The Colgate Scene ON-LINE

The toughest job

by Rebecca Costello

One of the biggest challenges facing college students from liberal arts programs is determining where their degrees will take them. Offering an opportunity to help fight hunger, disease, illiteracy and poverty around the world, the Peace Corps has opened doors to those with the volunteer spirit since its founding by John F. Kennedy in 1961. Throughout most of the Peace Corps’ history, scores of Colgate students have answered the call to public service that has taken them to other lands and into "the toughest job they’ll ever love." With their liberal arts educations and armed with Peace Corps experiences these graduate have been able to embark on a remarkable and diverse array of career paths.

Of course, the decision to join the Peace Corps is a highly personal one, yet a 1996 Peace Corps survey completed by 1,253 returned volunteers reveals a distinctive trend. National service and the volunteer spirit, personal growth and the desire to travel and experience a different culture have consistently been common reasons to join since the organization’s founding. Not often considered 30 years ago — but becoming a major factor with each ensuing decade — has been the desire to gain Peace Corps experience in the pursuit of career enhancement. The experiences of Colgate alumni throughout the Peace Corps’ history seems to reflect this trend as well.

Amy Lennard Goehner ’74 (center) with her co-teachers from Wan San Boys Jr. High in Jeon-ju, Korea.

The call to the corps

"Peace Corps helped define an emerging idealism in the early ’60s — the creation of the Kennedy administration and J.F.K.’s call for national service," says Steve Buff ’64, who taught chemistry, biology and physics to 8th and 9th graders in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia from 1964–66. "I think many people then joined the Peace Corps for idealistic reasons." Buff did as well, though he considers his motives a bit different from the norm of the time. "I wanted to be a sociologist and needed some cross-cultural experience. Peace Corps seemed a perfect fit with my career goals."

Idealism continued to resonate in the experiences of volunteers entering in the ’70s. "Coming of age in the ’60s, hearing J.F.K. talk about Peace Corps and being inspired to public service by my high school teachers," says Amy Lennard Goehner ’74, who served in South Korea, where she taught English as a second language to junior high, high school, and college students and businessmen from 1974–76. "I had already thought of joining before I came to Colgate." When college graduation neared, "I put all my eggs in one basket."

Buff remembers that most people in the ’60s saw the Peace Corps as an isolated two-year experience that probably would not apply to their jobs once they returned.

Stephen Buff ’64 speaks to a group of Amhara youths at a clinic in the Gondar Region of Ethiopia, January 1966.

"Now the Peace Corps experience doesn’t have to be a separate part of life," Buff says. Starting in the ’70s and especially in the ’80s, the interest for career building had taken a strong foothold. "With the growth of sustainable development as a profession, it can be more a part of one’s life plan."

A case in point, Steve Lamar ’84 says that while some acquaintances reacted to his decision with, "Man, I wish I had two years to take off," he joined specifically because he wanted to build up a background for a career with international interests. He taught math in Botswana from 1984–87, part of a corps of 200 teachers who raised the common high point in schools from first or second grade to 11th grade.

"I wanted to make an impact — to take advantage of my education at Colgate," says Kathleen Aguilar ’87 of her decision to join Peace Corps. Senior year she had become more aware of social injustice in elective courses she took with Hunt Terrell, professor of philosophy, and Chris Vecsey, professor of religion, and she remembers a geology course in which Paul Pinet, professor of geology "kept saying, ‘You’ve got to think about the world around you and what’s going on there.’ While he was speaking geologically, the idea seemed to run deeper," she explains. A fellow Colgate student who took a year off to work with Mother Theresa also made a big impression. Aguilar worked from 1988–91 on a soil conservation and reforestation program in Guatemala, teaching and helping farmers to build live fences and plant fruit trees and gardens to maximize and protect every possible inch of fertile soil.

Mishka Kohli ’92, who had thought of joining the Peace Corps since she was quite young, exemplifies a combination of volunteer spirit and careerism. As a junior, she went on Colgate’s international relations study group in Poland, where she taught English. "I never thought of being a teacher — I hadn’t taken any education courses," she says. "But the Peace Corps pulled that experience off my application. What counted most was willingness to serve." Kohli was sent to the Slovak Republic, where she taught English as a second language to high school students from 1992–95.

Kathleen Aguilar ’87 chats with a group of children in Guatemala.

Shaping their lives

Whether or not a Peace Corps volunteer returns with a career path already chosen, time and time again that experience is credited with directly affecting the outcome.

Currently a senior editor of Sports Illustrated for Kids, Goehner says the Peace Corps experience directly affected her career in sports journalism, always her goal and "a lot of years in the making."

"Getting into Sports Illustrated was the biggest break in my career. Peace Corps led to my being hired — it’s what set me apart," she says. In 1984 she wrote a letter to Sports Illustrated reminding them that it wasn’t too early to think about the Seoul Olympics. She also outlined her Peace Corps experience in Korea. She was a reporter for six years, and later deputy chief of reporters, and has now been with Sports Illustrated for Kids for six years.

James Miller ’74 found his career through the Peace Corps, though unexpectedly. As a Colgate student, Miller had not yet made a career choice. Originally in the Class of 1971, he left following his sophomore year. With some automobile experience and an interest in being of service, he became a Peace Corps volunteer. He was sent to Togo, where he worked in a garage that maintained trucks, vans and jeeps used by medical staff of the National Health Department to make their rounds.

In addition to helping maintain the fleet ("I did the ‘blackboard mechanics’ with new trainees") and fix up the garage, Miller had a chance to go into the field with a World Health Organization team. "I got to see tropical diseases and measure how many people were affected." A revelation: he decided he wanted to be a doctor.

Mishka Kohli ’92, who volunteered in the Slovak Republic, with her tenth graders during a class hiking trip

After returning from Togo, Miller finished his degree at Colgate and later graduated from Tulane’s public health program and the University of Buffalo’s medical school. Ever since, he has worked in public health, including nine years as commissioner of health in Syracuse. Miller is now director of parasitic disease surveillance for the New York City Department of Health.

Having joined specifically to prepare for an international career, Lamar says the Peace Corps helped him meet that goal. After his first job back, as an outplacement counselor for the Peace Corps, Lamar became a desk officer in the Commerce Department for several African countries, including Botswana, setting U.S./African commerce policy. "I was told I was hired because of my work in Botswana." Lamar is now a lobbyist for Jefferson Waterman International, involved in promoting the strength of business relations between the United States, the Caribbean and Africa. "I rely on my overseas experience and Africa work."

After earning a Ph.D. at Northwestern, teaching at Amherst, Ramapo and Goucher colleges, and working for the American Sociological Association, Buff returned to Peace Corps Washington in a professional capacity. Twenty-five years after his overseas service, he became a senior evaluator in their Office of Inspector General, from 1991–96. He is now performs a similar inspector general function for the Department of Commerce.

Dave Helman ’69 served in Antigua as a 6th, 7th and 8th grade teacher preparing children for high school entrance exams. He was the first white person to live in his Antigua village. He describes the role reversal he experienced, at first being scrutinized and watched because of the notoriety of his presence in the village: "I firmly believe that what you do has an affect on who you are. Your early 20s are impressionable years — and it was a good experience. It gave me an impression of the black experience in the United States."

After the Peace Corps, Helman spent 15 years in education, at one point working at a home for troubled teenage boys. His students were 14- to 16-year-olds who had been placed by the courts. He also taught a self-contained class of junior high students with behavior problems. Later, he became a counselor and assistant principal in the public schools handling discipline problems. "I enjoyed working with kids, and I guess I’ve always been on the side of the kids who brought their problems to school."

Then Helman made a complete shift, to a career in the sporting goods business. After working for ADIDAS for 13 years in Los Angeles and Chicago, he is now a partner with two others in Division Six Sports, which buys distressed athletic footwear and clothing and sells to retailers around the country.

Stephen Lamar ’84 and Alain Abbate ’79 (who also served in Botswana), in Serowe, 1985.

While Aguilar originally wanted to get into veterinary school or become an environmentalist, she says, "Coming out of Guatemala changed my direction. I decided life was too short to take an easy job, so when I came back I worked in a hospital for the emotionally disturbed." Now she’s a bilingual special education teacher at Shea Middle School in Syracuse, working with special ed students whose first language is Spanish.

"I chose Colgate for its strong foreign language and study abroad options," says Mishka Kohli of her international interests and her decision to stay in that vein for a career. "Peace Corps kept it going." Kohli now works in a non-profit consortium of two- and four-year U.S. colleges in Washington, D.C. The group coordinates with the schools’ international education offices to put together study abroad programs.

A top producer

Today, "Colgate is in the top 10 small liberal arts colleges in the United States for having graduates go on to the Peace Corps," says Lee Svete, director of Career Services. What makes Colgate students such a good match for an organization like the Peace Corps? Svete attributes the university’s strong study abroad, and biology and natural science programs as well as interest in community service. Last year, Svete reports, Peace Corps became the number one recruiter on campus, beating out all the banks. In the New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut region, Colgate is 18th overall in number of students who enter the Peace Corps.

"That is really quite remarkable," remarks Adrienne Berman, regional public affairs specialist for the Peace Corps. "The schools ahead of Colgate are huge universities such as Cornell, Yale, NYU and Penn State. Also, the current number of Colgate students overseas (15) is comparable to numbers we see at big universities. Given the commitment of graduates to volunteerism and international development," Berman asserts, "Colgate will continue to climb that list."