Profile: James Rodriguez
Many people join the Peace Corps because of stories they've heard from former volunteers-friends or family members who talked endlessly about their own adventures abroad as volunteers. In fact, returned volunteers are often listed as the reason an applicant contacts a recruiting office to begin with.
Not many volunteers, though, can say that someone actually from a Peace Corps country piqued their interest in volunteering for the Peace Corps, especially if that someone is a close relative.
Although James Rodriguez was born in Washington, D.C., his parents are from El Salvador. His mother, Wilma, came to the United States when she was 19, and his father Augustine, immigrated when he was 22. Peace Corps volunteers have been in El Salvador, and Honduras, where James' Uncle Florentino hails from, since 1963. So it's not surprising that James' relatives had friends who were Peace Corps volunteers, or that as a boy he heard stories of Peace Corps volunteers who had helped his family's communities.
"My uncle always used to talk about a volunteer named John," he recalls. "He doesn't remember his last name, but always used to say he wanted to look him up here in the U.S."
So after Rodriguez completed his bachelor's degree in International Affairs and Spanish from James Madison University, the Peace Corps seemed like a great way to start his career in international development. As is the case with some parents, Rodriguez's mother wondered about her son's choice.
"She said, 'Shouldn't you get a real job?'" James said. "But when I explained to her that the Peace Corps would open up a lot of doors for me in my career, she understood."
Fluent in Spanish, Rodriguez seemed a perfect fit for a program in his family's native Latin America. But he was interested in trying another part of the world, another language.
So after a few months of volunteering as an ESL tutor and days of anguish of trying to pack two years of belongings into two suitcases, he was off to Ukraine, a former Soviet republic that has been independent since 1991. Rodriguez and 59 other trainees were sent to the Peace Corps training center in Cherkassy, about an hour south of the capital of Kiev. He found out early that his future work site would be in western Ukraine, so his language training focused on just Ukrainian, rather than Russian, which is spoken more in the east.
"Ukrainian is a complex language," he said. "You have to conjugate the nouns and the verbs, and learning the Cyrillic alphabet adds to the challenge.
"My host family during training was wonderful," he adds. "They were very hospitable, practically threw food at me to get me to eat more!"
After three months of training, Rodriguez moved to his site of Drohobych, where he taught English to tenth and eleventh grade students for the next two years. Drohobych, situated near the Carpathian Mountains, has a population of around 80,000 and is an hour's drive from the Polish border. His two room apartment there included a stunning view of the mountains, 15 foot ceilings and modern utilities like electricity, running water and gas.
"The utilities were always really sporadic and unreliable, though," he said. "Once I was without gas for an entire week, and I had to eat hotdogs from the bazaar at every meal for days. And although the Austro-Hungarian architecture of the area and my apartment was beautiful, it was in disrepair from years of neglect."
Rodriguez's school and apartment were located in the city's center, an area rich in the region's Austro-Hungarian and Polish heritage. Up until World War II the region was part of Poland, and during the war it was occupied by the Germans.
Rodriguez witnessed some of the residual hostility remaining from the region's Nazi and communist eras. As someone who didn't necessarily fit the American stereotype, he was often questioned by authorities.
"They would ask me who I was, what I was doing there," he remembers. "And people thought that I was a gypsy or a Tartar, rather than someone from the U.S.
"It was frustrating at times, but there were too many good things about my experience to let it bother me."
Outside of his classroom teaching, Rodriguez instituted ESL camps during summer breaks, including one that shows how creative Peace Corps volunteers can be with their work-cooking classes.
"We held an English cuisine camp," he said. "We gathered atypical Ukrainian food items, and taught cooking classes to the students as a fun opportunity to practice English and learn more vocabulary."
After traveling through Europe on his way home from Ukraine, Rodriguez landed back in the U.S. in February. He's been working at an internet firm, but is interested in pursuing one of the Peace Corps Fellows master's programs in either urban planning or economic development. He's also been doing a bit of recruiting of his own occasionally, though, encouraging Latinos and others to experience the unique overseas opportunities that the Peace Corps offers.
"It was a great thing to do," he said. "I say, 'Do it!'"
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