Golden Experiences

Former Peace Corps volunteers celebrate five decades of service and lesson-learning

Phil Lopes was one of the first Peace Corps volunteers ever, and he believes his two years of service, which began in 1961, were personally transformative.

Katie Silvester and Chris Caruso, who served decades later, share that sentiment.

"It speaks a lot about who we are as a nation," Silvester says about the Peace Corps, which this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

After working in western China from 2005 to 2007, Silvester adds: "International friendship is one thing we value, and it should continue."

Lopes served in Colombia. "Having 200,000 returned volunteers with a whole different perspective on others and this country is a healthy and valuable thing," he says. "When you see the United States from someplace else, read the newspapers and talk to people, you get a different perspective on how others view this country. (Americans) don't see the screw-ups we've made, or they ignore them. But you can't ignore them if you're outside the country."

Lopes' service also included several years in the Peace Corps administration. "When I saw what Colombia was doing (to its people), it gave direction to my life," he says. "I wanted to do something about the human condition."

He was still a teenager when he joined the Peace Corps. Lopes was assigned to a town of about 3,000 people; along with another volunteer and a Colombian colleague, he worked in rural-community development.

"We organized people to (help them) do what they wanted to do," Lopes says about projects such as building schools and roads. "When we left, there were 13 neighborhoods which were pretty well organized and well on their way to doing stuff on their own."

After he returned to the United States, Lopes went to college and then worked for nonprofit organizations for much of his life. He also sacrificed eight years to serve as a progressive Democratic voice in the Arizona Legislature.

For almost three decades, Lopes and his wife—also a former Peace Corps volunteer and staff member—have hosted a regular gathering of Peace Corps alumni. One of their sons was a Peace Corps member in Paraguay.

Last year, Lopes returned to that Colombian town for the first time since a 1978 visit. He noticed the population hadn't increased, but that people he knew now had cell phones so they could easily contact those who had moved away.

The other major change Lopes noted in the town was more subtle: Of those he worked with 50 years ago, Lopes laughs: "They're pretty damn old now."

Also pretty old now are the 33 Peace Corps recruits who trained at the UA in 1963 before heading to South America.

One of those trainees then told the Arizona Daily Star: "(The Peace Corps) offers a combination of service to others and valuable experience for use in future jobs."

These volunteers came from 18 different states. Over the years, more than 3,200 Arizonans have enrolled. Presently, 171 Arizonans are serving, including 77 UA alums.

That combination of service and experience is something Silvester appreciates. A teacher before going to China, she is currently seeking a doctorate at the UA in writing studies, with a minor in teaching English as a foreign language.

"Professionally," Silvester says, "my Peace Corps service had a huge impact. ... It transformed me as a teacher."

Caruso is studying for an advanced degree in public-health policy at the UA. He served in Mozambique from 2006 to 2008.

"It was humbling to see," he says about his time in Mozambique. "I felt lucky to have been born in the U.S. I made a lot of good friends and saw the struggle they had to go through on a day-to-day basis. It fundamentally changed how I view the world."

One of the reasons the Montana native chose Tucson for his studies, Caruso says, was because he wanted to work in a cross-cultural setting. Another reason: the UA Peace Corps Fellows Program.

With 56 current students, including Silvester and Caruso, the fellows program is the second-largest in the nation. Established in 2000, it provides a substantial financial stipend to returned volunteers. It also requires an annual commitment of 450 hours of community service.

Many of the fellows, along with other former volunteers, will next week be attending an annual fair which this year will mark the Peace Corps' 50th anniversary.

"There'll be displays, photos, music and sharing stories," Caruso says of the fair, which usually has between 50 and 70 countries represented by former volunteers.

The event also provides an opportunity for anyone interested to discuss Peace Corps service with former volunteers.

"The overwhelming majority (I've met) had very good experiences," Lopes says about returned Peace Corps volunteers. "Most say they got a hell of a lot more out of it than they contributed."