Making a difference, one village at a time

 

From Egypt to Thailand, Brazil to Moldova, Cal State L.A. alumni and faculty have left their mark around the world as volunteers and program leaders. Click the picture to travel the world with our alumni in an interactive map.

Camped out in a lush, wet forest in the northwest corner of Botswana, with nothing more than a tent to shield Jillian Sadler ’06 from foot-long stinging millipedes, giant scorpions, and sand-colored spiders—among other creepy crawlers—sleep was a relative term.

After a 17-hour trip to the remote Shakawe village, Sadler, a Peace Corps volunteer, joined two other colleagues and a group of at-risk Botswana girls for a retreat aimed at improving communication and confidence. The bugs—no matter the number—were not going to deter the volunteers from their goal of educating the girls, who were largely poor, and prone to early pregnancies and dropping out of school.

“I didn’t love the wilderness, but I did love working with the girls,” Sadler wrote in a “Camp Wilderness” blog entry for friends and family.

“It was wonderful to see the awe and appreciation in their eyes; not so much at or for us, but for themselves,” Sadler added in an interview later, recounting the girls’ response to a self-esteem exercise. “It was emotional for all of us.”

Experiences like these—the opportunities to travel, impart goodwill, share resources and build relationships through personal interactions in the remote corners of the world—have attracted more than 200,000 Peace Corps volunteers throughout the last 50 years.

College students, retirees, engineers, nurses, economists, scientists, and educators, alike, have joined the ranks of the organization since it was launched in 1961. Counted among them are more than 100 Cal State L.A. alumni—such as Sadler—and a dozen or so faculty who helped to shape the organization and its approach to international peace and development through training in the early, formative years.

Volunteers with Cal State L.A. ties have served in 65 countries and across five continents.  Nine Cal State L.A. alumni and former students have traveled overseas through the organization in just the past year. Their interests vary from biology and psychology, to criminal justice and public administration, and have taken them to the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guyana, Honduras, Moldova, Namibia, Ukraine and Zambia.  (Explore the interactive map to learn more about alumni and faculty involvement in the Peace Corps around the globe.)

“It was an invaluable experience,” Sadler said. During her two-year stint in Kenya and Botswana she taught preschool and high school, led sewing and jewelry making exercises, developed marketing strategies and provided health counseling.  This fall, she enrolled in the Northeastern University School of Law in Boston and was awarded a Peace Corps scholarship to help cover the expense.

“It was life-changing, and after all the frustrations, I think I was able to do some things and touch some people in a way that might change their lives.”

‘Part of history’

Nearly five decades after Professor Emerita of Nursing Barbara Peterson Sinclair found herself swept up in the Peace Corps, she can still visibly recount experiences with volunteers in the states and abroad, as well as the faces and names of the myriad people she met in her travels—among them were Carmen Miranda’s sister and a singing sensation who was “Brazil’s equivalent to Frank Sinatra.”

Like Sadler, Sinclair says the Peace Corps leaves a lasting impression. “It was a very important part of my history,” she said. “I think it did a lot for the University; we were a young school, and it provided a positive push allowing people in other parts of the country to know us. Mostly, I think it did a lot for the USA at the time.”

Sinclair, along with other emeriti colleagues—including Political Science’s Robert H. Simmons (who taught from 1962-1985), History’s Louis C. DeArmond (1950-1979) and Eugene Fingerhut (1962-1997), Nursing’s Marlene Farrell (1963-1998), and Physical Education’s William E. Wilgus (1963-1992)—had the unique opportunity to take part in the Peace Corps’ founding years. CSULA professors were called upon throughout the 1960s to train volunteers before they reported to their countries. Sinclair started by leading the health care component of training, and eventually directed all training on campus while taking a leave from her regular teaching schedule.

Cal State L.A. faculty and former volunteers say that scores were prepared on campus for posts in Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador), Colombia, Uruguay, Malaysia, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, Brazil, and Venezuela, among other locations.  As one 1965 Colombia volunteer, Jim Zellers, described: “Cal State L.A. proved to be an outstanding setting—we were provided with everything we needed and more. Plus, the locations seemed a little remote in those days, so we found the time was best spent interacting among ourselves.”

Farrell added:  “It was a fun time. The Peace Corps was new, still feeling its way—and I think, because of that, we were able to take part in shaping it.

“We used the community for experiences for our trainees, took them to Mexico…and Puerto Rico,” she continued. “You had to be somewhat flexible and somewhat able to accept a nontraditional environment.”

That’s still very true today, more recent alumni volunteers note, saying that a lot of emphasis is placed on being able to adjust to varying circumstances and “going with the flow.“

One alumna, Linda Erskian ’69 waited until retirement to chase down her “foreign adventure” and to give thanks for life’s fortunes by volunteering with her husband in the South American country of Guyana.  Just a few months into their stay, Erskian said she couldn’t be more pleased or feel more fulfilled by the opportunity.

“We continue to meet new friends and have yet to meet anyone who has not been genuinely friendly and grateful for our presence here as volunteers,” she said.