William & Mary

In Their Own Words

A Conversation with Returning International Volunteers

  • in_their_own_words_photoset.jpg
    In Conversation  l-r: Adam Ferguson, Nasha Lewis, Molly DeStafney and John Schwab  Photo by Kate Hoving
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     Molly teaching in a classroom  Courtesy of Molly DeStafney
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     Adam in Turkmenistan at the Kutlug-Timur Minaret  Courtesy of Adam Ferguson
  • nasha-photoset.jpg
     Nasha in Mali  Courtesy of Nasha Lewis
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     John Schwab at an 8th grade graduation ceremony in the Marshall Islands  Courtesy of John Schwab
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     Nasha with her father in Mali  Courtesy of Nasha Lewis
  • schwab_spearfishing_photoset.jpg
     John spearfishing in the Marshall Islands  Courtesy of John Schwab
  • molly-photoset.jpg
     Molly in Kyiv at Christmas  Courtesy of Molly DeStafney
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Editor's Note

For ten consecutive years William & Mary has made the Peace Corps’ Top Volunteer-Producing Colleges and Universities List. The Reves Center can also boast of three alumni of the Peace Corps* and one of WorldTeach.** Because each of the four is as self-effacing as they are thoughtful and insightful, they resisted sitting down for an interview until they could do it as a group. Each also used the exact same phrase–“There’s no interesting story there”–at various points in their recollections. Well, we respectfully disagreed with their assessment, and we hope you will find their discussion as engaging and refreshing as we did.

  • ADAM FERGUSON
    Global Education Information Associate Manager, Peace Corps 2005-2007
  • NASHA LEWIS
    Assistant Director for Global Education — Student Experience, Peace Corps 2003-2005
  • MOLLY DESTAFNEY
    Associate Director of Global Education Programs, Peace Corps 2005-2007
  • JOHN SCHWAB
    English Language Program
    Coordinator, WorldTeach 2014-2015
What was your path to international voluntarism and service?

Molly: When I finished college I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with myself  and I ended up being in AmeriCorps VISTA because I had always wanted to do Peace Corps, but when you’re young two years seems like an impossibly long time. A VISTA assignment is just a year and I ended up on a college campus. I re- upped for a second year and then I had two paths in front of me: Did I want to go to grad school or do I want to do Peace Corps? And I thought to myself, I’ve been wanting to do [Peace Corps] since I was in college, whereas grad school I didn’t, so I did grad school first because I thought that my interest would be a passing phase.I did American Cultural studies and ended up doing a program in Russia the summer. That opened the door for me. I’d wondered, “How am I going to handle living in a place for two years where I don’t speak the language?” That summer experience took care of that concern, so I applied for the Peace Corps and got in.

Nasha: My path was different. I thought about it in college because I studied International Politics and French. When I was a senior, one of my teachers had told an interesting story, so I explored it more and then decided to do it.

Molly: Was the professor, a Peace Corps volunteer?

Nasha: He was, he was older too, so I think he did it right when the Peace Corps started.

His story was that he had been debating whether to go or not to go and he wrote a six-page letter to his friend serving in the Peace Corps with all his questions. He got a letter back from his friend that was one page, one word … and the word was ‘Go.’

So I started thinking I should go, too.

I was always fascinated by West Africa. I had taken African art history course and a lot of socio-economic courses about Africa. One of the reasons I studied French is that a lot of western and central African countries are francophone countries. I wrote down all of the francophone countries in West Africa.

There are actually other ways that you can overseas, but I had volunteered a lot growing so it was appealing to me to volunteer. I was also thinking about getting into international relations or development, and many Americans who are in that field have done Peace Corps.

Molly: What sector did you end up learning as your job?

Nasha: I ended up doing water sanitation. People I was working with had health-re- lated experience, such as volunteering in hospitals or were engineers. I was CPR- and first aid- certified.

Adam: My path was somewhat similar to Nasha’s. I had a professor who taught the geography of Africa, and he had done Peace Corps, I believe in Sierra Leone. It seemed as if he had a really interesting time — a really substantive time — and that, to me, made him a more interesting person. His experience stayed in the back of my mind, but I had no clear intention at that time. I felt I needed to graduate first.

I came back to Williamsburg and started working in the Rockefeller Library at Colonial Williamsburg digitizing their archives. That gave me a lot of time to think as the documents scanned. I started thinking about how I had never been out of the country. I wanted to challenge my- self and see how I could manage in a situation where there wouldn’t be a whole lot of ability get out of it. I wanted to jump into the deep end.

For me, that “jump” was the Peace Corps. I wanted to make that commitment for those two years — which, as we’ve discussed is probably the biggest barrier to applicants. It’s long time. And the second you land it gets even longer. [laughter from everyone] I sent in my application around March or so after I graduated. I didn’t know where I wanted to go. What would I even judge that on? I had no idea.

Molly: Now you can apply to a specific country, right? But when we applied…

Adam: …you could give a preference in a region…

Molly: But our region — for Adam and me —that would be huge. I went to Ukraine, and Adam went to Turkmenistan, but we would have been listed in the same region because it would have included Europe and Central Asia.

Adam: And so I just put no preference. And since so few people choose Eastern Europe and Central Asia as a preferred region, that meant I was offered a spot in Turkmenistan.

But I was very lucky because that program has since ended. And even before that, not a whole lot of Americans or westerners were in Turkmenistan, certainly not in the rural areas, and certainly not for such a prolonged period. So I was really excited about that as well. It was an opportunity to do something, be somewhere, and meet a group of people that would have been otherwise impossible.

Ultimately I wanted to really test myself and see how interesting I could make myself through experiences that I hadn’t experienced before but that also lined up with who I wanted to be as a person and what I wanted to do with my life.

Molly: So did you guys have any resistance from friends or family? Were your parents on board?

Adam: Everyone was on board for me.

Nasha: I didn’t tell people. I’m serious. Until I literally quit my job two weeks before the plane was leaving. I wanted to be 100 percent sure that I was going to go through with it. My parents knew that I was going through the process be- cause I was living with them right after graduation.

My mom would say, “You know, your dad doesn’t really want you to go.” And then my dad would say, “You know, your mom doesn’t really want you to go.” And my grandma would say, “We’re going!”

John: I didn’t go right after college. I did a number of odd jobs after graduating, and I still didn’t know really what I wanted to do. I considered the Peace Corps, but the application process takes a long time, and I wanted to go soon. World- Teach offered a program to the Marshall Islands that started in just a month, so I jumped on it.

I had heard of the Marshall Islands before I lived there, but I couldn’t tell you anything about it, or even exactly where there were, before I was assigned there.

But, I’d studied cultural anthropology in college, and I was always interested in going to other places, especially places that seemed very unlike American culture, which the Marshall Islands were.

I was also really interested in seeing the coral reefs since they’re disappearing.

Nasha: Some people didn’t know about Mali, either, when I went. People would ask, “Malawi?” And I’d say, “No, Mali. You know — Timbuktu? West Africa?”

Molly: I had been to St. Petersburg and to Moscow in Russia for that summer program, and I hoped that I would get Eastern Europe, but I was actually hoping for Moldova as more of an educational experience, because I didn’t know much about it.

Like Nasha, I didn’t tell people because it was one of those things where you don’t know if or where you’re going as you work through the application process. You think, am I going to go through with this or not? I didn’t doubt myself, but you never know what’s going to hap- pen. And with the long commitment, you do miss out on parts of life.

John: My family and friends were pretty excited. My brother served in the Peace Corps in Indonesia, and we had a big party when he left, but I had a very short time from application to departure. We didn’t have enough time to get people together, so I didn’t really have a big party or anything.

Adam: The pros and cons of shorter lead time for WorldTeach… [laughter]

Molly: How long is the commitment for WorldTeach?

John: It’s a year, 11 months.

Molly: And did they do the same kind of training and orientation with a host family [as the Peace Corps]?

John: It’s modeled on the Peace Corps but there’s less training time. I think our orientation was about two weeks total, so significantly less than Peace Corps, and not with a host family.

Molly: Well, if you’re there for 11 months, then you probably have to truncate it. Normally Peace Corps is a 24 month commitment. 

Adam: With two and a half or three months of training. I think it’s been truncated down to 2 months if I recall correctly in some spots. But for us it was three months.

Molly: And most places you lived with a host family, too, for the entire time.

Adam: You’re at a central location for your training, for about three months, coming in once a week or thereabouts.

Molly: Training is usually clustered close to where the Peace Corps headquarters is. In Ukraine, it’s in Kyiv, but Kyiv is too expensive to host volunteers. When I got there, the last volunteers who had been serving in Kyiv were gone. We were all stationed in surrounding areas in small little groups.

Adam: As they talk with you, as they get to know things about you — like how comfortable are you in a smaller town, what your skills are, what are your strengths, that sort of thing — then maybe a month or five weeks in they assign you, and then you do a site visit to your permanent site. Then you come back for the rest of your training. Then you go into field.

Molly: I taught at a university because I had a master’s degree. So that also meant that I wasn’t going to be placed in a small village, which was not the typical experience most people have. I was placed in Nikolaev — or now it’s known as Mikolaiv in Ukrainian — a city of 500,000 people.

I was teaching English to university students, but more English in context than grammar, teaching culture and a spoken English to interpreters and translators. I also taught a literature course.

Because they had limited supplies and resources, it was up to me to build the curriculum for the classes that I taught and I had a lot of autonomy. The Peace Corps and Americorps/Vista were the two best jobs I’ve ever had, because of that freedom to be creative. But it was also the students. They were great. I’m still in touch with a lot of them.

Adam: I was teaching English to students in first through ninth grade. I would have one first form, one third form grade class, a couple of eights and a nine. I would have maybe six classes a day with 15 to 20 students in each class.

I worked with students so they might ultimately be able to go to English-language universities or get scholarships to attend colleges here in the United States. Some are still studying and really exceeding all of their expectations in the United States, Europe, Russia, Turkey, and Turkmenistan. I see my time in the Peace Corps as an investment in those students, and it’s paid off. At the time I was immersed in some of my own frustrations with the overall situation. But, the students worked hard because they wanted to be their best and make the most of their lives. Time and time again since I was in the Peace Corps I’ve felt that’s why I was there, and that’s what makes me feel good about that choice.

Nasha: My situation was different, in that I was working mainly with a combination of local politicians from the village like the dugutigi which in Bambara means chief of the village, and his advisors, some of the people at the mayor’s office, also just everyday villagers. I also worked with NGOs that come into the community as well. I got to work with some of them for funding, although with every project the community has to contribute as well. My role would start with a needs assessment to figure out what the majority of the local population would like.

Every volunteer has to have someone who’s a point person or essentially a liaison. Mine was in my village and the community I worked in. He would help me with the dynamics of how meetings should be run. It takes time learning about every type of situation and how to communicate. He was awesome and I saw him when I went back Mali last year.

In my job I didn’t really go into the office. It wasn’t even a case of there being a typical work day. A lot of it was relationship building since I was the first Peace Corps volunteer. Part of my job was educating them about their role as a community and my role as a volunteer. So there was lots of tea. Lots of tea.

And lots of meeting different people. I was able to get some projects done through grants, such as one that resulted in a repair of a well. And interestingly enough, the volunteers who came after me were able to do a lot because the community already understood what a volunteer does. In other words, I was establishing a process and relationships so there was a strong and positive foundation in place for the next volunteer.

John: We were all English language teachers in my WorldTeach program. The residents speak Marshallese, but students learn English in the school system. I taught sixth, seventh and eighth grade English. I had small classes, and there were two other volunteers on my island, one of whom is now my wife, actually.

I had done some test prep tutoring and substitute teaching before, but it was certainly overwhelming at the start. I had a really good principal, though. He had worked in the capital, Majuro, in one of the larger schools there. He moved to Jaluit to be with his family, but he had studied in Hawaii, so he was familiar with American culture. In some ways he was overqualified for the position, and he did a fantastic job as a principal of this tiny, tiny, combined elementary and middle school. We had maybe 75 students total, if that. He supported my teaching and also briefed me on Marshallese culture. He actually was called by the president to go back to Majuro to be principal of a huge school there halfway through my year, but he was great resource while he was there.

Molly: Teachers face so many challenges, and one you find in a lot of the post-Soviet states is that teachers have multiple jobs just in order to make a living. That’s why in addition to the local counterparts, we were supported by Regional Managers stationed at Peace Corps headquarters. I loved my teachers, and I loved my RMs, too.

Adam: For me, the most important people were other members of my community, those with similar interests — ones who liked to play chess or were interested in the environment, for instance. I felt welcome. And most important of all — it was the students 100%. The students I taught loved me, and I loved them. They were the reason that I was there.

MAKING THE MOST OF THE OPPORTUNITY

John: In the Marshall Islands you never knew what was going to happen. We could run out of food because the boats that supply the island didn’t come or because the country’s two planes had bro- ken down or we’d have bad weather. We would run out of water and we wouldn’t know when the next rains would come.

The challenges are really things beyond your control — planes, boats, weather. What you had to learn was to be okay with that uncertainty. In American culture there’s a lot of control and planning, but in the Marshall Islands you need to roll with the punches.

Molly: I think it’s cultural. As Americans we have that need to know, “this is what I’m going to be doing this year, this is my schedule, this is what’s going to happen.” But as John says, in other places you live with uncertainty. And that unpredictability could be a result of where you’re geographically located or because of the political systems that you’re living under.

That was one of the things I got the most from the experience. We’re different because the culture that we’re in and that we are born into dictates that. Nothing is necessarily right or wrong; it’s just different. And you can understand the differences if you look at the history of a culture, and that helped me get through most things in Ukraine that I found or came against that were frustrating. I learned not to interpret that people aren’t being friendly or aren’t being this or that. It’s because, culturally speaking, this is where they’re coming from.

Nasha: Yeah, that is helpful. It’s helpful when people are late. For example, in Bambara time is basically just morning, afternoon or evening. That’s it. Without the emphasis on specific times, people not showing up on time is just a result of that different perception, the cultural aspect of it. So knowing that, when you’re at the bus stop for an hour, instead of being angry, you can just decide you’re going to ride your bike everywhere from then on.

Adam: You have to adjust your expectations on the fly, and be tolerant of uncertainty and ambiguity. Just being really adaptable is helpful going in. It’s going to be a sink or swim situation, and you’re probably going to swim, but you’re going to have to learn the skills to do that. You need to embrace that mindset and enjoy the surprises that occur day to day, by happenstance. You turn a corner, and there’s an ice cream stand that wasn’t there be- fore. So you say, “Great! I’m going to have ice cream today.” Or you get invited to a wedding that night and you go and have a new fun experience with new people.

John: One thing I would recommend for people doing these kinds of experiences is to find a hobby. I did spearfishing. It was great for me. It was a very small island, a mile long and 500 feet wide with a thousand people on it. So it wasn’t that many people, but quite a few for an island that size. 

Spearfishing was a way to get out, to see a whole new world, the coral reefs and the animals there. And then also it was a very culturally appropriate thing to do. I was getting food, literally bringing food back for my host family. It was a way I could contribute to my family. Being a good spear fisherman was an asset in the community.

Nasha: I did a lot of reading, tons and tons of reading, which was great. I would also do some “local” things. I had a furuno. It’s sort of a little metal stove, and you can put charcoal on top or in it to cook. You can make tea. So I would make tea for people and do a lot of chatting to get to know people. I babysat my little baby brother, carried him on my back and blended into the community.

Adam: The face to face interaction between Americans and the host nationals is, is to me the most important thing that’s going to come out of your time abroad for you, for the United States, for the host country nationals and that country itself. You bring the experiences and impressions of the host country back to the United States so you can be an ambassador for that country.

THE PATH TO THE REVES CENTER

Molly: I had studied abroad in college, so the Peace Corps experience added to it, but it was very much when I came back from the Peace Corps, that I knew wanted to get into international education.

Adam: After I came back from Turkmenistan, I did AmeriCorps in Alabama. And then I worked for year and a half in India managing Indicorps, a fellowship program much like the Peace Corps. India was really, really fantastic. I just loved it from, from beginning to end. But during the time I was there, I started thinking I was so far away from home and realized I was building a life, but I wondered if that was the life I wanted to have. Is it stable? Is it something that can go forward? I returned to Williamsburg. International education was woven throughout every- thing that I’d been doing. Study abroad was one of the areas that I had become interested in over the course of those sorts of experiences.

John: Since work with international people here at Reves, I think my experience gives me more empathy. I know the difficulty of living in another country very different from your own, so I try to make it as easy as I can.

Nasha: Being able to live without running water or electricity for over two years, operating primarily in a language other than English, gives you the confidence that you can go anywhere and almost do anything.

Adam: You also learn you can roll with things. Things may come your way in the United States, whether it’s socially, professionally, culturally, whatever, but there’s not that much that could really faze you when you’ve had to live in such a different world for a period of time, and you’ve survived.

John: There was a serious need for English language learning in the Marshall Islands. The Marshall Islands are going underwater because of climate change. They currently have a Compact of Free Association with the United States and so many Marshallese are allowed to immigrate to the United States. So strong English language skills are crucial for them. Did I actually made a difference in the kids’ lives? I hope I did. But I know there was a clear need for English language training there, and I was part of program that was successfully meeting that need.

Nasha: I do think a lot of people think about joining it to go over and help. But I think once you are over there and in the process and once you return and reflect on your experience, you realize how much the experience helped you versus your helping anyone.

Molly: It was something I’d always wanted to do. I loved it. 

* For more than five decades, Peace Corps Volunteers in 140 countries have worked alongside community leaders to solve critical challenges. Their mission is to promote world peace and friendship by fulfilling three goals: to help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women; to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served; and to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

** WorldTeach is a private, non-profit organization based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that partners with governments and other organizations in countries to provide volunteer teachers to meet local needs and promote responsible global citizenship. Founded in late 1986 by a small group of Harvard graduates,   more than 7,000 WorldTeach volunteers have provided 12 million hours of service to meet the need of   the world’s learners. WorldTeach, in partnership with the Marshall Islands Public School System, has been providing volunteer teaching opportunities in the urban centers and remote outer islands of the Marshall Islands since 2002. UNICEF reports educational levels in the Marshall Islands are among the lowest of the 14 Pacific nations.