Ditching the office to promote peace abroad

In 2003, two years after Jeff Chatellier graduated from GW, he left a corporate job at a consulting firm in Tyson’s Corner for a mud hut in Senegal. The hut had a thatch roof and was surrounded by a fence of elephant grass.

Forty-four other GW alumni volunteered to be in the Peace Corps that year. In 2006, 68 alumni volunteered, making GW the top generator of Peace Corps volunteers among other mid-sized universities, according to an annual ranking done by the Peace Corps released this month.

Peace Corps recruitment unofficially began in 1960, at 2 a.m. on an October morning when then Sen. John F. Kennedy encouraged a crowd of 10,000 students at the University of Michigan to donate two years of their life to promoting peace abroad. A year later, President Kennedy signed an executive order establishing the Peace Corps. In 1962, GW awarded Kennedy an honorary degree and today the University sends more students to the Peace Corps than any other school with a student body of 5,000 to 15,000.

GW has changed a lot since 1961, and it wasn’t until 2000 that GW broke into the top 25 of the annual Peace Corps rankings. GW was No. 4 in last year’s rankings, but jumped to No. 1 this year, and in comparing 2001 to 2006, twice as many alumni volunteered for the Peace Corps.

As a freshman at GW, Chatellier, now 27, worked at Peace Corps’ headquarters in the District. He met the people who worked there – most were former volunteers – and heard their stories.

“There is a lot of pressure coming out of GW, which is a career-driven school, to get a high-paying job. I did that, and then I left a high-paying job for the Peace Corps,” Chatellier said last week. “I got antsy just working in an office (and working) on international issues. I wanted to go out there and really see what was happening firsthand.”

But Chatellier said he understands why more of today’s GW students would want to join the Peace Corps’ ranks – more and more people at the University are interested in community service and international experiences, which are two things GW’s admissions office heavily advertises and reasons Chatellier joined himself.

Chatellier studied abroad in the south of France his junior year, which he said was an exception at that time. Now, GW attracts students who can’t wait to study in another country – according to the Office of Study Abroad’s Web site, in 2004 to 2005, 840 students took at least a semester studying overseas.

The amount of community service participation from students is on the rise as well. Timothy Kane, director of the Office of Community Service, said more incoming students are made more aware by faculty of service that enhances classroom experiences, and by the partnerships between GW and social service agencies in Washington.

In a small community in Senegal, Chatellier was exposed to sickness and bad water quality. It was a shock, but the community became his home and he became so invested in Senegal that it became “like getting a two-year Master’s degree in that country.” He learned the language, the culture and geography. He watched the children change as education became more pronounced in his village.

“Kids would walk to school with their little knapsacks and their mothers would tell me how happy they were that their children were getting an education,” he said. “I don’t judge my Peace Corps experience on the concrete projects I did. It was more about speaking with the families that lived there.”

Peace Corps volunteers are shaken to the core by the original shock of the living conditions and the isolation they feel, then build themselves back up during the two years of immersion, Chatellier said. He was shocked when he first saw his mud hut, but it was his home for two years and he grew fond of it.

As a volunteer, he worked in Agro-forestry, helping his community improve their environmental sustainability, but one of the biggest impacts he made was that he started a girls’ soccer team in his community. Now girls’ soccer is a permanent part of the region. He also started a cashew nut processing company with his Senegalese friend, which promotes organic farming and fair trade.

“I am the person I am today because of Peace Corps,” Chatellier said.

In the 1970s, GW was a politically active campus, where international awareness was a top priority among students. Richard Feldman, who graduated from GW with a Bachelor’s Degree in international affairs in 1978, joined the Peace Corps in 1979, the year U.S. President Jimmy Carter gave the Peace Corps full autonomy.

“It was not long after Vietnam and younger people felt highly of public service. The Peace Corps was a very noble thing to do,” he said. “To be in the Peace Corps, you had to have a strong sense of adventure, be able to adapt to different environments and be open to cultural differences.”

Feldman, 50, was stationed in Ecuador, but got his Peace Corps training in Costa Rica. Throughout the years he kept in touch with his Peace Corps family in Costa Rica and later returned there to found a business, called Medical Tourism in Costa Rica. He is now a legal resident of Costa Rica and splits his time between there and Philadelphia.

“I have a fondness for the people I met there. I would never have moved to Costa Rica if it weren’t for the Peace Corps,” Feldman said. “It affected me profoundly.”

Praya Baruch, 29, a graduate student at GW with a Bachelor’s degree in chemistry, always wanted to live abroad, not just visit a country. She worked in the Peace Corps’ HIV/AIDS program in Ghana and still works for the program at Peace Corps’ D.C. headquarters.

“I have always found the science of the virus very unsettling. It’s such a simple disease but wreaks havoc on so many lives,” she said.

In the village where she lived, there was so much stigma and discrimination that surrounded the disease, and no matter how many education sessions she had, or teen group meetings she led, Baruch knew that education was not the way to stop it. While an undergraduate at GW, Baruch volunteered at Student Health Services and worked on HIV/AIDS issues, but that experience didn’t prepare her for the lack of support for those infected with the virus in her village.

“In Ghana, it’s very rural, and those infected don’t have access to treatment and there is no confidentiality. Their status could be leaked to their village and they could be kicked out of their house with no hope and no support,” she said. “I spoke to women who were commercial sex workers, and I asked them ‘you have all this education, you know what AIDS is, why do you do this?’ And they told me that they needed to feed their children. I realized that they needed more than education – they needed alternatives.”

Baruch, Chatellier and Feldman have all given alternatives to the communities where they served, and continue to stay connected with their second homes. Alumni from GW go to the Peace Corps because they need more than an education. They need to, like Chatellier said, “put (their) studies into context.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.