Of the 473 Temple grads who decided to volunteer in the Peace Corps, three share their stories.
Ruth Spory got accepted into the Peace Corps twice in two weeks.
“I got my orientation package in April saying ‘Congratulations, you’ve been accepted to the Peace Corps,’ with information on Paraguay,” said Spory, an ‘88 Temple alumna with a bachelor’s degree in history, who minored in women’s studies. “But I didn’t graduate until May.”
Fearing she wouldn’t get a second chance, Spory called to explain the mishap. Two weeks later, she received the same package. The letter remained the same with the exception of one detail: her destination.
“I opened the letter welcoming me to Honduras,” Spory said. “And then I ran to a map to see where it was.”
TEMPLE’S PEACE CORPS FOOTPRINT
Spory is just one of the 473 Temple graduates who have gone on to serve in the Peace Corps since its inception in 1961. Last year alone, 15 undergraduates and eight graduates from Temple served overseas. In total, approximately 200,000 U.S. citizens have volunteered in 139 countries around the globe.
“It is the best way to learn another language, get to know a new culture, experience different things with different people and try to do some good while you’re at it,” said
Gina Nappi, who graduated from Temple in 2006 with degrees in journalism and Spanish and served in Paraguay from 2007 to 2009. “It may not be the best developmental program, but it’s definitely the best grass roots effort.”
Reasons for joining the Peace Corps vary. Spory, who was accepted into law school at the same time she received her assignment for the Peace Corps, said it wasn’t just the lack of jobs that accompanied a history degree that swayed her.
“I thought I should give back, and I didn’t really want to join the military,” she said. “I knew if I got accepted to law school, I could probably get accepted again. But I knew if I turned down the Peace Corps, I wouldn’t get that chance again.”
For Nappi, a lighthearted marriage proposal and uncertainty about her major drew her to the application process.
With graduation looming during her senior year in, Nappi was, like most graduates, unsure of her future. After spending the prior summer in Spain, Nappi began to reconsider her chosen career path.
“I thought I was going to be the next Katie Couric,” said Nappi. “But then I went to Spain. After I got back, a friend said, ‘Let’s just get married and join the Peace Corps.’”
While Nappi didn’t marry her Peace Corps muse, the joke planted a seed in her mind. After doing some research, Nappi discovered the Peace Corps’ Master’s International program. She applied and spent the next year completing graduate course work at Rutgers University-Camden before beginning her 27-month commitment to the Peace Corps in Paraguay. There, Nappi worked in the municipal services development sector, helping citizens understand their civic duties in a country that had previously been under dictatorship.
“It takes years to get work done,” Nappi said. “But it was a good amount of time to really integrate into the community. Success is when they really know you and really have to trust you.”
Now a program officer for the Carter Center’s Democracy Program in Khartoum, Sudan, 2005 Temple alumnus Douglas Smith said the 27-month commitment the Peace
Corps requires is an adequate amount of time to establish progress, but some people he met while volunteering in Mongolia wanted Peace Corps service members to stay for five years.
“That’s a little extreme,” Smith said. “But the amount of time spent nears not enough. You spend the first year planting and harvesting that trust, and it takes a lot of time to get used to the rhythm in community grassroots efforts.”
For Spory, timing and gaining trust was crucial to her work in Honduras as a female agribusiness extension agent working with farmers who were constantly losing money off selling their crops.
“Women worked in the field, but women certainly didn’t attend business meetings,” she said.
But there was Spory, an American woman wearing a denim skirt, giving financial advice to men – many of whom were illiterate.
“Sure enough, some things would work, and people would say [to others], ‘Hey, you should try this,’” Spory said.
It was finally winning over a particularly resistant farmer that highlighted Spory’s time in Honduras.
“I finally got him on board,” Spory said. “He came back after a few months because he was able to buy his children shoes for the first time. And that was a moment for him and a moment for me and the program.”
Nappi experienced moments similar to Spory’s.
“When I was leaving, all these people were crying while saying ‘Bye,’ to me,” Nappi recalled. “It just showed how much they appreciated you willing to come and live amongst them. They see it as something positive about the American people, which is one of the goals of the Peace Corps.”
But it was time and money that drew Nappi back to the states after her tearful goodbye in Paraguay and traveling throughout South America.
At the time of Nappi’s service, the Peace Corps paid volunteers roughly $6,000 – the pay is now $7,425 – but after taxes and a one-year health insurance for her first year after the Peace Corps, Nappi was left with approximately $4,200. Though she now lives with her parents and began working for the Environmental Protection Agency in June, she said she wouldn’t trade her experiences for being on her own right away.
POST PEACE CORPS
Though Smith spent an additional year in Mongolia on top of his required commitment, he said it wasn’t particularly difficult to return to the U.S.
“America’s very easy,” he said, adding that keeping busy by going straight to George Washington University to study international affairs probably eased his transition. “It doesn’t take that much convincing to get used to cold beer and football on Sunday.”
However, Smith noted that for some friends, reverting back to their previous lives wasn’t always easy. Even Spory said it took time for her to re-adjust to the pace of stateside living.
“You have all these experiences, and then you get, ‘Hey, let me tell you about my softball team,’” she said, noting that living in Washington D.C. near other Peace Corps volunteers helped her re-adapt. “You’d gotten to a much slower pace of life. People seemed to be in such a hurry and didn’t have time to sit and pull a chair out on the porch and talk about nothing while drinking your coffee.”
Now an elementary school teacher in Las Vegas, Spory is the mother of one and said she would highly encourage her daughter to join the Peace Corps when she is of age.
“I would heartily recommend it to her,” she said, adding that she might consider doing it again herself one day. “It used to say on the packet, ‘It’s the toughest job you’ll ever love,’ and it’s true. But there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t use something from my experiences.”
Ashley Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.