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Peace Corps Commemorates 50th Anniversary

Above: Oceanside resident Allan Paloutzian was a Peace Corps volunteer in Nigeria from 1964 to 1966. In this photograph Paloutzian (right) presents a rabbit to villagers as part of a project to increase the amount of protein people ate.

Audio

Aired 11/18/10

The Peace Corps is celebrating 50 years of promoting peace and friendship around the world. We're you a Peace Corps volunteer? How did the experience shape your life?

Fifty years ago, when Senator John F Kennedy was running for President, he made a campaign speech challenging college students to live and work in developing countries to promote world peace. From that spark, the US Peace Corps was formed and now tens of thousands of Americans have worked as peace corps volunteers around the globe. Working in the Peace Corps is generally described as life-changing, but it is also a very personal experience for each volunteer. Tonight, many San Diegans who've volunteered with the Peace Corp will share their stories during an event at USD's Institute for Peace and Justice.

Guests

Kate Kuykendall, Public Affairs Specialist Peace Corps, was also a Peace Corps volunteer in China from 1999 to 2001.

Allan Paloutzian served the Peace Corps in Nigeria from 1964-1966 and is an Oceanside resident.

Sofia Javed is a 2010 Peace Writer for the Institute for Peace and Justice. Javed served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan from 2002 to 2004

Event

The University of San Diego's Joan B. Kroc Institute of Peace and Justice will host "The Peace Corps: 50 Years of Changing Lives," which will explore the ways Peace Corps service affected the panelists' lives and those around them.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

I'm Maureen Cavanaugh and You're listening to These Days on KPBS. 50 years ago, when senator John F. Kennedy was running for president, he made a campaign speech challenging college students to volunteer work in developing countries to promote world peace. From that spark, the U.S. peace corps was formed, and now tens of thousands of Americans have worked as peace corps volunteers around the globe. Working in the peace corps is generally described as life changing, but it is also a very personal experience for each volunteer. Tonight, many San Diegans who volunteered with the peace corps will share their stories at USD's institute for peace and justice. I'd like to introduce my guest, Kate Kirkendall is public affairs specialist with the peace corps Las Angeles recruitment office, and Kate, welcome to These Days.

KATE Kuykendall: Thanks for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Allan Paloutzian served in the peace corps in Nigeria from 1964 through '66, he's an Oceanside resident, and Allan good morning.

ALLAN PALOUTZIAN: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Sophia Javed is 2010 peace writer for the institute of peace and justice, and Sophia served as a peace corps volunteer in Uzbekistan from 2002 to 2004. Good morning and welcome.

SOPHIA JAVED: Good morning, thank you.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, in the early 60s when the peace corps got started, it was a significant time in world history. There was a war in Vietnam, there was bay of bigs, Berlin wall was built, space race. What was the significance of the peace corps for the country at that time, Kate?

KATE Kuykendall: Yeah. I think that, you know, when president Kennedy or actually then senator Kennedy made his call about the peace corps, he was really encouraging person to person dialog and exchange, kind of, in light of world events at that time. And you know, I think it's really interesting when you think about the peace corps, and the environment that it was created in 50 years ago, and how different our environment is in 134 ways in terms of geopolitics. But I think that person to person exchange is still just as relevant today as it was then.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: It kind of defined the time, Allan, that beginning of the peace corps, that kind of ask not what your country can do for you spirit of giving. Is that the kind of feeling that you got caught up in in the 60s?

ALLAN PALOUTZIAN: Well, exactly, Maureen. I think there was certainly a spirit of giving. The Kennedy message, I think, was a very powerful one. And his death, even, I think further propelled that movement. It was a very strong movement at the time. And yeah, in my case, I was challenged to go in the peace corps by one of my friends. And I was caught up in the movement and that's what got me started in that direction. So there certainly was a spirit of giving.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Now, I know, Sophia, you volunteered for the peace corps in the two thousands. So it was removed from the start of the peace corps decade. But I was gonna ask you, Kate, a lot of people think of the peace corps and the cold war sort of simultaneously. You know? They think of it as wrapped up -- one concept wrapped up in the other. How do you separate those two cop cents to move on with the peace corps and development it for different decades.

KATE Kuykendall: I actually think that, you know, right now students that are in college and are graduating from college, peace corps is a really nice fit for them and sort of the world view that they grew up with. You know, a curriculum that really emphasizes service learning, and a curriculum that really emphasizes the importance of being globally connected and nobly aware. So I think that college students today actually find this really relevant. So it's interesting, Sophia and I both served in countries that in the cold war were considered foes. I was a volunteer in China, and Sophia in the former Soviet Republic. So I do think that's interesting. Certainly the college students today don't think of the peace corps in any way realted to the cold war. And I'm not even sure they have that association with it. To them, it's first and foremost a way to give back to a community over seas, and second of all, for their own personal benefit, a way to be a little more globally aware and globally connected and have a broader understanding.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I'm wonders, let me ask you, Sophia, do you get to pick where you go when you volunteer for the peace corps?

SOPHIA JAVED: My experience was only to a certain extent. I had it in my mind that I wanted to go to central Asia. I don't remember why that was in my mind. But that's what I wanted. And I had been studying Arabic in college for a number of years, and when I got my offer, they gave me two. Of they said either Uzbekistan or jor dab, and I had the impression that they were kind of pushing Jordan, but at the time, I had central Asia in my head, so I chose central Asia.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us about going to Uzbekistan, was it anything -- how were you prepared for this experience by the peace corps, and how different was it from what you expected when you got there?

SOPHIA JAVED: In terms of preparation, it was just the standard packet of information on comes on any entry to any volunteer that's going anywhere. And my experience was a little bit interesting, because I first went in 2001 about three weeks before 911, and I was there when 911 happened, and three weeks later, we were all evacuated. So I decided I could have redeployed to a different country but I decided I wanted to go back. So when I went back I had that bit of sort of experience in my head. Of.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Certainly.

SOPHIA JAVED: That I kind of knew a little bit, six weeks worth of what to expect.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And what did you do in Uzbekistan?

SOPHIA JAVED: I was living and working in a small rural village in the middle of the kitchen. And my primary job was to teach English at the one school in the village there. And from there I also went and did -- the longer I stayed in the village, the more I became connected with the community, and mostly I spent a lot of time with women and young people. I did other various projects with the young people as needed or as they wanted.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Allan Paloutzian, I'm interested, you were a volunteer in the 60s in Nigeria. And now there are no peace corps workers in Nigeria. What was your experience like when you went to Nigeria?

ALLAN PALOUTZIAN: Well, it was, you upon, I think hike you said earlier, it was clearly a life changing experience. And that's what the peace corps does. It instills a big change in your whole posture. But my experience was not unlike any other volunteers that are serving around the world. It is -- it is very life changing in it many ways. It was an eye opener for me. I had lived a sheltered life here in California where I grew up, had not really done much traveling, had not travelled over seas, and all of a sudden I was thrown into a totally different environment. And it was a true test. And at that time, you had to really make up your mind. You had to commit yourself to the job at hand. There were tremendous highs and lows throughout the entire experience. There's an old saying that peace corps is the toughest job you'll ever love.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right. I've heard that. Yes.

ALLAN PALOUTZIAN: And it is so true because you go through these highs and lows, and you do need to fully commit yourself to the effort. And later on, you realize that was well, well worth the experience, incredible experience.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you, Allan, was there ever a point when you thought you wanted to leave?

ALLAN PALOUTZIAN: Oh, many times.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Many times.

ALLAN PALOUTZIAN: There were many times. As I said, there were highs and lows and when you hit the lows, you really hit the lows. And there were times that you kept asking yourself, what am I doing here? But then you started reflecting on it, and I think that was more so at the front end than the tail end. Because you learned more as you went along what you were doing there. And it wasn't just the job at hand. I think peace corps is a concept. And that concept is fostering good will and understanding among nations, and among people, more so than nations. And you just had to, well, yeah, you've had these lows, you realize what was going on, why you were there, and you committed yourself to it, and you stuck to it, and that's where the rewards came in.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break, when we return, I'm gonna ask Kate about her experience in China. And also talk about how the peace corps has changed during the last 50 years. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

Welcome back. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and my guests are Kate Kirkendall, she's public affairs specialist for the Peace Corps of Los Angeles regional recruitment office, Allan Paloutzian who served in the Peace Corps in Nigeria in the 60s. He's an Oceanside resident. And Sophia Javed is a 2010 peace writer for the Institute for Peace and Justice. And she served in the Peace Corps in early 2000s in Uzbekistan in the early two thousands, and as you might imagine, we're talking about the Peace Corps, it is the 50th anniversary celebration. And it is being celebrated tonight at the institute for peace and justice on the USD campus, there's an event tonight at seven. And we're talking about, just basically what the Peace Corps is today, and what it's like to have been a volunteer. And I want to go to you, Kate, because I know that you did your volunteering in China. Tell us a little bit about that.

KATE Kuykendall: Sure, I was a English teacher at a teacher training college in Sichuan province, which is kind of in the west in China. In addition to being an English teacher, I had some secondary projects, which volunteers are encouraged to do, sort of out of the classroom things. And yeah, I definitely developed a love for China and Chinese culture and have been fortunate enough to be able to go back, I guess, four times in the last ten years and still keep in really touch with Chinese friends and former students.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to ask all of you, and it's a difficult -- I know it's a difficult question, but is there, Kate, a moment for you that sort of crystallized what the Peace Corps meant to you and why you were there and how it all made sense to you when you were volunteering in China.

KATE Kuykendall: Yeah, actually, I mean, as Allan mentioned earlier, there are highs and lows in the Peace Corps experience, and I know for me, when I would have the lows, the sort of coping mechanism I had was I'd take the bus 20 minutes into the nearest town and go to a really old tea house with lots of old Chinese men and have, you know, a bottomless cup of tea for $0.12 and practice my Chinese. And those kinds of experiences that were, you know, I was just privileged to be able to have those experiences, were really special. And then I guess, you know, more towards -- that's really kind of a more personal level. But in terms of what the Peace Corps does, I was a volunteer in 2001 when there was the spy plane incident when the Chinese fighter pilot collided with a U.S. spy plane and members of the U.S. crew were on hinan island for, like, 11 days issue and it was a time of really heightened tensions between the U.S. and China. And one of my colleagues in the english department, it's kind of funny the way she said this to me, she said, you know, in the past when these kinds of incidents happened and watched the news, I would get so angry at America and I would just say, you know, we should fight against the Americans. We should fight against the Americans, and since you've known you and you've become my friend, and I know one American, I feel completely different when I watch the news and watch these kinds of incidents. And I said very similar experiences in terms of the way I felt about the Chinese government and the Chinese people. So that to me really meant a lot.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: The essence of the Peace Corps in a nutshell. In one moment. Allan, do you have in your experience in Nigeria sort of one moment or an incident where it all came together for you why you were there and why you were making a difference?

ALLAN PALOUTZIAN: Oh, I don't know. I think there were a number of different incidents that are came to light. I remember shortly after I arrived, this was an incident throughout the Peace Corps, and I think it was -- international as well. Ive think it was the Marjorie morning star incident, or I can't recall the name correctly. But it was a postcard incident where she had arrived early, at one of the earlier stages, and sent a postcard home about how terrible life was in Nigeria at that time. And it didn't catch real good favor in Nigeria am.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Really. Of.

ALLAN PALOUTZIAN: Oh, yes. But that caught all of our attention, and I think we became even more aware and more concerned about why we were there. And the messages that wanted to leave, you know? Because I think it was just fairly simple what we were as individuals and what we were as Americans. And I think we just wanted to leave as good of an impression as possible about what we were all about. And the principles of the Peace Corps fall into line. We wanted also, I realize that there was a lack of understanding back home of what these countries were like.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Right.

ALLAN PALOUTZIAN: And what they were going through. I was forever mindful of where I came from and what I had as an individual. When I arrived in Nigeria, I said my gosh. Ive couldn't believe how these people existed. And they faced it straight on.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to ask Sophia about Uzbekistan and teaching in Uzbekistan. Was there a moment or an incident that really crystallized this experience for you?

SOPHIA JAVED: Teaching in the school?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In Uzbekistan.

SOPHIA JAVED: For me, as Kate mentioned, my experience in the village was really personalized by these personal relationships that I made with the community that accepted me over the course of two years as part of their village. And it -- it wasn't one moment. But I would say probably about halfway through my time in the village, there was a time I started to realize that, like I said, I spent a lot of time with the women, young women, old women, just the women and the young people in the village, and there was a time about half way through where I started to realize that the women were just starting to tell me things about their lives, about their marriages, about things that made them happy or frustrated, that they weren't telling me before. And I think it was a number of things. It was maybe I had reached a level with language or I had reached a level of familiarity or their comfort with me, and then it just started happening more and more. And I would stay up at all hours in various women's kitchens helping them chop things and me being completely silent. And they would just go on and on and on. And I realized if I don't do anything here, if no kid learns English because of me, at least I was -- what I can do and what I am doing is that I'm listening to people who in this culture, and in this setting perhaps don't have people or haven't had other people to really just sit and listen to them.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Your stories are really very moving and amazing. Kate, I'm wondering is there, like, a typical Peace Corps volunteer, or does it range in age and occupation? Who volunteers?

KATE Kuykendall: Yeah, it is a huge range. I think the average aiming right now is 28 years old. A lot of people when they think of Peace Corps, they think of people going right after college. So throughout their 20 it is. But we also have more and more midcareer types. And people who join actually after the Peace Corps, when Allan was a former recruiter for Peace Corps, and he kind of specialized in recruiting people over 50. And many of those people remember what Kennedy created the Peace Corps, and they wanted to join at that time, but they had a family or a career and children that prevented them from doing so. And this is a chance for them to kind of recapture that spirit. And in terms of the backgrounds of volunteers, we have a really broad range of sectors of volunteers working, anything from agriculture to education, to people who have MBAs and can lend that kind of experience.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There's so much that I want to talk to you three about, but we're out of time. I just want to let everyone know that you can hear a lot more about what the Peace Corps has meant to the people here speaking with us and a lot of other people from San Diego who have volunteered their time with the Peace Corps, there's an event tonight at the university of San Diego's Joan B. Crock institute of peace and justice. They're hosting the Peace Corps, 50 years of changing lives. It explores way the Peace Corps service affected all the people who will seek their lives and those around them. And that event starts tonight at seven. I want to thank you all, I want to thank Kate and Allan and Sophia. Thank you so much for speaking with us today.

KATE Kuykendall: Thank you so much.

SOPHIA JAVED: Thank you.

ALLAN PALOUTZIAN: You're welcome.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You've been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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