Myrna J. Aavedal (Chile 1967–68)
Monday, November 21
MR. PRESIDENT, I want to tell you about my experience in the Peace Corps. I was 24 when I went off to training at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque – still a bit unworldly as I left my home in Montana. At the time I, of course, wasn’t sure what was in store for me, but I wanted adventure, travel, and an opportunity to use my nursing skills to help people in need. I was very proud that I had been selected to serve. Yes, I did get the adventure and travel, and I did use my nursing skills among needy people. I also got a lot more.
The first surprise came when some of the Trainees who looked so good and talked so wise washed out of training or gave up and went home early. For me the Peace Corps was a real test of one’s commitment to a goal and a principle. I was surprised when others did not seem to feel the same commitment that I did.
One of the unanticipated rewards of the Peace Corps was to learn to see my country as outsiders see it. The people I lived with in Chile had a very distorted impression of the U.S. and of us Americans. I soon realized why. Their sole source of information about the U.S. came from the movies and the news headlines. If I had had to depend on news headlines, I, too, would have worried about the future of the U.S. Fortunately my mother wrote often about the day-to-day goings on around Helena, Montana. That was a reassuring, stabilizing factor for me.
Living, as I did, in a small town with a Chilean family for two years gave them a chance to really get to know an American, what I did, what I thought, who my family was, and what my goals were. My mother even came to Chile to visit me and meet my Chilean “family.” Sra. Verdugo and my mother took such a delight in one another they wanted to sit up and talk all night – with me as translator!
Needless to say, this understanding of another culture worked the other way much more. I got to know the Chileans as individuals and as a cultural group. I became very fond of them.
During the two years I was out of this country there had been race riots in major cities, Martin Luther King Jr. had been killed, Bobby Kennedy had been killed, the 1968 election had taken place, and the war in Viet Nam had escalated. I returned to the U.S. in December 1968. I returned to a nation of violence that I had not known before. I also experienced some “reverse culture shock”. Compared to the very frugal existence in Chile, the U.S. seemed like such a wasteful place. I was overwhelmed. But, I was also surprised. My friends back home seemed to have developed a greater social consciousness – or was it me? Whichever. I was proud to have served as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Proud then and proud now. I hope to continue to learn peace, live peace, and labor for peace until the end of my days.
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I very much enjoyed your reflections of Chile. I was in Chile (64-66) and worked at the Instituto Forestal in Santiago. During those 2 years, I got to work in much of central and southern Chile. For me it was the most significant experience of my life. I don’t know how my life would have turned out if I had not had that experience. Before I left the US, the only concern among young people was the dangers of beer and teenage pregnancy. When I returned, all had changed, as you so skillfully said. The war, drugs, unrest. I was in graduate school at that time and could not believe what was happening here. My Chile experience gave me a much greater view of that history.
My contacts with Chile have continued. I married a Chilean and treasure being a member of her family. My wife was never really accepted by my family but I was welcomed into hers. I have written a novel of some of that experience, in English and Spanish, and now another one is nagging at me.