FEATURE — Fall 2005
   

 
An aspiring physician, Cristopher Gualberto (back row), A.B. ’02, was a public health educator in Kiang Karantaba, the Gambia. Gualberto is pictured with his host father, Karamo Kambi (left), a carpenter, and children from the village.

Bearers of Peace

Young alumni share their transformative experiences of serving in the Peace Corps.

By Betsy Rogers

Rob Chamberlin never planned to be a doctor. But when he graduated from Washington University in 1999 with a mechanical engineering degree, an M.B.A., and a new zeal for social justice, he went to Haiti with the Peace Corps, and there he met a physician operating a clinic in the central mountains. The encounter changed his future. “He helped me understand,” Chamberlin says, “how being a doctor, providing care, and advocating for patients is a great way to live out justice.”

Helping children with health and education matters is of major import to those in the Peace Corps; above is a child from Ankazobe, Madagascar, where Katherine Brickson (below) is serving.
Aspiring to a career in international aid work, Katherine Brickson (left), A.B. ’01 (African and Afro-American studies), serves as a health educator in Ankazobe, Madagascar.

This fall, Chamberlin has begun medical studies at Boston University.

Personal transformation is a common theme among University alumni who have served in the Peace Corps. “This experience has been unique and eye-opening in every way,” says Elitza Barzakova, A.B. ’02 (French and international studies), who is just finishing two years in Mali, West Africa. “It has changed my views of the world and has given me a much deeper understanding of just how different one culture can be from another.”

Katherine Brickson, A.B. ’01 (African and Afro-American studies), would agree. “My Peace Corps experience has been immeasurably important to me,” she says. It has demonstrated that she is indeed capable and adventurous, adaptable and flexible. “Living abroad in the Peace Corps setting has shown me that I can live under almost any circumstances,” she adds. These were invaluable discoveries for Brickson, who aspires to a career in international aid work.

For Rebecca Kvam, A.B. ’01, public service and her Peace Corps experience have led to Indiana University’s Kelly School of Business to hone management skills for a career helping businesses in developing nations. She’s especially interested in Bulgaria, where the Peace Corps stationed her from March 2003 to December 2004.

While studying anthropology and political science as an undergraduate, Rebecca Kvam, A.B. ’01, discovered a keen interest in other cultures. She taught English in Petrich, Bulgaria, a town of 30,000, during her Peace Corps assignment.

Unlike Chamberlin, Cristopher Gualberto, A.B. ’02, had planned a medical career before he left for his assignment in Kiang Karantaba, a Gambian village. He majored in philosophy, minored in physics, and completed a pre-med curriculum. Still, he considers his Peace Corps experience a watershed. “It provided an excellent opportunity for thought: about one’s place in the world, one’s ethical duty, the meaning of culture, and upon the U.S. itself, its mission in the world,” he muses. “It really opens you up to what it means to be human.”

Gualberto, now back home in Quincy, Illinois, and applying to medical school, said his Washington University experience was formative in shaping his commitment to service. “I was really involved in service projects at the University,” he says. “Washington University is a wonderful environment, with many opportunities for community service.”

Starting medical school this fall, Rob Chamberlin (center), B.S. ’99, M.B.A. ’99, spent his Peace Corps service in Vialet, Haiti, where he learned “how being a doctor, providing care, and advocating for patients is a great way to live out justice.”

Chamberlin, too, credits the University with awakening his passion for service. He became involved through the Campus Y and Catholic Student Center. Alternative Spring Breaks took him to West Virginia, where he helped build a Habitat for Humanity house, and to the Arizona-Mexico border, leading an environmental restoration team. “In talking with other students and reflecting on these experiences,” he observes, “I moved from seeing them as charity to understanding them as justice issues.”

Studying anthropology and political science at the University, Kvam discovered that she had a keen interest in other cultures and travel. She spent her junior year in London and taught English for a year in South Korea. “I enjoyed it, but I saw that I would only be a foreigner,” she says. “I wanted to learn more about the people. I’d been researching the Peace Corps, and I believe it’s one of the organization’s great benefits—to really immerse us in the culture and the community.”

“This experience has been … eye-opening in every way,” says Elitza Barzakova. “It has changed my views of the world and has given me a much deeper understanding of just how different one culture can be from another.”

Peace Corps volunteers can serve in any of 138 countries across the globe, working in education, health, the environment, business, or agriculture. Brickson is a health educator in Ankazobe, Madagascar. She works with pregnant women, teaching them about family planning, nutrition, vaccination schedules for their children, and prenatal care. She has also given lessons at the community’s schools about AIDS and HIV prevention.

Elitza Barzakova (right), A.B. ’02 (French and international studies), is serving in Mali, West Africa, as a Small Enterprise Development volunteer. Here she works with young girls during a girls’ leadership camp.

Gualberto, too, was a public health educator. “I worked a lot on HIV/AIDS education projects for various villages,” he explains. He worked in a malaria clinic and started a small medical library there. He taught health in the schools and started a small school library as well.

Kvam served in Petrich, Bulgaria, teaching English in this town of 30,000. She also spotted a need for a fitness center at the school and wrote a proposal requesting funding. To raise the $2,000 local match, she collected Bulgarian recipes, translated them into English, compiled them into a cookbook, and sold them to family and friends. The project raised the needed $2,000, and a $5,500 U.S. government grant funded the balance. In a country where after-school activities are rare, the center provides a welcome place for youngsters to play and exercise.

Katherine Brickson trained in the village of Ampanarivo in Madagascar. Peace Corps volunteers share living conditions with those they serve.

Chamberlin spent his Peace Corps years in Vialet, about 30 miles—and “a jam-packed, three-hour bus ride”—west of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. The Peace Corps assigned him to work with Kes Popilé, a micro-financing organization similar to a credit union. Kes Popilé provides capital to help grow small businesses.

“We lent money, especially to ‘market ladies,’” Chamberlin explains. Market ladies buy goods in the city and resell them in the countryside on market day. Kes Popilé might start a client out with a $25 loan, increasing the amount over time if she is successful until her business can sustain itself. Putting his M.B.A. skills to work, Chamberlin trained Haitians in keeping accounts, conducting audits, and developing criteria for loan recipients and loan amounts.

Like Chamberlin, Barzakova is sharing business skills as a Small Enterprise Development volunteer. She works with the Chambre de Métiers, a regional government institution in Mali that provides support to artisans—bakers, weavers, sculptors, photographers. “I help the Chambre with its organization and promotion, and I work individually with the artisans, teaching them the business skills they need to be competitive,” she says. She has taught her Malian coworkers computer skills they can use to streamline the office and to help artisans with needs like business cards and newsletters. And she helps individual artisans with accounting, marketing, and management.

Elitza Barzakova (second from left) is in Ségou, Mali, a city of more than 100,000, teaching various business skills to local artisans—bakers, weavers, sculptors, and photographers.

The challenges are sometimes startling. Helping a craftsman—who may be completely illiterate—with accounting, for instance, “can mean that I will have to teach him to write numbers and then to fill out an accounting sheet, designed specifically for illiterate people, by using images and numbers,” Barzakova explains.

There are personal challenges as well. For Chamberlin, the first year was a struggle. “I was lonely; I missed my Washington University friends; and I was trying to learn the language,” he recalls. Still, he fell in love with the Haitians. “It’s humbling how welcoming they are,” he says. “They know that they’re poor, and they suffer, yet they don’t let that define them. They still maintain a great spirit and a natural gift for celebration, dancing, and laughter.”

Brickson, too, acknowledges frustrations and obstacles. “But when you get past them,” she adds, “and get a glimpse of, ‘Oh this is what I’m here for,’ it’s wonderful. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.”

Volunteers share living conditions with the people they serve. Barzakova has been in Ségou, a city of more than 100,000, where markets and restaurants offer diverse and nutritious foods. She’s had electricity, running water, and even cell phone service—along with crushing year-round heat. She has a cat to keep her company and a mountain bike for transportation.

Cris Gualberto took this photo of Mariama and her daughter in the village of Pakalinding, the Gambia. Gualberto says he was welcomed very warmly into the community by his host family and his fellow workers in the clinic.

Brickson says Ankazobe is rural and rustic, though some houses, including hers, have electricity. They do not have running water, but she has a communal pump in her yard, providing her with water and a steady stream of visitors during its hours of operation. Homes generally are built by hand of sticks, mud, and thatch.

Gualberto was in the Gambia’s Kiang West National Park area and lived amidst grassy plains and patches of forest, close to the River Gambia. “It’s a very beautiful area,” he says. He stayed with the family of a carpenter named Karamo Kambi in a mud-brick compound with corrugated metal roofing. A tall mango tree shades a small courtyard in front. “It is a really idyllic place,” Gualberto says. “I was welcomed very warmly into the community by my family and my fellow workers in the clinic.” He became especially close to two Kambi sons, Dawda and Omar; a WU frisbee sailed often across their yard.

In Bulgaria, Kvam lived in a beautiful mountainous region, occupying the second floor of a very old house, with an older couple living below. “The older women in the neighborhood would always gather outside my house on these little benches and talk until the sun went down,” Kvam recalls. “They were very interested in what I was doing and what I was eating. I baked them chocolate chip cookies—they’d never had them. I was very much a part of the family.”

Alumni Answer the Call
Washington University and its alumni have a longstanding history with the Peace Corps. Since the organization’s inception in early 1961, more than 455 University alumni have answered the call, serving “their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries,” as then-Senator John F. Kennedy first challenged students at the University of Michigan.

Scot Roskelley, a Peace Corps public affairs officer in Chicago, says that Washington University is consistently represented among each year’s corps volunteers. Washington University students get their first introduction to the Peace Corps from Fran Noonan, the corps’ St. Louis representative. Noonan is always hard at work meeting with students to discuss the organization and its mission. She works with Career Center staff members and attends job fairs at all local universities. She holds general information meetings monthly. And she never lets a potential applicant fall through the cracks.

“I respond immediately to inquiries,” she says. “I do voice-mail religiously. And I follow each applicant through the process.”

Of Noonan’s performance, Roskelley says, “We are particularly thrilled with our campus representative in St. Louis.” Noonan, who is based at Washington University and serves college campuses throughout the metropolitan area, is a Peace Corps veteran herself. She believes that Washington University produces so many volunteers for a variety of reasons: the campus-wide emphasis on public service, the international complexion of the University community and the exposure it offers to diverse cultures, and an appreciation of the benefits of international experience among students and their parents.

A consistent refrain among the University’s volunteers is an ongoing interest in the regions where they’ve served. Barzakova hopes to stay in Africa at least one more year, and Brickson wants to live and work there. “It’s amazing,” she says of this vast continent. She treasures Africa’s gentle pace and warm hearts. During a medical leave at home in St. Louis last spring, she stayed in close touch with Malagasy friends. “The best feeling for me is knowing that I’m integrated. I have little kids who know me and come to my house every day. Even more than being successful with the work is knowing that I am part of the community.”

Gualberto, too, would like to return to Africa. While in Gambia, he met numerous British doctors who had successfully integrated medical relief work there with their professional practices at home—a possibility that intrigues him.

Kvam plans to return to Bulgaria next year. Meanwhile, she has also managed to bring some of Bulgaria to the United States: This past April she invited her Bulgarian principal and his wife, a close teacher friend and her daughter to Muncie, Indiana, sponsored by the local university. They toured the university and Midwest schools for two weeks.

Chamberlin has returned twice to Haiti. After medical school, he hopes to go back again, armed with a specialty in infectious diseases and his love for this suffering people. “I’ll always keep a connection to Haiti,” he vows. “It is such a privilege to have served there.”

Betsy Rogers is a free-lance writer based in Belleville, Illinois.

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