Talking With Lora Parisien Begin (Tunisia 1989-91 & Papua New Guinea 1996)

Lora, where and when were you in the Peace Corps?

I was in the Peace Corps twice. In Tunisia from 1989–1991 and in Papua New Guinea for a year in 1996.

What was your Tunisia assignment?

I served my first year in the capital, Tunis, as an English Professor at Institut Des Langues Vivantes, Tunis (the University of Tunis). For my second year, I moved two hours west to the town of Beja to teach in a satellite school for the university. For my special project (a requirement for teachers during summer season) I directed a teacher training program for several of my co-volunteers. The program allowed over 150 Tunisian students access to free English lessons.

And in Papua New Guinea?

I lived in the extremely remote village of Kantobo in the Southern Highlands Province. I worked on an eco-tourism/rainforest conservation project with the World Wildlife Fund. I also worked for women’s literacy.

Where did you go to college?

Central Michigan University where I majored in journalism and English. I also studied Arabic at Institut Des Langues Vivantes, Tunis.

You also worked for the Peace Corps after your tour, right?

Yes, I spent nearly a decade at the agency as a recruiter and as Public Affairs Specialist for the Detroit Regional Office. Then after Papua New Guinea I worked in the field of cross cultural training; designing and delivering cultural training and business adaptation for the employees of multinational companies moving into and out of the United States (over ten years). Today, I’m writing and raising my two children.

Okay, tell us about your book, The Measure of a Dream: A Peace Corps Story.

When I went to Tunisia in 1989 I did not a lick of Arabic or one iota about Arabs or Islam, or even the job I was recruited to do. So my story really is an honest account of what happened when West met East, when a Catholic found herself surrounded by Muslims, when she followed a dream, yet had no idea where it was leading her. It examines culture and cultural adjustment. It attempts to make the case that, Arabs — though they may be challenging sometimes and confusing or even infuriating — are a people worthy of knowing, and Muslims are not a people to fear. The story takes place over twenty years ago at a time when the United States first went to war with Iraq. It asks the question why, after twenty years, do we still know so little about Arabs and their culture?

Have you been back to Tunisia?

Yes I have, six times so far. I always head directly to my adopted family’s home in Beja. I have returned for weddings — in fact, my Tunisian sister was married in my wedding dress — and for special family events. Most recently I returned just before the Arab Spring, when Tunisia erupted and ousted its longtime dictator Ben Ali. I am in the process of planning my next trip. My itinerary will include a visit to the newly re-opened Peace Corps office. I am thrilled Peace Corps operations are resuming in Tunisia!

Are you planning a book on Papua New Guinea?

I am thinking about it. My Peace Corps experience in Papua New Guinea was cut short due to security issues. But oh do I have stories to tell!

What was the difference in the two Peace Corps experiences?

The two experiences could not have been more different. Tunisia is a modern country, a mobile country with amenities, easy access to resources and communication. Being in Papua New Guinea is like stepping back in time. In my extremely remote village, I did not have electricity or running water or any form of communication with the outside world. I did not have access to food or resources of any kind. Plus, my neighbors had had little to no interaction with the outside world — parents used to tell their children I was a ghost, for many had never seen such a large, white woman. The cultural barriers were enormous.

Lora, you have had a great deal of ‘Peace Corps Experiences’ as a PCV and as a staff member, and you have had perhaps more years than most with the agency, over a decade. What advice would you give the staff in Washington about improving the agency and helping PCVs do a better job in the field?

My easy answer is “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Peace Corps is a very special agency whose employees are passionate about the mission. Most people don’t know that Peace Corps has the lowest absentee rate of any government agency. My greatest hope is that our government continues to fund the agency at levels that allow it to thrive and support existing programs around the world. I also hope that Returned Peace Corps Volunteers continue to staff the agency in high number because no one knows better the conditions and experiences of volunteers than those who have served. Technology has dramatically changed the experiences of volunteers in the field. Communication is vital. It helps a volunteer feel connected and supported. To the extent possible, the agency should support a volunteer’s access to the Internet so that information is always available and resources can be shared. As a cross cultural trainer, I would like to see a greater emphasis on raising awareness (during in-country training) of American cultural values so that Peace Corps Volunteers can understand the “baggage” they bring with them, baggage that often gets in the way of their own adaptation.

Lora, again thanks for this interview and for your book. It’s a great book that you have written!

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