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Peace Corps Gives Obies New Perspective

Recent graduates Julian Lee and Sung-Mun Choi will leave the United States in the next several months for two-year stints in the Peace Corps. Buoyed by their Oberlin experience, they are eager to put the skills they acquired here to good use in Chad and the Peoples Republic of China, respectively

"Coming out of Oberlin, where community service is highly regarded, definitely supported and motivated my interest in volunteering abroad," says Choi, who will teach English to secondary school students in Chad. Lee adds, "I joined the Peace Corps to represent something good in the American people and the government that foreigners might not see. Oberlin instilled in me more than an interest in applying what I learned in the classroom, something closer to a civic responsibility to help others less fortunate, as I was myself before attending college."

Lee and Choi will be following in the footsteps of nearly 450 other Obies who have served the corps in every region of the globe. One former volunteer, Jemima Talbot '97, says her 27 months as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia was a life-changing experience that broadened her horizons.

Village of Pila Pata

Talbot, right with her friend Estela and Marta the cow.

Talbot, center, with friends.

After joining the corps in 1998, she taught nutrition to fourth graders in the small, remote Bolivian village of Pila Pata. She also gave cooking demonstrations and held hygiene classes for about 20 members of a women's group. The villagers' primary language is Quechua, but Talbot taught in Spanish.

"Despite long hours of Peace Corps language training, my Quechua was pathetic," she recalls. "Babies speak it better than I did. When I did try my few words, I was greeted with hilarity, disbelief, and horror. However, I was able to communicate quite well for the most part in Spanish and by using drawings, crude handmade posters, and everything else to convey some meaning."

Another major experience (bordering on the "surreal," she says) was her effort to improve nutrition, literally from the ground up, by selling seeds in Pila Pata's market.

To help give local farmers an edge, Talbot bought cans of high-quality seeds in Cochabamba, a large city some distance from the village. She weighed and repackaged the seeds into hundreds of small newspaper envelopes and sold them at cost at the market.

"I was completely taken into the fold of the lady vendors, a mini-mafia. If any drunk tried to harass me, or any man got too close, there were lots of short, stocky Bolivian women ready to give them the Quechua talk-down of their lives," Talbot laughs.

By the time she moved to the city of Cochabamba to work in a health center in a poor neighborhood, Talbot had sold thousands of seed packets and had passed on the thriving small enterprise to a Pila Pata woman.

Her work in the small village was fulfilling, but Talbot says helping nurses and social workers educate and visit pregnant women in Cochabamba set her on the career path she is following today.

"I loved being with the community-based health professionals and found the classes with the women extremely rewarding," she says. "This experience influenced my decision to pursue a master's degree in public health, which I will finish next year." Talbot is studying at Boston University School of Public Health.

Talbot says her biggest challenge during her Bolivian sojourn "was not knowing anyone and not having family or close friends nearby.

"This actually led to the part of my service that gives me the most satisfaction: the strong relationships I developed in Bolivia. I feel I had a positive effect on the many friends I made, and they continue to be a part of my life even today.

"Ultimately, I got so much more out of my service than I ever anticipated," she adds.

No doubt, Lee and Choi will echo this sentiment when they complete their upcoming terms. Most Peace Corps volunteers do.

Peace Corps training at camp near Chance Creek - 1963 (courtesy of Oberlin College Archives)

Volunteering Here, There, and Everywhere

With 447 alums who have completed terms with the Peace Corps since its founding in 1961, Oberlin ranks seventh among small colleges and universities as a source of volunteers for the corps.

To that total will soon be added the 24 alums who currently serve in Azerbaijan, Benin, Bulgaria, Chad, countries in the Eastern Caribbean region, Ecuador, Gabon, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Madagascar, Mongolia, Morocco, Namibia, Paraguay, Peru, the Philippines, Tanzania, the Peoples Republic of China, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, and Vanuatu.

And, of course, new volunteers Julian Lee and Sung-Mu Choi make two more.

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