Profile: Helen Raffel
I was amazed when I joined the Peace Corps at how few seniors there are. The way I see it, there are no cons to joining the Peace Corps as a senior, just pros. For older people, the Peace Corps is an ideal “retirement home.” After I finish my two-year service in China, I’ll start my third Peace Corps assignment, this time in Morocco. I hope to spend the rest of my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer.
When I joined the Peace Corps the first time, I was already close to 70 years old, wanted to work abroad again, and was eager to see the middle portion of the ancient Silk Road. So I applied, and served as a Business Education and Development Volunteer in Uzbekistan. My site was Namangan, the fourth largest city in the country, located in a valley surrounded by the foothills of the Tian Shan Mountains and near Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Although the city is a center of Islamic culture, there are still many Russians there from the days when Uzbekistan was part of the Soviet Union. I studied both the Uzbek and Russian languages. I lived with local families throughout my two years there. I think that living with a local family and working with local people is the only way to really get to know a country. I don’t know of any other organization that gives us such in-depth knowledge abroad.
I specifically choose China for my second Peace Corps tour. I expect that China will soon become a superpower, it has one-fifth of the world’s population, and I knew from past teaching experiences there that living in China is very pleasant. The Chinese people are very cheerful and friendly, and when you get to know them—especially if you can speak their language—they are very frank and open. Furthermore, they have a tradition of great respect for older people. I teach Environmental Education at Sichuan University in Southwest China, but I combine it with business education in my Environmental Economics graduate course and in my lecture to the whole MBA school on “How to Be Good to the Environment and Make Money Too.”
One of my favorite memories of China is the wonderful three-week environmental tour on which I took my six best Chinese students, my Chinese counterpart and six American environmental workers last summer. We traveled from the Tibetan mountain area (in western Sichuan Province) all the way to the southeast part of China visiting Panda reserves, a wastewater treatment plant, the Three Gorges Dam construction site, and a lot of other places.
I guess my curiosity comes from growing up during the depression, and then during World War II. My parents never went to college, and we moved around the country often as my father looked for employment, so I’m accustomed to picking up and moving. This childhood made me curious about the state of the world and the sources of problems, actual and potential, economic and social, environmental and ideological. I feel I am a butterfly going from one fascinating and beautiful flower to another. I always want to learn and pass on. That way I never lose it, but instead I multiply it.
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