An assembly of service-minded individuals from Mines has pledged muscle and mind to countries cooperating with the Peace Corps over the last half-century. As the 50th anniversary of the organization recently passed, we asked some of those volunteers why they went, what they did, and how the experience has influenced their professional and personal journeys.
At 2 a.m. on October 14, 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy stood on the University of Michigan campus and floated an unexpected idea to the 5,000 students gathered before him: Who would be willing to devote two years of their lives to help people in the developing world have a better existence?
Within weeks, the off-the-cuff challenge had spawned a groundswell of support for a peace-promoting volunteer corps, with thousands of students signing a petition saying not only that they liked the idea, but also that they were ready to enlist. Despite skeptics who called it a ‘juvenile experiment’ and thought it would be a bastion for draft dodgers, Kennedy moved swiftly, signing an executive order 39 days after taking office to establish a Peace Corps to meet urgent needs for skilled manpower around the world.
More than 50 years and 200,000 volunteers later, Colorado School of Mines alumni and staff remember not so much what they brought to their host countries, but what they took away.
“Every volunteer will tell you they got more than they gave,” says Mines CCIT information and technology professional David Frossard, who completed two Peace Corps assignments and has done more than 60 presentations touting the rewards. “It is a transformative experience that shakes you out of your narrow worldview and makes you a citizen of the world. It completely changed my life.”
Frossard and three others from the Mines community shared their stories on the following pages.
Fish farmer to cultural anthropologist
David Frossard was a reporter at a small Colorado newspaper in the 1980s when memories of the idyllic Peace Corps TV ads he had seen as a kid began to pop into his head, luring him to a different life.
“They showed this guy with a woven basket full of fish walking through narrow rice terraces,” he recalls. He quit his job, sold his belongings, and signed up, offering to ‘go anywhere and do anything.’ As luck would have it, he was assigned to the very location where those ads were shot, helping villagers in the Ifugao Province in the Philippines establish tilapia ponds, improve their water system and build a library.
His experience from 1985 to 1987 opened his eyes not only to the successes of international development work, but also to the unmitigated failures. Determined to better understand what makes the difference, he went to the University of California, Irvine, to earn a PhD in anthropology with a focus on development. That research ultimately led him back to the same village in the Philippines (where he wed Ginny Lee, a Mines computer support specialist, CCIT, in a three-day tribal ceremony complete with pig sacrifices) and on to Mines, where he taught sustainable community development.
Mines students are very good on the technology side, he notes; on the cultural side, sometimes not so much. This makes Peace Corps an ideal fit for Mines grads, he argues. They have valuable skills to offer and it complements their education well.
By 2003, the pull of the Peace Corps set in again for Frossard, and the couple applied. Their assignment: aquaculture in Zambia. “I was vastly less naive this time around,” Frossard says. “We tried not to do for them, but with them.”
During their two years in northwest Zambia, they lived in a mud hut crafted from abandoned termite mounds and rode their mountain bikes as much as 100 miles round-trip to visit surrounding villages. They worked with farmers in dozens of communities, teaching them how to dig tilapia ponds, incorporate them into their existing farms (using garden waste as fish food and pond muck as vegetable fertilizer), and market them. “It was a relatively new activity that didn’t have gender assigned to it, so the whole family could be a part of it,” says Lee.
It also enabled residents to boost their income exponentially. “When one of our farmers harvested 80 kg of fish from one fish pond, he tripled his annual income in one day,” Frossard says, adding that now this same farmer has nine ponds.
Lasting impact, 50 years later
Mines internal auditor Marilyn North was still in high school when Kennedy unveiled the Peace Corps in a televised speech.
She knew immediately it was what she wanted to do. In June 1967, she graduated from Colorado State University with a degree in history and French. Two months later, at the age of 22, she moved to the tiny island of Moch in Micronesia, a half-mile long, one-quarter-mile wide and a population of 500. After learning the island language of Mortlockese, she settled into a wooden, two-room house on stilts and set out to, as she puts it, ‘save the world.’
“For the first six months, I thought I knew how everything should be, but then I realized, ‘these people are doing just fine,'” she recalls. “They just wanted to learn English.” During her two years in Micronesia, she taught English to roughly 150 K-8 children, who had rarely encountered a Westerner.
Now 66, her career may have shifted to an entirely different field, but she says her experience of living contentedly with less has served her well, both personally and professionally. “I am always looking at operational efficiencies,” she says.
Her advice for Mines grads considering joining up? Go for it.
“The Mines experience provides students with incredible skills,” North asserts. “Combine that with the Peace Corps experience, and you can really offer the world a wonderful gift.”
A new identity
When Julia Ventker Ouattara ’02, MS ’03 first stepped foot on the West African soil of Mali in 2005, it was the watershed that would lead to a new identity, a husband and a changed view of what ‘quality of life’ means.
“The quality of life in Mali, as defined by aid organizations, is not very high, but early on I sensed a lot more happiness there than I did here,” says Ouattara, who joined the Peace Corps after graduating with a master’s degree in environmental science and engineering from Mines, and working a brief, unfulfilling stint as a consultant.
Once she arrived in the rural village of Missirikoro as a water sanitation volunteer, she spoke only the local language of Bambara, changed her name to Yiritio, or ‘tree woman’ (a name given to her by her host family), and immersed herself in the culture. “I wanted to live like they lived and really try to understand their lives,” she says. “That’s the point of the Peace Corps. It is not to go in and impart all this knowledge that no one can relate to. It is to go in and learn what they need and will actually use after you are gone.”
The region was rife with waterborne diseases and malnutrition, with 42 percent of children dying before the age of 5. The drinking wells had no covers and often became fouled with dirt and even dead animals. Babies survived on only flour and water. Armed with a self-starter mentality she attributes to her Mines education, she got to work helping villagers design and build 15 concrete well aprons and trap doors to keep out pollutants. She also started an infant nutrition program and launched a science-based radio broadcast.
On December 26, 2006, Julia married her neighbor, Yaya Ouattara, before 100 surprised, but mostly accepting villagers, including Yaya’s 17 siblings. After staying a third year to teach preschool, she returned to Colorado with her husband, had a son (now 2) and decided to go back to school. Her goal now: to teach high school chemistry.
“The Peace Corps taught me how much I love teaching and how important family is to me,” she says. “I love science, but I can’t go back to those cubicle walls and long hours.”
A two-for-one deal
For John Simpson ’99, whose degree is in civil engineering, the Peace Corps presented an opportunity to simultaneously quench his wanderlust and get a master’s degree. As an early participant in the Peace Corps Master’s International program, he was able to attend Michigan Technological University (the only university to offer the program at the time) for one year of technical training and social anthropology, and then spend two years in Honduras. Today, more than 80 universities participate in the program.
Simpson’s assignment plucked him from his small town of Durango, Colo., and took him to the sweltering metropolis of Choluteca, Honduras, where, unlike typical rural Peace Corps assignments, he had an apartment with air conditioning and cable TV to come home to at night. During the days, he would ride the bus or hitchhike into villages, offering his hydrology expertise to well-intentioned international aid volunteers who lacked an engineering background.
“Sometimes people in other fields who go into the Peace Corps end up doing projects that the public hasn’t really bought into. But if you are an engineer doing a technical project, you can go in and be highly effective, helping with projects that they really want,” he says. “I think they need engineers more than any other profession.” In all, he worked on 30 projects, from minor repairs to entire systems. By far the greatest challenge was transporting construction material into rugged, mountainous building sites with no road access.
On one six-month water system project, village kids loaded buckets with sand and gravel from the river and carried them to the top of a hill to mix concrete for a water tank. Then the whole community pitched in to dig a 2-mile trench and install pipes to feed new taps in 150 homes. “To stand outside with some of the old-timers who had been there 60 years and see how happy they were when they turned on that water, it was really rewarding,” Simpson recalls.
He walked away not only with a degree and a shot at a good government job, but also fluent in Spanish and a new sense of ingenuity. He now works as a civil engineer for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“Things are not going to be exactly what you think when you are out in the field, and sometimes you just have to go with the flow and make it work,” he says, crediting the Peace Corps for teaching him how. “You will not get an experience like this immediately out of college anywhere else.”
Mines alumni and staff have joined more than 200,000 other Peace Corps volunteers on assignments over the last 50 years. Read about a few of them.