Indiana students share experiences on Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary

By Lauren McConnell

Indiana Daily Student, Indiana U. via UWIRE

Then-Senator John F. Kennedy challenged University of Michigan students in 1960 to serve their country for the cause of peace by working in developing countries. Today marks the 50th anniversary of the fruits of that challenge: the Peace Corps.

Since 1961, the Peace Corps has sent more than 200,000 volunteers to 139 countries to spread peace and friendship. IU ranks 23rd among large colleges and universities for producing the most current Peace Corps volunteers, according to an annual rankings press release. These Hoosiers are part of the IU Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, a group focused on promoting the third goal of the Peace Corps: to strengthen Americans’ understanding about the world and its people.

Abbie Hantgan
Mali, West Africa
January 1998 through June 2001
Ph.D candidate in African linguistics

Abbie Hantgan intended to spend the normal two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali, West Africa, but ended up extending her stay for a total of three-and-a-half years.
“After two years, I finally had learned the language and the culture. I finally learned how to live there, so why leave?” she said.

After graduating from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina in 1996, Hantgan began to research programs and decided on the Peace Corps for a variety of reasons.

“I went to Cameroon in college for a service project and wanted to go back. I was looking for a program that had some financial support, and I was also thinking about health care,” she said. “I had a little knowledge of French, so West Africa was a great fit.”

Hantgan spent her time in the village of Koira Beirier teaching a women’s group to read and write.

“I worked with a literacy instructor and an organization called the Near East Foundation to teach the women’s collective to read and write in a Dogon language, but there are about 18 Dogon languages,” she said. “While they learned Najamba, which they do speak, their own language is Kindige.”

Literacy materials are now being made for the teaching of Kindige, she said.

Hantgan has returned to West Africa three times since her time with Peace Corps.
She spent summer 2008 and summer 2009 in West Africa and recently returned from a six-month stint there. Each time, she has continued teaching literacy.

“I began also working on another thought-to-be Dogon language, Bangime, which turns out to be completely unrelated, though the people live among the Dogon.”

Hantgan is currently a Ph.D. candidate at IU in African linguistics and said she hopes to complete her dissertation by next May.

“I just got back from doing this research and have been wanting to spread the word,” she said.

Shan Weatherbee
Kachiry, Kazakhstan
June 2004 through July 2006

Shan Weatherbee spent his two Peace Corps years as a volunteer on the edge of southern Siberia in the village of Kachiry, Kazakhstan, teaching English to primary and secondary school students.

He said learning the native language and communicating was probably the hardest part, as it probably is for most volunteers.

“I didn’t know the language or culture, so communication was pretty hard, but you get a hold of it after about six months or the first year,” he said.

Weatherbee spent his first year living with a host family but lived on his own the second year in the back rooms of a house that was shared by a woman and her son who lived in the front.

“It was a little better to be living on my own just because it gave me more independence,” he said.

While on his own, Weatherbee had to keep his rooms warm by buying coal and wood.
“It was a pretty life-changing experience,” he said. “Living in a different country and seeing what problems people have to deal with that we take for granted, like the coal for keeping warm. The whole experience was great and a real eye-opener.”

Kate Slavens
Mali, West Africa
July 2007 through July 2009
Master’s student in SPEA

After finishing her undergraduate studies and graduating in May 2007, Kate Slavens said she decided to spend two years in Mali, West Africa, in the village of Senossa with a population of about 3,500.

Slavens focused on general health and sanitation there by holding workshops and presentations for the community.

“We did weekly baby weigh-ins and also did demonstrations for mothers about how to make a more nutritious and substantive porridge,” she said.

Slavens said she had always thought about being a Peace Corps volunteer.
“I’ve always been interested in new countries, new cultures and new languages,” she said.

While Slavens majored in French at University of Evansville, a prominently spoken language in West Africa, as an undergraduate, she still had to deal with the language barrier of the local dialect, Fulani.

The first nine weeks of her stay were spent learning the language, Slavens said. Along with Fulani, the training also included health safety.

“There was a lot of training about safety when drinking water and how to cook,” she said. “There were also lots and lots of shots in preparation for the trip.”

Because the days mostly revolved around the sun, Slavens usually began her average routine at sunrise followed by breakfast while listening to BBC radio. After eating lunch with her host family, she would then visit schools or make follow-up visits in the afternoon.

While in Mali, Slavens stayed in regular contact with her family.
“The use of cell phones is growing exponentially, so I actually had a phone. My parents also got a Skype account, too,” she said. “There was also a lot of letter writing.”

Slavens is now at IU, pursuing a master’s in publics affairs with a concentration in nonprofit management.
“It was an amazing experience,” she said. “Everyone was so warm and friendly.”

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