Since 1961, Americans have answered the call to service as volunteers in the Peace Corps. This week kicks off Peace Corps Week, an annual event that celebrates the establishment of the Peace Corps and brings together a community of current and former volunteers.
As part of this weeklong event, NNSA’s returned Peace Corps Volunteers shared the impact their service made abroad, at home, and how it helped them renew their commitment to civil service.
Being a Peace Corps Volunteer provided an opportunity to serve U.S. interests and work with a local community in a partner country. My primary role was to work alongside local high school English teachers to improve capabilities. In addition to teaching English, my local counterparts and I managed several secondary projects that included spelling bees, leadership camps, environmental awareness workshops, and educational field trips. It was a wonderful experience that continues to have a strong influence on me today.
Serving in the Peace Corps is our “family business!” My sister and brother-in-law served for three years in the Philippines in the early 1990s, and my stepmother served in Guatemala for three years in the late 1980s. I served in Ukraine and it was a wonderful professional and personal experience. I taught English at a specialized school located in a small village in western Ukraine called Rohatyn.
Years later, I continue to be surprised and amazed when contacted by my students. Learning about the remarkable things they are doing with their lives is a true pleasure. Their stories are inspiring. For example, several of the students I taught are now English teachers in the same school.
My Peace Corps experience guided me to understand and study our historic relations with the former Soviet Union, then Russia and Ukraine. After I finished my service in Ukraine, I began a master’s degree program in international relations at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and focused on nonproliferation and the Russian language. Later, I participated in NNSA’s Nonproliferation Graduate Fellows Program, and have been at NNSA since July 2001.
I joined the Peace Corps to serve people who hadn’t enjoyed the educational advantages I had. I was interested in the opportunity to live in a community that was different from my own. Studying abroad during college, I realized that life in Western Europe is not much different from life in the U.S. and I wanted to see what it was like to experience something different.
During my volunteer service in the Peace Corps, I taught English to students in grades one through 11 at a local school in Talas Oblast, Kyrgyzstan. Teaching materials were scarce; I used old textbooks and my imagination. I learned to make dumplings, live without (much) electricity or any running water, and expanded my dietary horizons to include a lot of sheep and horse products: Sheep ears! Sheep cream! Horse milk! I learned to speak Kyrgyz with my neighbors, and also picked up some Russian, primarily from the South American telenovelas that were dubbed into Russian.
My experience in Kyrgyzstan led to a deep interest in understanding how the people of the region had been culturally and economically shaped by the formation and dissolution of the USSR. In graduate school, this developed into an interest in the legacy of the Cold War, nuclear disarmament, and Russian studies. A graduate school professor introduced me to NNSA’s Nonproliferation Graduate Fellows program and I have supported NNSA programs ever since.
Jessica Jagmin Brookins
Spending 27 months in service to my country and host country as a Peace Corps Volunteer gave me the opportunity to learn about Romanian culture, form lasting relationships in my community, and make an impact at my school.
During my service, I taught English as a foreign language at a primary and middle school in a small Transylvanian village in Romania. I also ran an American culture and English club. One of my favorite memories with my students was when I taught them to make a variety of crafts from recycled materials that they sold at their holiday pageant. After a vote, we decided to use the profits to fund a field trip into the nearby city to see a movie at the theater and go out for pizza.
My experience in the Peace Corps has informed many aspects of my professional life. It’s given me tools to handle changing work assignments, negotiate with foreign partners, and effectively communicate across cultures. Living in a small village, I developed a sense of independence and self-motivation that I have carried with me into my personal and professional life back in the United States.
I wanted to gain international work experience and learn a foreign language. I studied Chinese for four years in college and was very excited to be assigned to the Peace Corps in China. The Peace Corps experience was also big in my family. My father served in Thailand in the late 70s and my younger sister served in China after I did.
One of my most memorable experiences was organizing the annual English Eco Leadership Camp. For this, my colleagues and I led a fundraising effort that collected $5,000. The added budget allowed 72 students to learn English at an organic farm over the summer.
My Peace Corps experience led me to intern at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and serve as the note taker for Undersecretary of State Thomas Countryman’s meetings with Chinese nonproliferation scholars. It was at these meetings that I was introduced to the NNSA Graduate Fellow Program and became a Fellow in the Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation.
The Peace Corps is a service opportunity for motivated changemakers to immerse themselves in a community abroad, working side by side with local leaders to tackle the most pressing challenges of our generation. Serving in the Peace Corps provides an edge for federal employment to returned volunteers.