For more than 50 years, UNH alums serving in the Peace Corps have been gaining perspective on the world—and their place in it.
In the spring of 2012, when Ellen Paquette ’72 arrived in Tunis, a city of white buildings set against a glittering Mediterranean Sea, she was eager to get to work. This was something she was good at—starting a new job in a foreign country. Something she’d done many times during her nearly 40 years in the Peace Corps. This time, Paquette had been appointed country director for Tunisia, where the program was reopening after 15 years, and she was hopeful about the work ahead as she settled into her office in the capital city.
During the summer months, as she began interviewing prospective staff members, the air was sweet with the scent of Arabian jasmine mingled with cumin and coriander and other spices sold in the open-air markets. People she met at social events often interrupted her when they learned what she was doing, insisting on speaking to her in English: “Welcome back!” they’d say, embracing her warmly. “Everyone was happy,” Paquette says, “to have the Peace Corps back in Tunisia.”
And then, on Sept. 11, 2012, a bomb exploded at the American Embassy in the city of Benghazi in nearby Libya. The ambassador and three other Americans were killed. In Tunis, too, the streets were noisy with rioters who breached the embassy walls, destroying buildings and vehicles. Within hours, the Peace Corps had orders to evacuate. Paquette, who had been in Washington, D.C., for a conference, worked with the Tunisian staff from afar as she waited for clearance to return. Weeks stretched into months as the unrest continued. Meanwhile, all of her personal belongings—as well as her dog—remained in Tunisia.
Resilience in the midst of sudden change has been part of Paquette’s job description ever since she embarked on her first Peace Corps assignment in 1972. Brimming with idealism, the new college graduate was proud to be representing the United States as an overseas volunteer. “It was something I’d wanted to do since eighth grade,” says Paquette, who had been inspired by John F. Kennedy’s vision of legions of American volunteers working for peace in countries around the world. Today, Paquette’s idealism, tempered by experience and wisdom, remains intact. “I always felt compelled to help people improve their lives,” she says, “which is just what the Peace Corps is all about.”
Paquette is one of nearly 700 UNH alumni who have followed the Peace Corps path since the organiztion was established by executive order in 1961. “UNH is a great Peace Corps school,” says Elizabeth Chamberlain, the public affairs specialist in the Peace Corps’ New England office. “It offers training in all the skill sets our host countries are looking for—agriculture, the environment, health care, and education.” The university also attracts students who have what it takes to be good volunteers, she adds, noting that UNH has been among the top 25 volunteer-producing schools in its size category for the past 10 years. “You have to be someone who wants to make a difference, who likes tangible results, and who is willing to step out of your comfort zone.”
In fact, signing on as a Peace Corps volunteer often means stepping into a job that’s nearly impossible to define, ultimately determined in part by the initiative and talents of the volunteers themselves. Cement mixing and knitting, bike riding and basketball have all come in handy for UNH alums, along with more standard skills like teaching languages, writing grants, and creating economic development plans. Volunteers, who must commit for two years, tackle projects requested by the host community, working side by side with locals.
This people-to-people philosophy is distinctly different, Paquette notes, from the big top-down projects that sometimes have characterized foreign aid programs in the past: shiny new American tractors left to rust in a field, for example, because no one knows how to fix them, the clinic that gets built—but lacks anyone to staff or stock it.
The Peace Corps focuses on projects that can become self-sustaining, maintained by community members long after the Americans have moved on. Volunteers themselves, meanwhile—no matter where they serve—find that the Peace Corps lives up to its reputation as “the toughest job you’ll ever love.” Volunteering transforms you, they say. It changes your life forever.
In Paquette’s case, the Peace Corps became her life calling. When she finished her first two-year assignment as an English and biology teacher in Liberia, she took a staff position and eventually became director of the country’s education program. Years went by with only occasional trips home.
When she finally returned to the United States 11 years later, Paquette struggled with severe culture shock. “It was like coming back to a different country,” she says. Everywhere she went, the contrast between abundance and extreme poverty was jarring. And the social landscape had completely changed—computers, debit cards, and McDonald’s had cropped up everywhere while she’d been gone. Paquette felt like a foreigner in her own country—a feeling she grew accustomed to in the years to come as she took on other Peace Corps assignments, traveling to and living in more than three dozen countries throughout the years. “The Peace Corps draws people back,” she says. “It gets into your blood.”
Not that it’s been easy. Remembering her time in Liberia, a country that underwent a bloody coup as she was leaving, is heartbreaking for Paquette. Many of her students went on to become soldiers—and many are now dead. More recently, in Tunisia, where unrest continues, the program has been closed indefinitely. But, Paquette maintains, the challenges and failures themselves highlight the need for the Peace Corps—and the idealism that motivates so many of its volunteers.
Today, after recent assignments in Kyrgyzstan and China, Paquette is stationed again in Morocco, where she served 20 years ago, and where she welcomes new recruits who still believe in the power of “waging peace.” “I always tell volunteers it’s not just the teaching or the building or the development that matters,” says Paquette. “It’s who you are and how you’ve touched people. It’s helping to create a sense of possibility, helping people look through a new window.”
Peace Corps volunteers know that peace isn’t something that happens—it’s something you work for. Together. You open windows. You let in the light. Consciousness shifts. And the world tilts just slightly—towards peace. ~
Brendan Callahan ’10 ~ Ethiopia
Take one Peace Corps volunteer and one bike. Add a few dozen Ethiopian school children and—voila! You’ve got a recipe for instant happiness. Brendan Callahan ’10 laughs as he recalls how the kids at the Sebeta School for the Blind came running the day he showed up with a bike. One by one, with help from teachers and staff, they took turns climbing onto the seat. Slowly, they’d begin to pedal, eyes open wide but unseeing, cloudy with cataracts. Partially sighted friends ran ahead, hands clapping to help guide riders along a safe path. For every child it was the same: first a smile, then shrieks of delight—the sound of pure joy.
When Callahan signed on in 2010 as a Peace Corps volunteer, his plan was to put his new degree in environmental and resource economics to work helping with conservation and ecotourism at the Menagesha-Suba Forest, the oldest park in Africa. Instead, he wound up in a small town about 30 kilometers west of Addis Ababa, playing soccer, flying kites, and helping kids who live in the dark pedal a bike and feel the rush of wind on their cheeks. “I couldn’t be happier with how things have turned out,” says Callahan, who also has become something of an expert at mixing cement. “I can’t even count how many bags I’ve been through,” he says, describing the ramps and walkways he’s built to help make the school safer for the 300 kids who live there.
Despite all the challenges they face, these students are the lucky ones. Blindness, caused primarily by malnutrition and infectious disease, is endemic in Ethiopia. More than 1.2 million people are completely blind; another 3 million have low vision. Considered an embarrassment and a burden to their families, most blind children wind up begging on the streets. Some, though, are discovered by aid workers and enrolled in one of the country’s two schools for the blind. When Callahan knocked on the door of the school in Sebeta and offered to volunteer, it was obvious, he says, that the place was in desperate need of help.
The school’s only playground was filled mostly with rusted chunks of metal and broken swings. Many of the school’s pathways were rough going for anyone with a disability. Callahan, along with the school’s British Voluntary Service Organization volunteers and a crew of local metal workers, created a colorful new playground. He also transformed a plot of weeds into a garden with benches and gravel pathways, filled with the scent of rosemary and other aromatic herbs and flowers. He even installed a simple fountain that provides the soothing sound of flowing water—and a place to cool off under the hot African sun.
Callahan walks to the school from his mud-walled two-room house, where he has one light bulb and no running water. He cooks on a propane stove and hasn’t driven a car or been to a grocery store in two years. But while conditions are primitive by Western standards, the experience, he says, has been rich. “Most people think of Ethiopia only as a poor country struggling with drought and famine,” says Callahan. “But Ethiopia is also filled with beautiful traditions and beautiful people.” A fan of the country’s ubiquitous injera, a sourdough-type bread made from teff flour that is eaten at every meal, Callahan has also become an enthusiastic coffee drinker and has been the honored guest at many coffee ceremonies in the homes of his new Ethiopian friends.
The school children know Callahan has to leave when his Peace Corps assignment comes to an end, but they constantly beg him to stay. He promises them he’ll keep in touch no matter where his next adventure takes him. Meanwhile, evidence of the impact he made in Sebeta will remain—a garden sanctuary and a colorful playground, along with lots of happy memories of bike-riding children, faces to the wind. ~
Sasa Tang ’11 ~ Morocco
The tears took her by surprise. Sasa Tang ’11 was listening intently, struggling to follow the mix of rapid Arabic and broken English as her new Moroccan friend talked about her dreams—about how much she loved nature and animals, about her passion for conservation. The girl wanted to become a scientist. Her eyes lit up. And then, suddenly she was weeping, her face in her hands. Tang leaned forward, trying to comfort her. They were alone, sitting in a spare room in one of the country’s government-run youth centers. The teenager had told her parents she was coming to meet with the Peace Corps volunteer from America so she could practice her English. It was a way to get out of the house for a few hours. It was also, it turns out, the first time she’d ever had a chance to talk with someone about her aspirations, her hopes for the future.
The girl dried her eyes and spoke again. She wasn’t allowed to consider a career in science, she explained. Girls brought up in strict Islamic cultures get married young. They stay home. They take care of the family. She wanted to envision a different life for herself—but she couldn’t see a path to get there. A university education? A career? “For her, this was an impossible dream,” says Tang, her voice cracking with emotion. “She was heartbroken, but she was thanking me. She was so grateful to me just for listening to her.”
This moment and countless others like it—virtually invisible and impossible to measure—have come to define for Tang the most rewarding part of her job as a Peace Corps volunteer. “It’s the thing that really touches my heart,” she says. “No one encourages them—not even their parents. Just being a pair of ears to these girls who are so oppressed means the world to them.” It’s not only young girls who are struggling, Tang points out. “The Arab Spring—it’s really about discontented youth. Both girls and boys have access to information, but there is nothing here for them to do. No jobs. They spend all their time on Facebook or watching TV or hanging out on the street. A huge generation is being wasted.”
Tang, who was a dual major in political science and international affairs, has long been passionate about social justice issues. She did her senior thesis on nongovernmental organizations and the effectiveness of foreign aid. And she was active in a number of campus groups devoted to causes, including Oxfam UNH, the UNH Peace and Justice League, the UNH chapter of STAND (a national anti-genocide coalition), and the Alternative Break Challenge, during which she traveled to New Orleans twice to help with post-Katrina relief. “I want to be helping those who don’t have a voice,” she says, “those who are oppressed and don’t know how to be heard.”
But Tang’s first Peace Corps placement, in a Moroccan town on the North African coast, pushed her to the breaking point. “The boys were bored and restless, and they were always harassing the girls,” she says. “Since I’m Asian—the first ever in my town—I was even more of a target.” Tang never traveled alone. But wherever she went, there were catcalls and constant grabbing. Whenever she left the house, she was followed by a crowd. And when the firecrackers started—thrown over walls and from around corners, exploding like gunshots—it became unbearable. “I was always afraid, always running,” she says, telling of other girls with singed backpacks and clothing, and, tragically, one firecracker-related death.
Eventually, Tang moved to a smaller village, higher in the mountains. “It was hard to transfer,” she says. “I loved the girls and many of the people at my first site—but it became a safety issue.” Now she has a second chance to experience life in Morocco. Tang is often invited for tea and couscous and is treated like the village daughter. She has become a fan of the weekly market, where vendors spread their wares across the ground. She has learned to love cumin and coriander, parsley and cilantro. And she has adjusted to the lack of privacy, falling asleep every night surrounded by her host family, everyone curled up on futons in the common room.
Tang also continues her work with teens. “I want to get them moving, caring about something, learning to use their time productively,” she says, listing a slew of projects she’s helping with, from building a soccer field to developing business skills to teaching nutrition education. She is also showing some of the girls how to knit, using recycled plastic bags to create trash-to-treasure baskets. As they work, they talk, practicing their English, telling their stories. Stories of quiet suffering and subtle abuse. Stories of outright violence. “I am trying to focus on self-esteem and confidence,” says Tang, who is often haunted by what she hears. Less idealistic than when she first arrived, she is no less determined. Every day, knitting needles in hand, she begins again, teaching and talking, listening and encouraging, stubbornly believing that progress is possible—one stitch, one girl, at a time. ~
Anders Nordquist ’10 ~ Madagascar
When Anders Nordquist ’10 arrived in the village of Manalalondo on the island of Madagascar, one of the first things he noticed was the wire hoop. Attached to a tree, the battered bit of metal hovered over a dusty patch of well-worn earth—the town basketball court.
This sign of enthusiasm for his favorite American sport gave the Peace Corps volunteer a starting point. He began introducing himself with a sentence he had perfected during his 10-week crash course in Malagasy, his new language: Tiako milalao basket: “I like to play basketball.” The villagers, for their part, were mesmerized by the tall, fair-skinned Westerner who had come to live with them. “Everything about me was different,” says Nordquist. “I stuck out like a sore thumb. People followed me everywhere. Even now, months later, I have crowds peering in my windows just watching me.”
The villagers couldn’t figure out why someone who lived in America, a land of glittering wealth, would choose to spend two years in a place with no running water and no electricity, teaching in a school without textbooks or supplies. The single dirt road running through the village center is so bad that it takes the weekly taxi, an old German box truck with bench seats in back, four or five hours to make the 40-mile drive to the capital city of Antananarivo. During the rainy season, the journey is even longer. “On one return trip, we broke down in the mud,” recalls Nordquist, “and we all just got off and walked the remaining 10 miles back to the village—elderly grandparents, mothers with babies on their backs, all of us.”
Located 400 miles off the east coast of Africa, Madgascar, the world’s fourth largest island, is often called “the eighth continent.” The country’s biodiversity is legendary: 90 percent of the wildlife is found nowhere else on earth. “It’s a stunningly beautiful place,” says Nordquist. “But it’s so remote and so difficult to get to that there’s hardly any tourism.” The United States, from this isolated island vantage point, seems like a distant planet, making one of Nordquist’s goals especially challenging. “One important purpose of the Peace Corps is to teach people to better understand Americans,” he says. “I’m always telling people that what they see in the movies isn’t true—it’s fake. ‘I’m an American,’ I tell them, ‘but I don’t live in New York City, I don’t drive a BMW, and I don’t have dozens of girlfriends!'”
The son of a nurse and a truck driver, Nordquist grew up in New Durham, N.H., and is the first in his family to travel to a foreign country. It was especially hard in the beginning—the language barrier, the isolation, the stress of being the constant center of attention all took a toll. The food was the hardest of all. Turns out the Malagassi people eat, per capita, more rice than any other country in the world. And almost nothing else. “I lost 20 pounds in three weeks,” says Nordquist, a 6-foot, 2-inch athlete used to the all-you-can-eat bounty of the UNH dining halls.
Today, he spends most of his time teaching English—to six classes of 50 or 60 high school students equipped only with a notebook, a pencil, and a ruler. “Basically, we’re creating a textbook as we go,” says Nordquist, who writes on a chalkboard as students copy lessons into their notebooks. When he’s not in the classroom, Nordquist puts his major in kinesiology, with an emphasis on physical education, to work coaching basketball.
After more than a year in Manalalondo, Nordquist is not just a curiosity. He is a favorite teacher and fellow villager, a basketball coach and the motivating force behind the school’s two new courts, built by students and community members working together to dig and grade the earth. Nordquist feels lucky to be surrounded by so many friends—people who invite him into their homes to eat even if he’s just passing by the front doorway. People who like nothing better than a good conversation. People for whom time is not something to measure, but something to enjoy. “There’s no reason to rush here,” says Nordquist. “No meetings. No appointments. Nothing to get to. People just take their time. And they really listen. ”
When he moves on after his two years in the Peace Corps, Nordquist hopes to find a job that will allow him to stay in the country that has taught him so much, that has begun to feel like home. Along with his expanded sense of time and hospitality, he will carry with him an altered understanding of the world and his role in it. He will leave behind in Manalalondo many good friends, a better understanding of Americans—and a few new basketball courts. ~
Nancy Jean Coutu ’93 never had a chance to tell her stories about the Peace Corps—about the friendly people she met in Madagascar, about the vegetables she planted and the school she helped build. On April 9, 1996, Coutu was murdered as she was riding her bike near the village of Baraketa where she was living. Her death, described as a random robbery attempt, was a shock to her friends at home and also to the villagers, whose “faces were wet with tears,” according to a fellow volunteer in a letter to Coutu’s family.
The government of Madagascar posthumously awarded Coutu a knighthood for her work, the ﬁrst woman or foreigner to receive this honor. And her mother, Connie Coutu, assembled her daughter’s letters and journal entries into a book, inculding this excerpt from the day the school project was ﬁnished: “The villagers will call the school Souvenirs de Nancy. It’s nice to know a mark of my beauty will be left here.”
At UNH, family and friends established the Nancy J. Coutu Wildlife Scholarship for students majoring in wildlife who exemplify Coutu’s spirit of outreach and her commitment to service.
Coutu is one of about 270 volunteers who have died while serving in the Peace Corps, most from car accidents. Read more at the Fallen Peace Corps Memorial project. ~[/column]