her fears melted when she meet the rest of the Harutyunyan family — six people from three generations — who welcomed her with open arms.

England’s first big cultural eye-opener came with the birth of the gruff old man's newest grandson and the traditional celebratory feast. A day or two later, when she got home from her training, England found the baby’s father, Arman, sharpening a large knife next to a nervous goat.

“I had to make a quick decision about whether to watch,” she says. “I was a little appalled, but I also realized that as a meat eater, it would have been disingenuous of me to refuse to watch.”

She tried to emotionally detach herself from the slaughter by using her camera. “It was a way to be there but a little distanced from the action.” Nevertheless, that evening, she was welcomed as a member of the family when she joined them in raising toasts to the baby and dining on fresh goat stew.
 
Taking the Field

By September, England’s training (in teaching as well as language and culture) was complete, and she shipped out to Ijevan, which was not quite the quaint Anatevka-like village she’d envisioned. It was a bustling university city of 20,000, proud of its thick evergreen forests and reputation for handsome men and women. (According to legend, the citizens' exceptionally good-looking ancestors had been gathered together there 2,000 years ago by King Artavasdes I.)

Day one as an English teacher at Yerevan State University didn’t go as expected. Instead of an orientation session, England was ushered directly to a desolate classroom, with 16 fourth-year English majors in their early 20s, mostly from economically depressed areas, staring at her, with nothing resembling a lesson plan or a textbook in sight.

“I quickly hit on the idea of having the students interview me, and then I’d have them interview one another, with each reporting on her partner to the class,” England says. Not only did the activity get them talking, it represented the type of communicative lessons the Peace Corps trains teachers for, especially in societies where the traditional education system is often based on memorization, repetition and transcription.

Nearly a year later—and still textbook-free—England says her greatest struggle continues to be inspiring students to want to learn. Generations of Soviet oppression during the 20th century, which killed any hope for individualism or entrepreneurial spirit, has had the effect of stultifying intellectual curiosity and critical thinking, and spirited investigation can be hard to find. “Why hope for more when you won’t likely be able to get it or do it?” England asks.

So when a student does show enthusiasm for learning, it feels like a major success story. Senior Varsik Nerkararyan is one of England's biggest successes. It was her petitioning of the school that brought the Peace Corps volunteer there in the first place, and since England's arrival, Nerkararyan has worked with her teacher to establish English clubs and study groups and take steps toward pursuing her dream of a master’s degree in public policy through the U.S.-based Edmund S. Muskie Graduate Fellowship Program.

Halfway through her “tour,” England is still a little incredulous that she’s actually teaching English in Armenia. While eating dinner at a new friend’s home or when she’s greeted warmly by someone on the street, she has a moment of deep appreciation. “I got here thanks to the Peace Corps,” she says, but she also realizes that’s only part of her story. “The Peace Corps opens the door, but it is up to me to open hearts.”
 
Mike Dunphy served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Estonia, taught English in Europe and Turkey for 10 years, and now writes about arts, culture and travel from his home base in New York City.