Category Archives: Diaries

“The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love”: Serving in the Peace Corps

Since President Kennedy established the Peace Corps in 1961, over 220,000 volunteers have served in 140 different host countries across the world. Once assigned to a country, volunteers serve a variety of roles. Departments of specialization include education, development, and health. While actively working with communities, Peace Corps volunteers have to adapt to life in a new culture and environment.

Volunteer Meghan Keith-Hynes speaking to a Haitian woman near a stone circle plot.

Volunteer Meghan Keith-Hynes speaking to a Haitian woman near a stone circle plot.

Although passionate and eager to serve developing communities, Peace Corps volunteers may not necessarily have previous experience in their field of work. The sense of being “thrown into” such work can create both excitement and anxiety for new volunteers. Through their previous connections at home and their new connections abroad, Peace Corps volunteers successfully navigate their exciting and unexpected experiences.

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Gage Skinner in Chile

G. Gage Skinner

Country of Service: Chile
Place of Service: Temuco
Service Type: Community Development
Dates in Service:1964-1966
Keywords: Arts and Crafts, Mapuche Indians, Beekeeping

Accession Date: September 16, 2015, November 9, 2018
Access: No restrictions
Collection Size: 0.75 linear feet; .01 linear feet (poem)

Document Types

  • Diaries
  • Biographical Information
  • Training materials (post Chile – related to staff work in Colombia)
  • Poem (September 9, 2020)
  • Publications

Adjusting to New Worlds

When browsing the collections of the Peace Corps Community Archive it is difficult to miss material that demonstrates excitement, fatigue, curiosity, or frustration surrounding issues of adjustment to life in a foreign country.

Often, volunteers expressed these sentiments through letters, diary entries, and artwork. In some cases, notation of adjustment can even be found in the official Peace Corps paperwork.

In this post, we’ll explore the materials of three new collections to illustrate how volunteers adapted: Gage Skinner (Chile, 1964 – 1966), Susan Shepler (Sierra Leone, 1987 – 1989), and Bobbe Seibert (Honduras, 2000).

Gage Skinner, an anthropologist by training, joined the Peace Corps in 1964. As one of the first groups of Peace Corps volunteers, Skinner used his time in Chile to teach Mapuche Indians the practice of beekeeping. But he was unaccustomed to the long hours spent traveling by foot around rural Chile, so Skinner inquired about horses for sale in nearby towns.

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Sunday, February 14, 1964, Skinner wrote about walking four hours “back into the hills” to see a horse “offered for sale.” PCCA.

Skinner purchased a horse in late April 1964. To document the event, he glued this picture drawn by his little brother Greg into his journal.

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This drawing by Greg of Skinner’s horse appears in Skinner’s personal journal. PCCA.

In an earlier entry, dated January 13th, 1964, Skinner journals about how difficult it could be for volunteers to acclimate to their housing. As seen on the page below, he bemoans the uncomfortable living conditions in his first home in Chile:

“There are chickens and cats in the kitchen. They are flea-ridden. They defecate on the floors. There are flies in the kitchen.”

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Wednesday, January 13th, 1964, Skinner described his housing situation in rural Chile.  PCCA.

Susan Shepler, who taught mathematics in Sierra Leone in the late 1980s, offers little in her notes about discomfort. In fact, a survey she filled out in the April 1989 issue of Di News De, a local newsletter produced by the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone, reveals Shepler’s openness to the new cuisine and customs.

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This is the second page of a “Volunteer Survey” filled in by Susan Shepler from the April 1989 issue of Di News De. PCCA.

In this same issue of Di News De, however, researchers will encounter comics, short stories, and other creative expressions that indicate some of the challenges many volunteers faced. Two examples include a bus ride gone awry and a recipe to recreate familiar food.

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April 1989 issue of Di News De. Susan Shepler collection. PCCA.

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April 1989 issue of Di News De. Susan Shepler collection. PCCA.

Unlike Shepler, Bobbe Seibert described distaste for some local foods and created her own recipes abroad. Seibert, who joined the Peace Corps later in her adult life, detailed her cooking practices in a letter to her father and stepmother, Jean.

On October 17, 2000, Seibert wrote to her parents to explain how she used corn to make a “wonderfully hot, smooth, and comforting” cream soup because she was “not particularly fond of” the homemade tortillas.

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Letter from Seibert to her father and stepmother on October 17, 2000. PCCA.

In the same letter, Seibert  enclosed a photograph of her house. On the back of the image she cautions her parents about visiting, noting “Honduras is not a comfortable country.”

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Photograph from a letter to Seibert’s father and stepmother dated October 17, 2000. PCCA.

Seibert served on an agricultural team in Honduras in 2000 until a family emergency brought her back home to Alaska. Yet, her time as a volunteer is well chronicled in her journals, artwork, and correspondence.

In a letter to her husband John, for example, Seibert expresses excitement regarding her new host family and housing:

“My family is perfect.”

“Dona Marlen is a housekeer – not a maid, and they have two wonderful kids, Marleny – she’s eight years old and we go everywhere together and Edward who is two years old and mostly just smiles all the time.”

“The roof is corrugated but of very good quality it sounds wonderful when it rains as it did last night – quite hard.”

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This letter from Seibert to John on February 6, 2000, offers a positive reaction to a new housing arrangement. PCCA.

Celebrating or overcoming adjustments is part of the Peace Corps volunteer experience. By carefully studying the collections in the Peace Corps Community Archive, researchers can build an enriched understanding of a volunteer’s daily life, including the joys and struggles associated with adjusting to a new world.

For more information, please visit the Peace Corps Community Archive website. To use the collections or make a donation, please contact the AU Archives at archives [at] american.edu

 

Bobbe Seibert in Honduras

Bobbe Seibert

Country of Service: Honduras
Service Project Title: Hillside Farming Extension
Dates in Service: 2000
Keywords: Agriculture, Business, Community Development

Accession Date: July 29, 2015
Access: No restrictions
Collection Size: 0.5 linear feet

Document Types

    • Correspondence
    • Photographs
    • Reports
    • Diaries
    • Training Materials
    • Artwork
    • Memorabilia

Peter Cooey in Honduras

Peter Cooey

Country of Service: Honduras
Place in Service: Orocuina
Service Type: Community Development
Dates in Service: 1966-1968
Keywords: Orocuina, CARE, Community Development

Accession Date: February 10, 2015
Access: No restrictions
Collection Size: 1 linear inch

Document Types

  • Biographical Information on Peter Cooey (resume, articles)
  • Photographs (Paper and Digital)
  • Maps
  • Correspondence
  • Notebooks
  • Newspaper articles

“Weevils and Beetles”: An Amusing Peace Corps Anecdote

Brian Adler and Cynthia Elliott, a married couple, served together in the Peace Corps in Suriname (2002-2004). His extensive diary records the daily life of a Peace Corps volunteer. In addition to assisting in community projects, Brian and Cynthia also found time to travel the countryside. In doing so, Peace Corp volunteers not only adapt to different and local cultures, but also to the environment as well. This amusing anecdote, taken from Brian’s diary, shows how volunteers, placed in new locations, cope with the forces of Mother Nature.

Harlequin Beetle in Hand, Brian Adler, American University Peace Corps Community Archive

Harlequin Beetle in Hand, Brian Adler, American University Peace Corps Community Archive

“The bugs have gotten better and braver at night. This hasn’t pleased Cindy, She woke me up with a start the other night scared out of her wits. I think it was the Mephoquin. We both heard buzzing in the walls and at 3:30 in the morning I could care less so I quickly took to some light hearted joking by naming the insect “The Wood Weevel.”

Cindy was unimpressed. She made me get up several times to look for it, turn on the lantern, turn off the lantern because it smelled, etc. I never did get back to sleep because she would violently shake her bug netting every 20 minutes. I finally got up and told the jungle to stop it but I don’t think it listened.”

Daily Journaling: A Volunteer’s Experience

Journals and diaries offer space for reflection.  For many Peace Corps volunteers, journals provided an unbiased place to flesh out one’s private thoughts.  Whether written in frustration, excitement, or simply recording the mundane events of the day, journals and diaries promoted a safe opportunity to think and write about experiences in a country far from home.

For young, inexperienced volunteers, keeping a journal provided a way to process and cope with new surroundings.  Journals also include reflections on new foods, community events, local culture, and the living and working conditions experienced abroad.

Winifred Boge, Journal, January 31, 1966

Winifred Boge, Journal, January 31, 1966
Boge recalls trying a traditional Indian cheese for the first time.

 

Boge, Journal, February 19, 1966

Winifred Boge, Journal, February 19, 1966
In addition to working with local citizens, Boge encountered a variety of creatures: mice, lizards, and dogs.

Journals also allow us to understand the routines, experiences with illness, and the developing relationships which occurred between volunteers and local citizens.  Boge reflected on her first year as a Peace Corps volunteer in India–including the challenges she faced working with people very different from herself.

Winifred Boge, 1 Year Report, February 1966

Winifred Boge, 1 Year Report, February 1966

 

Winifred Boge, 1 Year Report, February 1966

Winifred Boge, 1 Year Report, February 1966

Most people who journal or keep a daily diary do so without considering the benefits it may yield to researchers in the future.  Rather than document their daily activities for someone else to read, many authors record events for their own memories.   Winifred Boge’s diary provides a window into the events of a volunteer’s day, in addition to discussing the complexities and challenges of serving in a foreign country with strangers.  Journals and diaries provide insight into the individuals who served and the experiences in country that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

Peace Corps Philippines IX

Country of Service: Philippines
Service Type: Education
Dates in Service: 1962-1964
Keywords: Education

Accession Date: October 1, 2013
Access: No restrictions other than copyright
Collection Size: 1 item

Document Types

  • Publication- Memories and Reflections (includes photographs, interviews, and excerpts from diaries and letters)

Terry Kennedy in Colombia

Terry Kennedy

Country of Service: Colombia
Place of Service: Tangua, Narino
Service Project Title: Educational TV Project (ETV)
Dates in Service: 1964-1966
Keywords: Education, Information Technology, Youth

Accession Date: June 1999; Friends of Colombia Archive
Access: No restrictions
Collection Size: 1 linear foot

Document Types

  • Correspondence
  • Notebooks
  • Photographs
  • Publications
  • Slides