A Writer Writes: Peace Corps Mojo! by Bob Criso

Peace Corps Mojo

by Bob Criso (Nigeria & Somalia 1966-68)

What would our diplomatic service be like if one of the qualifications was prior Peace Corps service? We have West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy which prepare us for war but how about a Peace Corps Academy? criso-b-2What if the Peace Corps included the element of exchange and a teacher from Kenya was swapped with one from Ohio? What about a Peace Corps Memorial in Washington?What would our diplomatic service be like if one of the qualifications was prior Peace Corps service? We have West Point, Annapolis and the Air Force Academy which prepare us for war but how about a Peace Corps Academy? What if the Peace Corps included the element of exchange and a teacher from Kenya was swapped with one from Ohio? What about a Peace Corps Memorial in Washington?

These were just a few of the ideas put forth recently on a panel at Columbia University. The panel was held on December 10, 2013 at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). It was organized by a group of RPCV’s from the Columbia community. Their plan is to have such a panel every year.  Eight RPCV’s and staff talked about their training, service and post-PC careers to an audience of mostly twenty-somethings, some recently returned PCV’s, others thinking about joining. Most were connected to Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA). I was there thanks to an email from Japan (John Fanselow Nigeria 1961-63) Professor Emeritus of Columbia Teachers College telling me he was going to participate by Skype. “You might be interested,” he said, “since you live in the neighborhood.”

The legendary, John Fanselow, Professor Emeritus at Columbia Teacher's College

The legendary, John Fanselow, Professor Emeritus at Columbia Teacher's College

“Interested?” I was spellbound.

In addition to John Fanselow (Nigeria 1961-63), Gary Schulze (Sierra Leone 61-63), Jim Phillips (Nigeria 1967-69), Tony Barclay (Kenya 1968-70), Jane Berliss (Ivory Coast 1967-69), Henry Berliss (Kenya 1968-70), Henry Greenberg (Cameroon PCMO 1966-68) and Sharon Keld (Morocco 2006-08) reminisced about Kennedy’s Ann Arbor speech, getting that letter of acceptance from Sergeant Shriver, sexual escapades during training, the shortcomings of the psychological evaluations and the deselection process and, best of all, the challenges and gratifications of service and how it influenced their career choices. Included were anecdotes about the bureaucratic confusion of those early years: one PCV got a letter of acceptance to China when there was no China program, another story about a group studying Igbo for three months to go to Nigeria only to learn at the end of training that the program was cancelled and everyone would start training for another country.

One RPCV applied for the Foreign Service when he returned to the States but gave the wrong answer to a decisive question. “What is the primary goal of the Foreign Service?” his interviewer asked. “To provide aid and services to the host country,” he answered. “Wrong!” his interviewer replied, “It’s to further US interests abroad.” He never made it into the Foreign Service.

And then there’s the story of the Nigerian RPCV who had a 1A classification from his draft board when he finished his two years in 1969 during the Vietnam War. He went to Fernando Po (now called Bioko) in the Gulf of Guinea, worried and directionless but stumbled, by chance, on a job loading cargo on the nightly Red Cross relief flights into Uli airport in what was left of Biafra. He made made some quick bucks and held off the draft.

The Peace Corps generation in the audience had lots to say about their experiences as well, sometimes vividly illustrating how times have changed. If someone had a history of psychological problems before they applied, for example, they could have their treatment person submit a letter saying they were fit for service but there were no MMPI’s (Minnesota Multi-phasic Psychological Inventory, the standard psych test back then,) and no evaluative meetings with psychologists during training. On the technology end, recently returned PCV’s talked about calling home every week on their cellphones or talking to their families by Skype.

Many had visits from their families during their two years abroad. One PCV called his parents about a problem he was having, they called PC Washington, PC Washington called the Country Director and the problem was addressed. Many RPCV’s now stay in touch with their former students and co-workers by Facebook!

All of the above sounds like another world from the sixties Peace Corps I knew. We had an exceptionally large number deselected from my Nigeria XXI group. I thought some of those deemed unfit would have made excellent Volunteers because they were bright, unique, out-ofthe-box thinkers and doers. As for psychological evaluations, we all took the MMPI and worried about the results. And as for the value of psychologists during my training program, one of my friends was having an affair with one of the psychologists evaluating us.

My family was not the writing type so I was pretty much cut off from them once I went to Nigeria, although I kept in touch with friends with letters. After the Biafran War started however, there was no mail coming into Eastern Nigeria through normal channels. The alternative was sending or receiving a letter by hand-carried diplomatic pouch (Enugu to Lagos round trip), that is if you could get the letter to the Enugu PC office to start with. I wonder about some of the tradeoffs with these changes. Being cut off from things forced us to be independent and resourceful in dealing with whatever problem faced us, something most of our host nationals were accustomed to.

Back row J Phillips, T Barclay, G Schulze, H Berliss. Front row S Keld, H  Greenberg, J Berliss

Back row Jim Phillips, Tony Barclay, Gary Schulze, Henry Berliss. Front row Sharon Keld, Henry Greenberg, Jane Berliss

Another possible sign of the times at Columbia that night was the white male majority on the panel in contrast to the diverse and largely female audience. How much this reflects the actual Peace Corps statistics I don’t know but it was striking.*

So there I was, sitting in the first row, getting all nostalgic and watery-eyed at times, just like some of the old-timers on the panel, rapt by all the personal stories being told. What is it about those two words “Peace Corps” that still penetrates my emotional armor, forty five years after leaving Africa? What is it that makes me feel I know something profound about a stranger, regardless of their age, when I learn they were in the Peace Corps? Sometimes I wonder if I’m too sentimental or have bought into Peace Corps myth too much. Have we lost our objectivity when we hear those emotionally-laden words: Peace Corps, John Kennedy, Sergeant Shriver?

Peace Corps mojo.

* Today approximately 64% of all PCVs are women. Approximately 7% of all Volunteers are over the age of 50. The oldest Volunteer is 85. The Readjustment Allowance is now $7,425.00.

Bob Criso (Nigeria & Somali 1966-68) worked half-time at Princeton University in their Psychological Services, and also had a private private psychotherapy practice in Princeton. He is currently living in New York City and writing full time.

9 Comments

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  • Bob Criso is not alone. In my 50 plus post Peace Corps years split mostly between Latin America and Africa I encountered hundreds of local doctors, engineers, professors, businessmen and government officials. I can’t recall any of them telling a story about a USAID official or an ambassador. But, when the Peace Corps was mentioned the tales and emotions often poured out.

  • What if we had a Peace Corps Library/Archives with a Research Librarian and a Conference Center? What if that wonderful panel that Bob Crisco is describing so vividly had been viewed at the conference center and then on video for the archives?
    What if the Research Librarian, situated in PC/HQs could give an orientation to all the newly politically appointed non-RPCV Peace Corps staff about the history of Peace Corps?

    What if a citizen, viewing the PC Memorial on the National Mall, asked “What exactly did Peace Corps do?” And the Research Librarian would be available to immediately access all the wonderful collections – private such as at American University; public such as JKF Library and the National Archives; public universities, such as University of New Mexico- and display all the work answering “What exactly did Peace Corps do?” What if Peace Corps could produce statistics on how many PCV Teachers there have been in Africa since 1961 and where they taught?

    What if Raindeer could fly?

  • On a more hopeful note, I would like to share a startling encounter I had. One of the sons of a friend was called up from his Reserve status and served a year in the Sudan. We prayed him home. When he came to visit his mother, she introduced me and mentioned that I had been in the Peace Corps. This soldier said to me: ” Good. That is what we need. Thank you.”

  • Thanks for sharing, Bob. I’m a recently returned mid-career PCV (Mexico 2010-12), still going through transition/re-integration – the bittersweetness of being home yet missing my new casa en Mexico. The ‘modern’ peace corps experience had its ups and downs – likely not so different from the ‘classic’ experience of the 60s and 70s. I’d say the generation have lots share with and learn from each other. The experience has inspired me to commit to writing my book of lessons-learned from south of the border on surviving, thriving and serving. The peace corps taught me that patience and persistence make change possible – and that will certainly apply to completing and sharing my story. Would love to join the Columbia discussion next year!

  • Thanks for sharing, Bob. I’m a recently returned mid-career PCV (Mexico 2010-12), still going through transition/re-integration – the bittersweetness of being home yet missing my new casa en Mexico. The ‘modern’ peace corps experience had its ups and downs – likely not so different from the ‘classic’ experience of the 60s and 70s. I’d say the generation have lots share with and learn from each other. The experience has inspired me to commit to writing my book of lessons-learned from south of the border on surviving, thriving and serving. The peace corps taught me that patience and persistence make change possible – and that will certainly apply to completing and sharing my story.

    Would love to be part of the Columbia conversation next year!

  • On Tue, Dec 24, 2013 at 1:29 PM, Phillip LeBel wrote:

    John, I now seem to be added to your blogosphere. Prior Peace Corps service as a pre-requisite for diplimatic service? Not a bad idea, en principe, but at what level, one should ask. As we all know, ambassadorial appointments are rife with political plum appointees in which the idea of qualifications and experience in international affairs might intersect by default rather than by design. Caroline Kennedy as the U.S. ambassador to Japan is a case in point, much as we can all admire her commitment to public service. What might be more instructive would be to incorporate into diplomatic service training some component of Peace Corps service to compensate for the fact that not all appointees may have been Peace Corps volunteers. How this would work in practice would depend on the machinery of placement and rotation within the State Department.

    Having peer exchanges at Peace Corps teaching levels would be an interesting idea, and it might help leaven the sometimes coarse cultural landscape that spills over into contemporary politics. It would be a step upward from the American Field Service program, for example, and worth considering. Whether it would fly as Congressional legislation is another matter, much as it has value to international relations.

    A Peace Corps Memorial in Washington is problematic. Why so, one might ask. In the first place, most of the memorials in Washington are in reference to events and personalities from the past. Do we really want to focus on the past, which seems to antithetical to the spirit of the Peace Corps? I find that while the idea of acknowledging what the Peace Corps has been, it is more important to keep in mind what it can be and I am afraid that a Memorial would consign it to history rather than to the present and future.

  • Bob Criso’s notes are delightful to read but not all of the ideas he’s passed on to us make sense. Specifically (speaking as someone who joined the Foreign Service after and resulting from serving as a PCV in Nigeria) of course the primary mission of the FSO is to advance US interests — not to serve the host country. Peace Corps is different.
    And I have to say there’s a certain smugness and excess of self-satisfaction when RPCVs suggest that career diplomats should first serve as PCVs. The world is too complicated for an approach like that to make any sense.

  • I am an RPCV who also served in the US Foreign Service (State). I have also been in private business. The most fun I ever had was running a wine business. The most I ever learned came from running a PR firm. We are all complex creatures formed by a vast array of experiences. Peace Corps is certainly a major influence but not the only one.

    Good Foreign Service Officers are those who remember that they serve US interests. Of course this is best where host country interests and ours are similar. The real trick is keeping this in mind when our interests differ from local interests and trying to find common ground.

  • Prior successful service as a Peace Corps Volunteer should be a prerequisite for employment with the Peace Corps. Those positions requiring highly technical skills could be exempt, if qualified RPCVs could not be found.

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