When 14-year-old Jim Doyle first heard Senator — soon to be President — John F. Kennedy deliver a speech that called upon the Peace Corps, he was sold.
“I was an Irish Catholic kid and he was the first Irish Catholic president. I thought he was talking to me personally,” former Wisconsin governor and Peace Corps volunteer Jim Doyle says.
“How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world?” Kennedy asked University of Michigan students in October of 1960.
Seven years later, Doyle, joined by his new wife, Jessica, found himself desperate for help at a train station in the middle of the Sahara desert. A single, flickering light bulb was all that greeted the pair as they traveled to their destination of Tozeur, Tunisia.
“I had never experienced darkness that much, ever in my life,” Doyle says.
Doyle is certain that his journey from this point forward is what led him to a lifelong career in public service.
The Doyles are just two of the 3,145 University of Wisconsin alumni who have responded to the call of the Peace Corps. Wisconsin has been a national leader in sending Peace Corps volunteers across the globe, second only to the University of California, Berkeley. For decades, Wisconsin graduates have fanned out, spending stints in remote locations, giving more than they thought they ever could while gaining invaluable experiences themselves.
A Wisconsin Tradition
Although there was a period in which the Peace Corps struggled to stay relevant, interest remained high in Madison. In fact, UW-Madison held the number one spot in 2014, sending 90 former students to remote parts of the developing world. In mid-October of 2015, a dozen soon-to-be alumni of UW-Madison gathered at the Red Gym to hear a panel of returned Peace Corps volunteers share stories about their adventures, challenges and successes. As the Jan. 1 application deadline quickly approaches, students mingled and networked with returned volunteers to explore whether or not a future in service is the right fit for them.
Lori DiPrete Brown, associate director for education and engagement at the UW-Madison Global Health Institute, began her career as a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras, and now leads global education and outreach at UW-Madison. She attributes studying abroad, as well as the undergraduate global health certificate, as factors that influence UW-Madison’s strong tradition in the Peace Corps.
“I think the [global health] certificate is a great way to prepare for the Peace Corps,” Brown says. “After completing the courses and required field work, students feel motivated and ready for Peace Corps service.”
Doyle is incredibly proud of the university’s relationship with the Peace Corps. He recalls an ad that aired during a football game boasting the fact that UW-Madison has more Fortune 500 CEOs and more Peace Corps volunteers than any other Big Ten school.
“UW has always had a long tradition of being a service-oriented, socially active school,” Doyle says. “It’s part of the culture of what this university is about.”
A survey conducted by the Peace Corps found that 90 percent of returned volunteers rated their Peace Corps experience as “excellent” or “very good,” and 98 percent would recommend the Peace Corps to their child, grandchild or other close family member.
Lee Shaver, a current doctoral candidate at UW-Madison, did exactly that. Three years after Shaver returned from serving in El Salvador, his parents began packing their bags for Botswana.
A Family Devoted to Service
Jeff and Elsa Shaver, Lee’s parents, had planned for a life of service since they were in their 30s. But when Jeff broke his hip and got laid off in November 2010, they contemplated their future. Lee Shaver had a suggestion.
“They were like, ‘Well, we’ll apply and see what happens,’ not really thinking they were going to go through with it,” Lee says. “But as each step of the Peace Corps application process was completed and nothing else was really working out, they were thinking more and more seriously about it.”
Jeff thought that 10 screws and two metal plates in his hip would surely stand between his and Elsa’s dream of serving an underprivileged population.
“When we finally got that word, it was like a shock,” Jeff says. “But yet, we weren’t about to say ‘No thank you, I was only fooling.’”
In preparation for their adventure in Botswana, Jeff and Elsa Shaver sold their house and moved their belongings into storage — a much more involved process than Lee, whose belongings already fit into two suitcases by the time he left for El Salvador.
Jeff and Elsa served as HIV/AIDS prevention and education volunteers in Botswana from 2012 to 2014. What started out as Elsa’s idea for her son to join the Peace Corps turned into a gateway to her and her husband’s incredible journey into public service.
“College graduates with Peace Corps volunteer experience return home with a competitive edge for 21st-century jobs and advanced educational opportunities,” the Peace Corps website says. “They have cross-cultural, leadership, language and community development skills along with a global perspective. They give back to their communities here in the United States and enrich the lives of those around them, helping to strengthen international ties and increase our country’s global competitiveness.”
But just how easy is it to transition once they’ve returned home? What happens when the two-year adventure ends and volunteers come back, still in the midst of digesting the sobering reality of the world? How easy is it to shift your attention from finding your next meal to buttoning a freshly pressed shirt that screams “corporate”? Indeed, a Peace Corps handbook identifies this step as the most difficult.
“It was sort of like wanting to shake people and say ‘Look! Do you know what’s really happening or going on in the world?’” Doyle says.
By the end of their terms, volunteers strongly identify with their assigned countries. They have invested an incredible amount of time toward building relationships with the community around them and have adjusted to a culture that is built around small triumphs each day.
“I’ve come really to admire people who have spent their lives doing this kind of work,” Doyle says. “How hard it must be to for them to maintain positive attitudes when they come home.”
When Jeff and Elsa Shaver returned to the United States, they spent time visiting family and friends before facing the reality: they were homeless. During the house hunting process in Madison, Jeff and Elsa bunked with Lee in his one-bedroom college apartment for nearly two months. During this transition period, the couple struggled reacclimating to the Western world.
“You see extravagance, you see waste, you see decadence, and it’s accepted. And not only is it accepted, it’s embraced,” Jeff says.
Jeff and Elsa recall being extremely overwhelmed by the number of choices they had to make in a day, such as going to the store where the cereal aisle stretches “as far as you can see,” or choosing a hair product.
“When I got up to the counter, the gal accidentally dropped [the hairspray] on the floor, and I started tearing up because it broke,” Elsa says. “And now I gotta go back to the shelf and try to pick another hair product because that was the last one. And just people looking at you like ‘Are you okay, lady?’ And realizing you’re really just struggling with functioning.”
Jeff and Elsa now lead a simpler life than before their departure — in a smaller house, free from television and less time spent in stores.
“If we could just harness what is thrown away, in some cases, we could give the nation of Botswana the food they would need for centuries,” Jeff says.
Lee experienced this same sort of revelation with waste and just how much emphasis the United States — and the rest of the world — puts on material items. For example, a church in his village in El Salvador underwent an expansion that was completely unnecessary.
“For probably about six months, the only part of the floor that had tile was the footprint of the old church, and everybody still fit there,” Lee says.
Lee noted the stark contrast between how much money was invested in a building structure while, in the same community, many children couldn’t attend school the following year because their family couldn’t afford shoes or the uniform.
A Lasting Impression
When the Doyles embarked on their Peace Corps honeymoon, they were incredibly optimistic, not only about their seemingly difficult assignment, but the impact that they were going to make.
“We were filled with this idea that we were going go to save the world,” Doyle says. “We were filled with this belief that we were special people from a special country and we were going to bring our great knowledge and understanding to the rest of the world.”
When the couple found themselves in desperate need of help that first night at the train, a lone man with a donkey cart finally passed by. Weighed down by their duffels and packs, they used the little Arabic they knew to ask for directions to the nearest hotel. Through broken communication, he gave them a slight nod and next thing they knew, they were riding into the darkness on the back of a stranger’s donkey cart without a clue as to where they were headed.
“That was the moment we realized we didn’t have anything to teach these people,” Doyle says. “We’d better just give ourselves over to this experience.”
When the Doyles returned back to the United States, Jim questioned just how much they had really given over the past two years. How would learning the English language benefit the Tunisians? It wasn’t until he was governor, when he returned to Tunisia, that his opinion shifted.
“I met with the faculty [at the University of Tunis]. There were about 25 people, almost every one of them spoke really good English, and they went around the room and they all said, ‘I had Mr. So-and-So from some place in New Jersey.’ They all had an American Peace Corps English teacher that they remembered really clearly,” Doyle says. “And that’s when it kind of hit me the other way — which is maybe I actually did give something in all of this.”