From Maxwell Perspective...
Peace Corps Reflections
Before there was an “NGO sector,” young people who wanted to go overseas and change lives joined the Peace Corps. They still do. Among hundreds of alumni who served in the Corps, we reached out to these seven to see how the experience nourished their public-service psyche and connected to their Maxwell education.
Colin and Jackie O’Hara served as Peace Corps volunteers for two years in Macedonia. Colin is now an MPA student at Maxwell.
It was Mexican night at the O’Hara household. Colin and his
wife, Jackie, had prepared tacos and refried beans. This wasn’t so unusual,
unless you considered the location — a Muslim minority community in Macedonia —
and the guests — a mixture of native Macedonians and Albanians.
“Macedonian and Albanian food culture is centered around
several main dishes that haven’t really changed in hundreds, if not thousands,
of years,” says Colin. “Our friends thought it was hysterical that the very
same ingredients they used for their traditional meals could be used to make
everything from Mexican to Indian food.”
Colin and Jackie spent just over two years in Macedonia as
Peace Corps volunteers. She ran youth programming for teen girls and he worked
in business development for a public/private utility responsible for
garbage-disposal efforts, ultimately leading a nationwide recycling campaign.
The cultural differences in the post-transitional communist
country were pronounced. “It was fascinating seeing the interplay of the
cultures and religions and how, in a post conflict environment, people were
trying so hard to get along,” says Colin.
A year later, the O’Haras are in Syracuse, where Jackie is
director of Girls Inc. and Colin is a graduate student in the Maxwell School’s
MPA program. “The drive to serve a larger community sent us overseas, but then
we had such a strong desire to return home and use the skills we’d sharpened to
better affect our own communities here in America,” says Colin.
He is not unique. In Maxwell’s graduate student body, there
are at least 18 former Peace Corps volunteers. “There’s a strong correlation of
what drives people toward either program, and that is a strong sense of public
service,” he says. “The things that motivated me to become a Peace Corps
volunteer are the exact same things at work when I was considering master’s
The Peace Corps was launched in 1961, and the only formal
relationship between it and Maxwell was a volunteer training program operated
in the early 1960s. (See page 25.) Nonetheless, 739 SU alumni have served in
the Peace Corps during its nearly 50 years — the lion’s share from the Maxwell
School. Whether it’s returned Peace Corps volunteers coming to the Maxwell
School for graduate programs, or Maxwell alumni volunteering for the Peace
Corps, these two groups share common values and goals.
Colin is focusing his MPA on foreign policy with a potential
interest in national and international security. “My experience in the Peace
Corps really enhanced my appreciation for my own country,” he says. “The Maxwell
School is giving me the tools for a career in government service.”
While there are literally dozens of examples of alumni whose
dual Maxwell/Peace Corps experience has been instrumental in shaping their
lives, we decided to reach out to these seven. We hope their testimony
symbolizes the values shared by two service-minded institutions.
George Marotta ’50 BA (PSc)/’51 MPA
Peace Corps Service: 1961-63,
not as a volunteer, but as one of the program’s architects.
A career civil servant — he’d worked in the State Department
and as a member of the White House National Security Council Staff under
Eisenhower — Marotta was tapped by Sargent Shriver to help establish the Peace
Corps, part of a diverse group that included Bill Moyers and Harris Wofford.
The initiative was originally known as the Youth Corps, but
a new moniker was selected to set it apart from any other program. “We needed
countries to realize that this was different from other U.S. activities that
were diplomatic, or commercial, or church-related.”
As soon as word got out about the new program, countries
around the world expressed interest in receiving volunteers, Marotta says. “We
worked together with the various embassies and the Agency for International
Development to identify areas of the world where young Americans could be
Marotta became responsible for establishing relationships
with universities that would train volunteers before their deployment overseas.
Lasting Impression: Being
part of the start.
“The program was extremely popular from the get go. Young
people were volunteering before we even had forms for them to fill out.”
What Came Next: Marotta
was recruited by the Pentagon to help prepare Secretary of Defense Robert
McNamara for meetings of the National Security Council. Later, he served with
the Agency for International Development and served in Vietnam, earning a
Meritorious Honor Award in 1968 for service during the Viet Cong offensive in
Saigon. In 1975, Marotta joined Stanford’s Hoover Institution as a research
fellow on international finance.
On the Maxwell/Peace
Corps Connection: “I think it has to do with the words service and citizenship,
because the Maxwell School is the epitome of that.”
since 1995, Marotta enjoys a sideline as a cruise ship lecturer, speaking on
topics of international relations and foreign affairs related to the countries
The International Citizen
Tony Zola ‘76 MA (Econ)
Peace Corps Service: 1970-72,
doing agricultural community development in Thailand.
“Since I grew up on a dairy farm in Western New York, I knew
Lasting Impression: Having
persuaded several farmers to raise chickens, Zola’s job was to arrange markets
for the chickens — namely, American wives of Air America pilots who lived on a
large American airbase during the second Indochina war. “I was obligated
to slaughter and dress the chickens myself, preparing them in a way acceptable
to the American wives.” He recruited Peace Corps friends “and we had a chicken
dressing party over the weekend.”
What Came After? Three
years working as an USAID contractor in Laos, followed by graduate study in
“The Peace Corps convinced me to work as a development
economist. Maxwell made my career possible.”
Zola founded his own consulting firm, the MIDAS Agronomics
Company, advising agricultural development projects in Southeast Asia. A few
years ago he was asked to consult with the Princess Mother’s Foundation on the
Doi Tung Project, to help villagers grow crops other than opium. Today, the
area is free of opium production and has secondary schools, running water, and
a sanitation system. The project has
become a model for alternative sustainable livelihood development and has won a
On the Maxwell/Peace
Corps Connection: “Roy Bahl, Jesse Burkhead, Steven Strand, and
Irving Swerdlow — all at Maxwell in the mid-1970s — instilled in us a
realization that public finance and development economics could contribute to
balanced growth, well before any one was talking about the concept of
sustainability. Maxwell was way ahead of the curve.”
Researcher, Mekong Environment and Resources Institute, Bangkok, Thailand, and
Vientiane, Lao PDR.
“I experience the Peace Corps daily working with the poorest
of the poor.”
The Government Servant
Michael Scherger ’07 MPA
Peace Corps Service: 1996-97,
assisting business development in Romania.
“After the collapse
of communism, people had few ideas about how to make a business plan or market
an idea. There was a shell-shockedness about their whole lives having been
Lasting Impression: “Being
asked, ‘Why are you here?’ which is common to all Peace Corps volunteers,
wherever they serve.
“Romanians didn’t really understand why you would stop your
life to be in their country, learning their language and culture. And they
don’t understand why the female volunteers aren’t married.”
What Came Next?
Scherger liked the Peace Corps organization so much he applied for a job. He
worked first as an analyst, became the desk officer for the Balkans, and then
was an associate director for five years. After hitting his term limit,
Scherger decided to pursue graduate school.
On the Maxwell/Peace
Corps Connection: “Maxwell reinforced my experience from the Peace
Corps. Organizational ability, innovation, tenacity, and working with
ambiguity were skills that translated well to government service. Getting a
professional education in some of these skills, through an MPA, made a lot of
“There were five returning Peace Corps volunteers during my
year at Maxwell. It attracted all of us, I believe, because of our desire to
continue on with our public service and what a Maxwell degree could do to that
branch chief for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington, D.C.,
Scherger develops and leads professional development programs. “My job is more
than the salary I receive. I work for the federal government and feel an
obligation as a citizen to always do the best I can because what I do affects
the American public.”
In four years, he will be eligible to return to the Peace
Corps, and would like to go back overseas as a program director.
Mukesh Vidyasagar ’06 MA (IR)
Peace Corps Service:
1998-2000, as a math teacher, librarian, and basketball coach in Zimbabwe.
Lasting Impression: Bringing
electricity to both the school library and teachers’ quarters.
In his second year, he applied for a Peace Corps special
project grant, and received funds to build a basketball court at the school. “We
actually had a basketball team, which was pretty fun.” A chance encounter with
a filmmaker led to Vidyasagar spending a day assisting with a short film about
a local women’s shelter, which ignited his interest in film.
What came next: Vidyasagar
worked in an animation studio for three years while also taking courses at the
University of California Berkeley. He enrolled in Maxwell’s MA (IR) program and
then successfully petitioned to earn an MA in film from the Newhouse School
concurrently. He had a succession of
TV-producing gigs before writing and producing his own short film, Silent Water, a fictional story that
illustrates the need for clean water on a global level. Proceeds from the film
will help build water pumps and
purification units in India.
On the Maxwell/Peace
Corps Connection: “I think anyone who has worked abroad and had to grapple
with policies on the ground has an inherent curiosity to learn more about those
policies, how they affect populations, and how they can contribute to the
March, Vidyasagar began the two-year Universal Pictures Leadership Program. “It’s
a great experience and I’m learning a ton.”
Sven Stafford ’10 MPA
Sven Stafford (second from right) at a summer camp in southeast Kazakhstan
Peace Corps Service:
2006-2008, teaching English as a second language and training teachers, in
Lasting Impression: “I
would usually walk to school, uphill both ways, in the snow, for kilometers at
a time. I fell in a big hole once that was covered by ice water. Luckily,
someone I knew was driving by and took me home, otherwise I might have frozen.
The next week the municipality filled it in and the mayor personally forbade me
from ever walking near the filled-in hole again. That’s when I fell in love
with local government.”
What Came Next?
The jobs Stafford was interested in after the Peace Corps required a master’s
degree. He was attracted to the Maxwell MPA because it “brings together people
(professors, students, staff) who are practical with the right balance of
“The Peace Corps gave me the confidence to do a job like this.”On the Maxwell/Peace
Corps Connection: “I think Maxwell attracts people with balls — conviction,
determination, sense of adventure and fun — and to do the Peace Corps you have
to have balls.”
of Special Projects at the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek,
His purview includes IT and website upgrades, alumni
relations, continuing education and outreach, new campus construction, and
fundraising. “The Peace Corps gave me the confidence to do a job like this. You
get thrown into the fire and have to learn and adapt quickly, and especially
learn to rely on the people around you. Maxwell increased that confidence and
also gave me the practical skills — stats, evaluations, etc. — to be competent.”
The Foreign Aid Worker
Rebecca Semmes ’05 MA (IR)
Rebecca Semmes, in Senegal, with a member of her host family (in matching outfits for the Korite holiday)
Peace Corps Service:
2007-09 in Senegal, teaching women basic health information.
She also promoted education for women and held a camp for
middle school girls.
Lasting Impression: After finding her weekly health lessons
ineffective, Semmes enlisted other volunteers to help her perform skits about
health topics. The first was about malaria. Semmes played the role
of the mosquito, buzzing around, trying to bite people. “We had a packed
house, and nobody was cracking peanuts or braiding hair. They were paying
attention, cracking up at how ridiculous the toubabs (white people) could be. And for months afterward when
I would ride my bike into a village where we had performed the skit, people
would yell, ‘It’s the mosquito!’”
“There is a natural complement between a Maxwell education and the practical experience of the Peace Corps.”How she got there: Semmes
came to Maxwell to prepare for a career as a foreign service officer. During
her studies, she took an internship at
the refugee office at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, where she
developed an interest in refugee and humanitarian issues. After finishing her
Maxwell degree, she worked in the refugee section at InterAction, an umbrella
organization for NGOs working in development and humanitarian assistance. Two
years later, she volunteered for the Peace Corps, to learn first-hand about the
challenges of a developing country.
On the Maxwell/Peace Corps
Connection: “I think there is a natural complement between a Maxwell
education and the practical experience of the Peace Corps for individuals
interested in government, development, and other internationally focused
stabilization, and governance officer for USAID in Nairobi, Kenya.
“There is no way I
would have gotten this job without the Peace Corps, an experience invaluable
for helping me understand the situations and dynamics I confront with
humanitarian assistance programs.”
Jeremy Johnson ’03 MA (PSc)/JD
Jeremy Johnson (center), with a village occupational group at a rice farming competition in Nong Khai, Thailand
Peace Corps Service:
2008- 2010, as a community-based organizational development worker in Thailand.
Projects included planting sunflowers along the Mekong
River, and building sanitary facilities for one of the community groups.
Johnson volunteered after three years working as an attorney
in Phoenix, Arizona.
Lasting Impression: “In
a country where many people have very little, I was continuously impressed by
how kind and generous people were. In my
village, people were especially giving, frequently inviting me over for dinner,
taking me places, and otherwise taking care of me. This never stopped over my two years.”
What Came Next? After
a positive experience in Thailand, Johnson accepted a position lecturing at a
university in Northern Thailand. “Although I don’t know where my
professional life will lead me, I am most certain that my career will be
related to international topics and/or be located internationally.”
On the Maxwell/Peace
Corps Connection: “My project work in the Peace Corps gave me real-life
international experience in both public administration and international
development, something that would have been very difficult to obtain otherwise. My Maxwell courses,
seminars, and teaching assistantship broadened my perspective and gave me the
background to better understand development theories and thus serve.”
Recently accepted into the LLM program at King’s College, University of London.
— Renée Gearhart Levy
Renée Gearhart Levy is a freelance writer, specializing in higher education, based in Fayetteville, N.Y.
This article appeared in the fall 2010 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2010 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail email@example.com.