Maureen Orth's LATimes Op-Ed Today, February 25, 2011

latimes.com
Op-Ed
A Peace Corps volunteer’s journey
The Peace Corps set us on a path to a more fulfilling and interesting life.

By Maureen Orth

February 25, 2011

Twenty years ago I was riding down a dusty road in rural Argentina gabbing in Spanish with a local journalist when suddenly a wave of nostalgia hit me, and I realized why I felt so happy: It was just like being in the Peace Corps again. At the time, I was doing investigative reporting on Argentina’s flamboyant then-President Carlos Menem, but the discussion of local politics and poverty and figuring out how to get the information I wanted was pure Peace Corps.

When I served in the 1960s in Medellin, Colombia, as a community development volunteer, I had no thought of becoming a journalist. After my Peace Corps stint, I enrolled in graduate courses in Latin American studies. But they seemed so stifling – especially compared with living for two years amid the vibrant life of a poor barrio – that I was driven to page through the UCLA course catalogue. There I discovered “J” for journalism near “L” for Latin America, and I switched. Thus my career began.

Today, I think I echo thousands and thousands of people who can thank the Peace Corps for setting us on a path to a more interesting and fulfilling life. Back then, women could mostly be teachers or nurses or perhaps airline stewardesses if we wanted to see the world. In the Peace Corps, whatever happened after two years at our sites, we made happen, male or female; there were no limits. That was a very liberating concept for a young woman then, just as it is for anyone today.

To succeed in either journalism or the Peace Corps, you need curiosity and energy, but you also need to learn how to observe and to listen. We were constantly challenged to understand reality from a new perspective and to appreciate how others might react or behave. We learned how to empathize. We learned not to be arrogant. That is a good way to get people to open up and tell you how things work or what happened – invaluable for a reporter. Not bad for diplomats either.

Just trying to fit in at any level as one constantly has to do in the Peace Corps has served me in good stead, whether I was listening to heartbreaking tales of naive, star-struck parents allowing their little boys to spend too much time with Michael Jackson or uncovering Arianna Huffington’s fierce loyalty and reliance on her odd guru, John-Roger, to cite just two examples.

Lesson No. 1 in how not to become overly impressed with power or the trappings of celebrity comes from living in a faraway place with people who have had little formal education, only to find that the global gene pool is far more level than we comfortable Americans might have ever guessed. People of brilliance, with great senses of humor, striking musical talent or athletic ability are born everywhere. Some are able to cultivate their talent; many are not, but they often teach those of us from the so-called developed world how to appreciate the finer things, whether it’s hopping off your saddle to dance under a full moon or learning firsthand how much fun it can be to serve.

For many years I was unable to travel to the mountains above Medellin to visit the school I had helped build and that was named for me: Escuela Marina Orth. The notorious narco-traffiker, Pablo Escobar, hid out for a while right down the road from the school. When I returned in 2004, to an homage of songs, dances, a lunch and Mass in my honor, I was asked by the Medellin secretary of education to help make my school the first public one in Colombia that was also bilingual and a One Laptop per Child school. “Otherwise,” he told me, “these kids have no chance to compete in the global economy.” I readily agreed, having no idea how; it was the old Peace Corps challenge all over again. But I was also a reporter; I could find out.

Today, there are two nonprofit Marina Orth Foundations – one in the U.S. and one in Colombia – to support three Colombian schools that serve 1,200 children through public/private partnerships in both countries. Each primary school child has a computer, is taught English and learns leadership skills. My plan is to have a national network operating in Colombia within four years.

After my husband, Tim Russert, died suddenly in 2008, I was back in Colombia within six weeks to report on the army rescue of five hostages, including the politician Ingrid Betancourt, taken years earlier by FARC guerrillas. I was also able to revisit my school.

In the wake of Tim’s death, I realize the solace it gives me to be able to help these beautiful children go on to a better life. Here was the best possible legacy, taking me from darkness to light. Once again, I had the Peace Corps to thank.

Maureen Orth is an author and special correspondent for Vanity Fair. She is on the opening panel March 2 in UCLA’s commemoration of the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary.

11 Comments

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  • This inspiring message comes at a good time for Group XV Afghanistan as we focus our commitment of giving back to an empowerment of women project headed up by an amazing Afghan woman studying now in the U.S. You have made education a reality for hundreds of students as we hope to do including the computer and English literacy piece. And, yes, it all goes back to our experience as Peace Corps volunteers.

  • Maureen: Brilliant op-ed in LA Times, ” to get the information I wanted was pure Peace Corps,”. In my work I often get that feeling when talking with some Minister of Finance in wherever land …out of the blue it hits me..I’ve been here before..50 years ago!!!

    However, I discovered D for “Development Finance ” instead of L for “Latin American studies” and switched, and I am always asking “what would Juan Valdez do?”

  • Nobody says it as well as Maureen! The world is saved one person at a time!

    Takes me back! …and forward. Since Peace Corps in the 60’s I’ve visited 58 countries in a host of roles. Seldom have I felt not ‘at home’. Its Peace Corps.

  • Brilliant! I especially like her Lesson No. 1 —
    learning that “the gene pool is far more level
    than we comfortable Americans might have
    ever guessed.” The Peae Corps as antidote
    to American arrogance.

  • Beautifully written, inspiring, and so true. Nothing is more fun, more rewarding, more exciting and worthwhile than giving whatever we can in talent or spirit or funds to those who struggle to better their lives.
    Bravo Marina!

  • Wow, I think Marina highlights not only how we were transformed by our countries of service, but how many of us continue to maintain contact with our PC village or city. Harlan Green, Turkey V (1964-66)

  • A beautifully written piece. Lesson 1 is so true! bring about change in yourself or your community without that insight! I learned it in Thailand as a volunteer, and working with migrant workers in Florida in the 60’s as well as years later making films and working as a consultant with Hmong refugees in the Midwest.

    I will keep this article and pass it on to others. Peace Corps should use parts of it in recruitment if it is possible to do so.It should also be available to members of Congress for it captures so well the third goal – how Peace Corps changed us, taught us to appreciate others from different cultures and educational and socio-economic levels, and how we built on our experience, each in our own way, sometimes by chance, finding fulfilling roles when we returned.

    I want to read more of your work!

  • Thank you Maureen. You are a special lady and a fellow Colombian PC Volunteer. The fact that you have maintained contact with your school, and are supporting its students, after all of these years is wonderful and awe inspiring. You are a model for all of us. Thank you,

    Marilyn Farber (Columbia 1967-69)

  • Marina
    I live on the East Coast so I am not generally exposed to your writings. Your article was sent to me by a friend and fellow board member of Orphan Support Africa. Ours is an organization that focuses on orphans and vulnerable children (mostly in Malawi).

    I am a RPCV from the 60’s and I served in Malawi. I was a teacher, hence I was “educated” prior to my service. However my real education commenced in Malawi where I was immersed in a life that was so different from my upbringing that I was surprised and awed every day of my 2 year stint. (of note…I was married while a PCV and our first child was born inMalawi while serving. My wife’s experience and feelings as a PCV are similar to my own)
    I have returned many times to Malawi, and all my children (5) have been there. Your article stirred many many, many fond memories.
    I recently spoke to a group In Philadelphia, there were a number of young people in the audience. I warned them about joining the Peace Corps, stating that it was easy to enter, but more difficult to leave…..in fact I think it is easier to exit the Mafia than the PC.

    Thanks for the article and for sharing your recurring feelings!

    Garry Prime
    Malawi VIII

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