My parents were impulsive people, prone to spur-of-the moment ideas developed to manage their antsiness, provide an activity for my mother to take her mind off of worrying about her kids, and give my retired father the sense that he still had some kind of a job, since working was all he had ever done.
Some of their schemes were wacky and others were more trouble than they were worth. But their best idea ever was when my dad saw an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle for Peace Corps volunteers. It was 1976. My parents were in their late 60s, and I was just out of grad school. The day after they saw that ad, they told me they were going to San Francisco for an interview. I never knew whether they actually had an appointment or not, but when they got to the building, the elevator was broken and they had to walk many flights of stairs to the Peace Corps office. Those were the first steps toward a two-year adventure in Apia, Western Samoa, where they both taught English. In this case, their impetuousness actually resulted in everything they hoped it would and much, much more.
At this point in my life, when I am weighing all possibilities for how I want to live, think, expand, learn, and give back, I haven’t seriously considered the Peace Corps yet because that always seems like “their” thing. But, I still feel strongly that what their experience did for them and for the families they worked with was the best thing that ever happened to them. They had fun, they learned about an entirely different culture, they helped countless kids, and they even served as surrogate parents for the younger volunteers that were also in Apia at the time.
In an interesting coincidence, the current director of the Peace Corps, Carrie Hessler-Radelet, also served in Western Samoa, and it changed her life, too. “I come from a four-generation Peace Corps family,” says Hessler-Radelet, who served with her husband Steve. “We taught secondary school and the experience really opened my eyes to the kinds of development challenges communities around the world face. I didn’t know yet that Peace Corps would change my life, in ways I could not have predicted, but I’ve built my career on the lessons I learned in that small village."
"I didn’t know yet that Peace Corps would change my life, in ways I could not have predicted."
When my parents were in Apia, I was lucky enough to visit them and I saw them engage more deeply in the community around them than I had before. They lived and worked with volunteers from all over the world, and their cinder-block house with louvered windows was in a lush, seaside village inhabited by people who treated my mom and dad with honor and respect because they were older and white-haired. Although it wasn’t a phrase used as commonly then as it is now, they became global citizens in a way that few of us ever will in our lifetimes.
Today the Peace Corps is still seeking older volunteers and they’ve even developed some new programs they think might be particularly attractive to them. One is called Peace Corps Response, which consists of “high-impact” assignments for returned Peace Corps volunteers or professionals with at least 10 years of work experience. As opposed to the typical two-year assignment, these average about six months of working in areas like food security, civil engineering, information systems, library science, and university-level teaching. The other, Global Health Service Partnership, sends U.S. healthcare professionals abroad to teach and expand clinical capacity.
After more than 30 years in the insulated world of higher education, I’m learning every day about all of the other things that people my age are doing in a larger arena to literally make the world a better place. Hessler-Radelet says that 7 percent of Peace Corps volunteers are over the age of 50. “Older Peace Corps volunteers," she says, "have a wealth of life skills, professional experience, and tested maturity that prepares them to make lasting impacts in communities around the world.”
When I find myself in my new life fretting about issues of identity and structure and meaning, I realize I’m not alone, but I also recognize that a lot of people my age are much braver and more creative about how they are managing these same concerns. I’m proud of my parents that they were part of that group, and I feel excited that Hessler-Radelet and her organization really get it that those of us in our second act have a lot to offer the rest of the world.
To learn more about Peace Corps opportunities, visit peacecorps.gov/openings.