For many alumni, the Peace Corps is a bold step into the world
- By Amanda Kenyon Waite
Maybe it’s the size and scale of Vermont or its agricultural heritage, but there’s something about the Green Mountains that entices citizens and students to answer the call of the Peace Corps. Professor Emeritus Frank Bryan might say Town Meeting culture and the practice of hashing out a community’s needs face to face plays a part. Whatever the reason, year after year, Vermont and UVM rank among the highest producers of Peace Corps volunteers. In the Corps’ 2013 ranking, Vermont was second among all states for residents who served, and UVM was fifth among like-sized colleges and universities. Since the Peace Corps’ inception in 1961, 210,000 Americans have served around the globe. Counted among the volunteers are 819 UVM alumni. Read on for a few of their stories—from those who served in the Peace Corps’ early years to those abroad today.
When the typhoon hit, the storm’s 220 mile-per-hour winds tore the thatched roof from Dwight Ovitt’s home by the beach. He had lived in Micronesia just four months as a volunteer in the Peace Corps when Ovitt ’67 found himself unsheltered in the storm, gripping the battered dwelling as the tidal surge carried him, the house, and two students out to sea. When the storm’s eye brought relative calm, the three made the swim back from the reef, where they had landed. At shore, they walked into the only structure still standing, the village’s church.
“Birak! Birak!” Those in the church who had watched the house float away had only one explanation for the three who returned. “Ghosts!”
Remarkably, the typhoon and the near-death experience didn’t cut Ovitt’s Peace Corps service short, but it did change the nature of it. When he arrived in Micronesia in the fall of 1967, freshly graduated with a degree in plant and soil science from UVM, the Vermonter, who’d grown up on a farm in Bakersfield, was assigned to serve in a familiar way—as an agriculture extension agent. But after the storm, when the waters receded, a new imperative arose, and Ovitt’s service was reborn. He would spend the next six months rebuilding the typhoon’s wreckage.
Ovitt couldn’t have predicted his service would take this turn. More unforeseeable was that two years later he left Micronesia with a child. Named guardian of a boy whose parents wanted for him the education and opportunity the states might provide, Ovitt brought Juan Babauta, sixteen, back to Vermont to the family farm.
The transition had its challenges—for the Ovitts, learning the cultural differences of their newest family member, and for Babauta, assimilating as a darker-skinned member of the homogenous, rural Vermont community. But, a bond was made, and Ovitt notes, “The first time I saw my own father cry was when Juan went off to college.” College brought those dreamed-of opportunities, which Babauta parlayed to a political career as a senator and governor of the Northern Mariana Islands and now as CEO of a hospital in Saipan.
Today, Ovitt lives in Hawaii, where his career as a social worker and as an outreach advocate for disabled residents has allowed him to continue to serve the immigrant Micronesian community, who have grown significantly on the islands over the years. Four and a half decades later, he’s still applying what the Peace Corps taught him about Micronesia, its languages, and the principles of multiculturalism.
Winter Heath ‘11 finishes her bucket shower after a day of sowing seeds. When they sprout, she’ll plant the three hundred young trees with a group of ten-year-olds from her village, members of the environmental club she’s running. The trees will help counteract the deforestation that plagues her area in the north of the West African nation, one kilometer away from the border with Burkina Faso. Wood is in strong demand there, where residents live with no electricity and no running water.
Heath, who graduated from UVM with a degree in environmental studies, applied for the Peace Corps with the benefit of having already visited two service sites, the first on a UVM study-abroad trip to Belize and the other after graduation, when she worked through Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms in Guatemala. Even though she joined the Corps with eyes more open than most, dealing with day-to-day life six thousand miles from her Littleton, New Hampshire, home takes two key attributes, she says: flexibility and a sense of humor.
Learning two languages at once, both French and Moba, the more prominent of the local dialects, is better approached with a willingness to laugh at yourself, says Heath, who had a background in Spanish when she arrived in Togo in late 2012. “At first I took it very seriously,” she admits, “but I honestly think that was hindering my experience here.” Once she was able to lighten up and laugh when she accidentally called someone “grandma,” the task became easier. And the people of her village were happy to laugh along with her. “Oh, it’s just the yobo (white person) trying to speak Moba,” they say.
Flexibility is crucial to surviving the emotional ebb and flow of life in a different culture, where obstacles to your mission can crop up at any time. Heath’s host family, also transplants to the village from the more modernized capital city Lomé, help settle her at the end of the day, when the five of them dig into a shared plate of pate (pronounced paht), a traditional Togolese corn-based meal. She calls them her “mini America” because of their shared difficulty—at times more acute than her own—in adjusting to evenings of candlelight, no TV, and no nightlife.
Heath sounds almost surprised when she admits how much she misses American food, a frequent topic of conversation when she gathers with other volunteers serving in the country. “Pizza and ice cream and those neon blue slushies you can get at the movie theater,” she laughs. “You don’t think it’s something you would really miss, and then you go without it for eight months, and you think, ‘Man, I want one of those slushies.’”
For the most part, though, she says that at eight months in, she’s stopped comparing her life in Togo to her life back at home. Looking ahead, she’s staying open to the possibility of extending her service in her village or applying to serve in the Peace Corps’ Response program, which sends returned volunteers back into the field where they’re needed most. She’s honest about the struggle that comes with giving up friends and family and a familiar life for two years of service, but she’s conscious of how this has already changed her life forever. “Things get annoying, I get frustrated, but it’s a fleeting thought. It’s so exciting to realize I’m in West Africa.”
It’s Saturday morning in March at Uncommon Grounds on Church Street, and Jed Glosenger ‘12 is thinking about the future. In three months, he’ll leave behind his computer job with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group and depart for Panama. While he can’t yet know what life will be like where he lands, today, in between swigs of the house blend, he lets his thoughts percolate, and a complex blend of hope, excitement, and trepidation emerges.
The trepidation comes only from the language hurdle. Although he’s been practicing his Spanish in advance, he knows how important immersion is to attaining true fluency, and hopes he finds ways to connect and communicate with his new neighbors quickly. But “friendliness is universal,” he says, a comforting thought that tempers the uneasiness.
He’s looking forward to the health benefits of life at a slower pace and more connection with nature. After graduating, he worked for the following summer and through harvest at a farm in Ferrisburg. He’s never felt healthier than when he was farming. “I live right now hunched over a computer the majority of the day, and it doesn’t feel like what humans are meant to do,” he says.
Glosenger, a biology major, knows he’ll be working in an agricultural capacity, but doesn’t yet know where he’ll be stationed within Panama. But he’s been prepped for the range of possibilities by Kelly Dolan, a master’s candidate in Community Development and Applied Economics and a Peace Corps recruiter based on campus. Dolan served first in Guatemala and then volunteered through Peace Corps Response in Panama, where she worked on sustainable agriculture. As a recruiter, a position which helps subsidize her master’s degree thanks to a partnership between UVM and the Peace Corps, Dolan reaches out to students and others in the surrounding community to educate those interested in serving. As a Saint Michael’s undergraduate, she was recruited through UVM’s Morrill Hall Peace Corps office herself in 2000.
Having also served in Panama, she’s been a significant resource for Glosenger, who, more than anything, is hoping to find a way to help others. Dolan’s advice? Be patient and take the time to build relationships. The first year is about “getting to know the community itself,” she explains. “Going to baptismal parties, building that confianza, or trust.”
“I understand that I’m not going to help people immediately with my Spanish skills,” Glosenger says. “It’ll be slow, but just by being easy going and friendly, eventually they’ll see I’m there to hopefully do good for both of us.”
UPDATE: Vermont Quarterly caught up with Glosenger in September on his first excursion from his new home in the remote village Cerro Cacicon to the closest Panamanian city, David. The trip, an hour-and-a-half hike followed by an hour-long bus ride, comes a little more than a month since Glosenger arrived in the mountain community of about 350 people. He’s subsisted on rice for three meals a day during that time, so enjoying some culinary variety is a priority on this trip. And, to add variety—and protein—to diets back in Cacicon, Glosenger will continue the project he’s already started there—digging ponds with a pick axe to raise fish.
Dominican Republic, 2003
It was another sunny, humid day in the DR, and Charles Kerchner was riding in the back of a pickup. Traveling with him from Nagua to Las Piezas were a group of his fellow villagers. They had just finished building a cacao fermenting box at a farmer’s house—the last one Kerchner would build as a Peace Corps volunteer. From the back of the maroon Toyota, Kerchner watched the coconut trees and cacao fields roll by and thought about his next steps. What would he do when he returned to the states? What would he miss? Wouldn’t it be great if he could make chocolate back at home?
Chocolate—and improving its post-harvest production—was a main focus of Kerchner’s time in the Corps. A driving question behind his work: “After you harvest, how do you improve the quality of the beans so that they’re worth more at market?” The answer, he says, is by properly fermenting and drying. Many chocolate farmers, Kerchner explains, were drying the beans on dirt floors, which would get muddy in the rain and mold the cacao. Building greenhouses protects the cacao from the elements and speeds the drying process, and proper fermenting boxes have a big effect on quality.
So when it was time to leave the Dominican, he dreamed of making a chocolate bar from the beans grown under the rainforest canopy where he lived. But that would mean ensuring the rainforest canopy would still be around in the years to come. His work as a master’s student at UVM, where he landed after the Peace Corps, was focused on forest conservation principles. His thesis explored ways of paying land owners to plant trees and conserve forests—providing an alternative economic incentive to grow the forest rather than cut it down.
During his thesis defense, Kerchner’s advisor, Joshua Farley, made a comment that connected Vermont, the DR, the effects of deforestation, and the need for conservation. “You know,” Farley said, “there’s a bird that flies from the northeast to the Dominican. They’ve actually caught the same bird in both places.” Immediately after the defense, Kerchner googled Bicknell’s thrush, a bird that summers on the peaks of the Green Mountains and Adirondacks and winters in the rainforest near his village in the Dominican. If its southern habitat continued to suffer deforestation, the bird would disappear from Camel’s Hump and Mount Mansfield.
As part of his UVM doctoral work, Kerchner identified a corridor of land in the Dominican Republic that might provide the greatest benefit for the thrush—“the biggest bang for your conservation buck,” he explains. And with funding from the private, public, and nonprofit sectors—in both the northeast and the DR—the land was purchased in April 2012, creating the first private reserve in the country: Reserva Privada Zorzal. While much of the reserve will remain wild, helping protect the thrush and other migratory songbirds, part of it is designated for use by local farmers to grow sustainable agroforestry crops—like high-value cacao.
Back in Vermont, Kerchner, who had dabbled in making chocolate in grad school, has gone pro. Kicked out of the home kitchen by his wife, he’s partnered with 3 Squares Cafe in Vergennes, Vermont, to make chocolate from beans grown from a cooperative of farmers in the area—including those he helped ten years ago in the Peace Corps. It’s available in dishes at 3 Squares, and the chocolate bars are sold at Henderson’s Cafe in the Davis Center, with hopes of expansion.
Visits back to the DR every other month keep Kerchner connected and involved with the farming process. He’s shaping the flavor of the bars from the very start. The result is a dark chocolate with a flavor that reminds you of its plant-based beginning—earthy, complex, and delicious. Just as satisfying: Kerchner is fulfilling his truck-ride daydream from ten years ago, his Peace Corps service still informing his life today. That enduring connection, Kerchner says, is the true goal of the Peace Corps.
This story appears in the Fall 2013 issue of Vermont Quarterly magazine. See the issue online at www.uvm.edu/vq, or request a print copy: (802) 656-2005, firstname.lastname@example.org.