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17 words change a nation

By Joni Moths Mueller

“Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

Could 17 words have had a greater impact?

President John Kennedy’s question, raised in his inauguration address, targeted the hearts of many, including newly minted college graduates, including Marquette’s Michael Shea, Eng ’61, who at that moment was contemplating his future.

Holding the degree of a mechanical engineer was no small thing, and Shea was already planning advanced study and another degree, maybe two. But, like an arrow, this exhortation from the new president went straight to the hearts of many of America’s young people who believed they could do something different, maybe something larger for their country. The call felt so profound that Shea wrote a letter to then-Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, who was leading efforts in the Senate to get the Peace Corps off the ground.

“I was thinking that the Peace Corps idea seemed like a possibility,” Shea remembers. “Keeping in mind that I was just 21 years old and essentially had never been out of the Midwest, it had to be a long shot to be accepted.”

Shea was accepted, trained and deployed for two years as a science and math teacher in the village of Kibi, Ghana. He couldn’t know then that he would stand first in a long line of alumni  680 total since 1961  who’ve dedicated two years to Peace Corps service.

Today 14 alumni work on Peace Corps projects in 14 countries. Among them is Jamie Burns, H Sci ’12, a biology teacher in Tanzania. “I rise before the sun to crowing roosters and other villagers moving about, preparing to start their day,” says Burns. “I take a bucket bath (no showers or running water here), and eat a small breakfast before heading to school. I am still at the very beginning of my service but I would like to start a health club at my school targeting issues of HIV, AIDS, malaria and other health concerns to educate and prevent my students, their families and other villagers from getting or spreading these diseases.”

When she was a child, Vivian Hoke, Arts ’12, knew one thing for sure  she wanted to join the Peace Corps. She lives that dream in Senegal as an urban agriculture extension agent working on a school garden project funded with a grant from Feed the Future, the U.S. government’s global hunger and food security initiative. She is also the regional coordinator for a gender and diversity program that promotes opportunities for girls, plus she hosts a radio show  she speaks Wolof  that reaches 5,000 listeners. But her favorite project is the garden she works with local women and students from the high school. “I love to walk home with the women who work in the garden as the sun sets,” she says. “On the way, we joke about my American boyfriend and sometimes help their husbands in herding the cows back home. The Peace Corps poses the challenge of maintaining your American-ness, your faith, your sense of humor, your composure and even sometimes your personality. Sometimes that challenge seems like too much to attempt on days when you feel lonely, miss the comforts of home, or when you are just exhausted from the hot, Senegalese sun.”

Hilary Braseth, Arts ’11, works as a community development volunteer in Guinea. Her focus centers around establishing a waste management system and ecotourism center plus organizing social entrepreneurship opportunities to connect Guinea with the rest of the world. Right now, Braseth and seven other Peace Corps volunteers are planning a conference to teach the ins and outs of social entrepreneurship to the young. “It will challenge youth, who make up more than 50 percent of the country’s population and who have a 70 percent unemployment rate, to become actors in their economy while combating social issues,” Braseth says. Knowing Marquette’s extensive track record in successful social entrepreneurship, Braseth reached back to experts and former teachers here for advice on connecting Marquette with young people there.

These are the kinds of experiences that await Samantha Vandre, Arts ’13, who began a two-year commitment in Cambodia in July. “I can tell you now, months into this journey, that I find a new reason that I joined the Peace Corps every day,” Vandre says. “I joined to learn a new language, I joined to learn about and experience a completely different culture, I joined to earn the respect of a new community, and I joined to see a child’s face light up each and every day just because I say hello. So many priceless moments come from this experience, and every second that goes by I feel completely satisfied with my decision to join the Peace Corps.”


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