Other Peace Corps veterans say experience matured them

As a youngster reared on a ranch in Eagle Point, Amy Wilson never forgot a visit by friends of her parents more than three decades ago.

"He was a Peace Corps doctor who had served on a Pacific island somewhere," said the Grants Pass resident. "I remember listening to them and thinking how interesting that must have been to do something like that."

Indeed, their visit left a lasting impression on the young girl who dreamed of visiting faraway places while helping others.

After graduating from Eagle Point High School in 1975, she earned a degree in horticulture from Oregon State University, then joined the Peace Corps, serving in Niger, where she taught agricultural classes in 1982-84.

She later earned a master's degree in international agricultural development at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and returned to Niger as an associate Peace Corps director for three years beginning in 1990.

Her husband, Steve Fedorko, served in the Peace Corps in Botswana in 1985-87.

"The Peace Corps experience absolutely changed my life," said Wilson, now 52 and a Southwest Oregon coordinator for the Resource Conservation and Development Council under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"You don't know who you are until you do something like that," she continued. "You are living at the grass-roots level with people in other cultures. It's an experience you never forget."

Ashland resident Diarmuid McGuire, 67, agrees.

"It affects you in really profound ways that you don't expect," he observed.

When he joined the Peace Corps in January, 1965, he was a young man from Pittsburg, Pa., with a history degree from Princeton University. He was sent to Ankole, a remote province in southwestern Uganda halfway between the nation's capital Kampala and the Rwandan border.

He arrived about 18 months after Uganda became a newly minted nation, having gained its freedom from Great Britain. This was during a period of stability in a country which would be rocked with violence within a few short years, he said.

The Peace Corps volunteers were charged with opening a dozen new high schools in the nation. After a three-month crash course on teaching, McGuire and another volunteer were sent to a new school in Ankole where they would teach 60 uniform-wearing students in the ninth grade.

"For most of them, this was the first time any one in their family had ever gone to high school," he said. "They were incredibly polite and hard-working."

Yet he will tell you he also learned from them.

"We were living among village people out in the middle of Africa," he said. "We were with people who were subsistence farmers, living off the land."

While living in Uganda, he received a free subscription to Time magazine which was covering the war in Vietnam.

"I could never accept the idea that our country could be simultaneously fighting and dropping napalm on people in one area while helping and educating people in other parts of the world," he said.

After his stint in the Peace Corps, McGuire went to graduate school at Stanford University and became active in the anti-war movement.

"If more young Americans got out there and experienced living with people in other cultures in a peaceful way, I think it would be much harder to have the kinds of wars we have today," he said, adding, "It's much harder to drop bombs on people you know."

Jacksonville resident Allison Weiss, now 44, left Philadelphia for two years in Sierra Leone after joining the Peace Corps in 1989.

In addition to wanting to help others, Weiss, who had a degree in fashion design, yearned to travel and immerse herself in another culture.

In Sierra Leone, she served as a home economics teacher, mainly teaching sewing.

"Being a tailor there is a very good profession," she explained, adding, "But it was limited to men at that time. All the boys were really interested in becoming tailors."

Despite their poverty, the people she encountered were outgoing and upbeat, she recalled.

"They were incredibly welcoming, very friendly," she said. "I was able to see how they lived, and experience their hardship and happiness alongside them."

Upon returning to the United States she earned a degree in anthropology. She is now the director of the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

"I don't think I knew anything about life before I went there," she said. "You acquire a life's experience when you do something like that."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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