Alumni Recount Experiences as Peace Corps Volunteers

January 05, 2015

by Karen Doss Bowman '91

During her senior year at Bridgewater, Alex Murphy traveled to South Sudan on a learning tour sponsored by the New Community Project, a non-profit organization that promotes peace through social justice, care for the environment and experiential learning opportunities. That experience inspired her and sparked an interest in learning about other cultures and serving others. Her sense of adventure led her to join the Peace Corps.

“I fell in love with the culture of South Sudan, the people, the way the entire experience shaped my mind and the way I thought about the world around me,” said Murphy, who graduated in 2009 with a double major in sociology and communication studies. “I was interested in how people all around the world live and the struggles that are faced by communities in developing and Third World countries. I wanted to pursue something more long-term—more in depth—where I felt like I could have a greater impact.”

Like Murphy, Peter Barlow ’04, was drawn to other cultures, loved to travel and wanted to gain a greater understanding of people and places around the world. And so, Barlow­­­—a recipient of the 2004 Bridgewater student service award—went into the Peace Corps.

“Joining Peace Corps is something I’d wanted to do for a long time,” said Barlow, who earned a master’s degree in biology from James Madison University in 2006. “I had been working for Virginia State Parks, and loved my job, but had a strong desire to explore the world, serving others.”

Life Skills Education

Murphy returned to the United States in July, after serving three years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana, Africa. She spent her first two years training teachers at the primary school level on a life skills curriculum that was developed by Botswana’s ministry of education.  Her last year was spent training teachers on a comprehensive sexual education curriculum at a school for children with developmental disabilities.

Botswana has the world’s second-highest rate of HIV, Murphy explained. The program was designed to raise awareness about HIV and healthy sexual behaviors by teaching life skills such as self-confidence, assertiveness and gender equality. The curriculum also applied life lessons to everyday subjects. A math lesson, for example, might be taught using HIV/AIDS statistics.

A key feature of her service was to train teachers to continue the work even after she and other volunteers were gone.

“We were not taking away jobs from the people,” said Murphy. “It was more about capacity building—just teaching them to do their jobs in a more sustainable and educated way. It’s a great approach that’s prevalent through Peace Corps.”

Photo of Peter Barlow

Boosting Economics

Barlow served in Peace Corps from Aug. 2009 to Oct. 2011 on the island of Leyte, Phillippines. Barlow said that Leyte, a municipality of 25,000 people, is the most impoverished part of the country.

Barlow, a biology major at Bridgewater, served as an agricultural extension worker, taught biology and environmental science classes to high school students in the mornings. In the afternoons, he worked with villagers to build fish cages and grew seaweed in the ocean to boost their economic livelihood and availability of low-cost, high-protein food. The fish was sold in local markets, while the seaweed was sold primarily to businessmen for use as carrageenan in many products, including toothpaste.

“The people there only make an average of $60 per month—if they’re working,” Barlow said. “The unemployment rate is 70 percent, and the high school graduation rate is about two percent. So few people get the chance to go to school, and few people have jobs. And those who do have jobs are not making much money. It’s a sad situation.”

Though the people he served live in extreme poverty, Barlow was inspired by their sense of togetherness. He recalled one day when there was a tsunami warning, he rushed with a group of people to higher ground to wait for danger to pass.

“I looked around me, and I realized I was standing on top of the highest hill around,” he said. “I was in this crowd of about 1,000 people hoping that tsunami wouldn’t come. Even though it was a scary situation, there was something bizarrely settling about knowing that you were in it together with all these people. Throughout service, many similar situations occurred.”

Typhoon Yolanda, the strongest tropical storm on record worldwide, raged through the area in which Barlow served in November 2013, causing widespread death and devastation. Sadly, several members of his host family (the Alicers) died in the storm, including Tita Grace—the family matriarch with whom he had developed a special bond. About 75 neighbors, including young children who were the backdrop to many of Peter’s colorful experiences early in Peace Corps service, were also lost to the storm.

Barlow returned in January with Church of the Brethren Disaster Ministries, bringing about $250,000 raised through the denomination’s congregations. He noted that the funds supported many initiatives, including local grassroots organizations, school supplies for 16,000 students, and the work of organizations like Heifer International and the International Children’s Action Network.

Amid the devastation, Barlow was impressed by the villagers’ unshakeable joy.

“In a place that has been colonized and assimilated, the land pillaged and money stolen for the past 500 years, where despots and United States presidents have come and gone, and where many brave souls have died in the face of unpredictable weather, regional conflict and social injustice, people are defiant in their willingness to love life and enjoy every day,” Barlow wrote in his online journal. “It is a testament to what we need (or don’t need) in life to be happy…All you need is a willingness to love life, to be open to joy.”

Barlow expressed a sincere appreciation for the opportunity to serve his country in a peaceful, diplomatic way, while getting a brief glimpse into the lives of people who have much less, but love much more.

The Rewards of Service

Murphy expressed the sense that she gained way more than she gave during her years of service. The experience has inspired her to pursue lifelong work in the field of grassroots youth, community and international development.

“It was a very humbling experience,” Murphy said. “There’s an attitude shift you need to take on when you go to a place like this—you have to back off on your own experiences and agenda. The most important takeaway from my experience is the love of different people, different cultures and a different approach to life. It’s the recognition that the way I’ve always done things isn’t necessarily the right way or the only way.”

For students thinking ahead to what to do with their lives after graduation, Murphy recommends devoting a couple years to service in Peace Corps or another organization.

“BC does a great job in the liberal arts approach to education, which forced me to consider issues from numerous perspectives,” Murphy said. “Peace Corps is absolutely the most formative experience I’ve ever had in my short life. Whatever avenue you decide to pursue, that experience of getting out of your own culture, getting out of your own worldview teaches you to be adaptable and flexible. It’s a little uncomfortable, but it’s good for everyone.”