CMU alumni share Peace Corps experience, student leaving in May
Inside a bamboo hut they called home, Erin and Scott Farver slept beneath a large mosquito net. Loud bangs began echoing throughout the village, and the couple was jolted awake.
Less than 25 feet outside the Central Michigan University alumni’s window was an entire Philippine village dancing and playing drums.
The village of San Jose de Buenavista was rehearsing for its annual drum competition as the Peace Corps volunteers attempted to spend their first night of service in the Philippines.
“It was crazy. We basically experienced everything in one night,” Erin said. “(Every day) was out of our comfort zone until about a year and a half in.”
For more than five decades worldwide, Peace Corps volunteers have traveled to 63 countries to immerse themselves in a culture abroad by working with natives to improve quality of life. The volunteer program is run by the United States government to provide assistance to undeveloped countries.
The upcoming application deadline is Jan. 1 to depart in summer 2017, according to the Peace Corps website. Those interested can apply at www.peacecorps.gov/apply.
Central Michigan University’s Mary Ellen Brandell Volunteer Center works with Peace Corps recruiters to set up presentations each year.
“Everything we promote is for the benefit of our citizens and people,” said Chloe Kosinski, an Imlay City junior and orgsync coordinator of the volunteer center. “We have had multiple people, including past volunteer center workers, that have gone to work for the Peace Corps.”
Kosinski said at least one student who had been involved in the volunteer center joins the Peace Corps each year.
Before applying, interested students are required to email a local recruiter their resume to expedite the process, said Vanessa Villa, Returned Peace Corps volunteer.
“Most importantly, while Peace Corps has ‘peace’ in its title, do not reduce the seriousness of your interactions, emails, or interviews,” Villa said. “It is a federal agency.”
Countries invite the Peace Corps program into their country and choose which sectors are the highest priority. Applicants are then accepted based on respective country desires, said Villa.
When applying, students list their top three country choices and their sector of choice. Sectors include education, health, environment, youth in development, agriculture and community economic development.
“Peace Corps can still place you where you are needed most if you allow them to choose your location based on your skills, experience and knowledge,” Villa said.
Villa said the careful selection of volunteers out of the 22,000 annual applications makes it “apparent” that the student selected has what it “takes to be a grassroots ambassador for the U.S.”
“Peace Corps experience comes with a known grit and resilience needed to overcome various cultural or contextual challenges, the end product is a persevering person with a dependable, optimistic, can-do attitude,” she said. “Against other potential employees or graduate/doctoral school applicants, many would choose what the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer has to offer their organization or program.”
Honeymooning with cultural training
Scott and Erin joined the Peace Corps two years after graduating from CMU. The couple was immediately put through rigorous culture and language training. Language classes lasted four hours a day. The remaining hours were spent with their host family, who taught them to function in a new society.
Once on-site, Scott co-taught in an elementary school offering support to teachers through workshops and training. Erin was paired with “Save the Children,” an international agency teaching adolescent reproductive and sexual health.
“Surprisingly, it was easier to teach in a different language,” Erin said. “It was less uncomfortable to say certain words in a different language than your own. Even the kids would ask uncomfortable questions in English because it was more comfortable (for them).”
The couple had two host families in their 27 months of service. The first family, that they three months of training with spoke little English while the couple spoke little Kinaray-a — the language common in San Jose de Buenavista.
It took roughly a year to build trusting relationships with the native Filipinos.
One night Erin was practicing a sentence involving the word 'lizard' at dinner when two lizards leaped off the ceiling, landing on her head.
One lizard jumped off. Erin’s host sister untangled the second lizard off her head.
“(The service) needed to be two years. We needed to earn their trust and learn the community to be able to get any work done and help. Then we had friends.” she said. “If it had just been one year, we couldn’t have done that and I would have felt worthless.”
Erin said if there’s one thing she’s absolutely sure about, it’s that she “got more than (she) ever gave” in the Peace Corps.
“The Peace Corps is a funny thing. I would say make sure you’re not going to save the world,” Scott said. “I feel like we had some of that mindset, where we are going to help because they need us. After the first day we realized that wasn’t how it goes. They know how to do their stuff and let us be there. It was really humbling.”
Embarking on a Journey
Tony Guizar, a senior from Port Huron, will be departing to Togo in West Africa on May 27, 2017. The environmental studies major will be working in the sustainability sector, working on food security and sustainable agriculture.
While in Togo, he will work to increase soil fertility, promoting sustainable growth. Guizar will also focus on teaching environmental education and awareness by teaching techniques that improve overall agricultural practices.
He also plans to educate young students on gender equality and other social issues.
“As the world faces problems such as climate change and population growth, it is becoming increasingly more important that everything we do is done in a way that protects our earth, while also making sure that there is enough food,” he said. “Sustainable agriculture is a step in the right direction.”
Guizar has done mission trips in Mexico and Indiana. During his time in Mexico, he helped a community "who literally lived in a trash dump" right outside of Puerto Vallarta. He helped build schools, distributed donated hygiene products and foods, as well as facilitated bible schools. The program was called "Children of the Dump."
"These trips helped prepare me by giving an experience that opened my eyes to a life of service and increasing the standard of living for others," he said. "Not only did I become passionate about helping and teaching others, I learned I'm interested in learning from other cultures just as much as I am sharing my own."
Guizar said his Mexico and Indiana mission trips will be different than his upcoming service in the Peace Corps - but nevertheless, he would not have pursued it without the influence of the mission trips, he said.
He isn’t worried about putting off starting his career - in fact, he said the two years of service will benefit it. He plans on applying to graduate schools, and showing commitment like the Peace Corps will look good on resumes, he said.
“I’m hoping to show people I work with there from Togo a better way to live sustainable, and give them a bigger perspective of the world,” he said. “I really want to learn about their culture and take something away from it to. Culture sharing is big for me.”
Mark Hanss graduated from CMU in 2012 with a major in biomedical sciences and Spanish. He spent a year working to pay off some student debt before his service began in June 2013.
Hanss spent the next two years in Togo as a community health worker, an expedient agent for the Togo Ministry of Health.
He said there aren’t many ways to prepare to the Peace Corps. He turned to the traditional coping mechanism of food — he ate “all the good food” he knew he’d miss. Hanss said the hardest part of training was the 40 hours of lectures a week he was required to take. When he moved in with his first host family, they cooked bland, unseasoned food until he could adjust and not get sick.
“The (10 weeks of) training they give you prepares you the best they can. That is language training because you have to learn one languages up to the level of intermediate before being able to go to your service site,” Hanss said. “You get technical and cultural training training. I learned the computers I’d work with. I learned about the language, the customs, traditions and politics I’d run into.”
When Hanns’s service was ending, he was planning on returning the dog he’d purchased to its breeder when a student he tutored asked if Hanns would give it to him instead.
“He considered me a close friend,” he said. “He said he wanted to keep the dog because they had become close, and because the dog represented me in a small way.”
Hanns said giving the dog to the student was a comfort - both because the dog would have a good home, and it made him realize the “hard to see” impact he had within two years.
“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the most fulfilling,” Hanns said. “I think it lives up to the tagline ‘the hardest job you’ll ever love.’ I loved it, hated it and would do it over again in a heartbeat.”