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"Welcome to the Pace Corps"


I still think of myself as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The Peace Corps experience began for me in the spring of my senior year of college. I remember walking across the beautiful, small, midwestern campus of Western College for Women to get my mail. The telegram -- the first telegram I had ever gotten in my life -- came along with one rejection and one acceptance to law school. I remember it had a misspelling, "Welcome to the Pace Corps." The decision about what to do -- law school or the Peace Corps -- was easy. I was a child of my generation. I was a Kennedy Kid.

My family opposed my going into the Peace Corps. My dad even offered me a car as a bribe not to join. My Lebanese grandmother, however, finally settled the issue. "Donna," she said, "is going to the Old Country -- she'll be fine." As I left for Iran she pressed into my hand a letter written in classical Arabic. "Give this to the head man in the village," she whispered.

When I arrived in Moli Sani, a small Arab village, I gave the letter to the local mullah. It turned out that my grandmother had written, "This is to introduce the child of a great sheikh in Cleveland, Ohio. Please put her under your protection." Like my family, the wise mullah took my grandmother's order seriously.

I was assigned to teach at the Agricultural College at Ahwaz, and it was a challenge. At our first faculty meeting, the Dean went around the room and called the names of all the men, including the male Peace Corps Volunteers. He skipped me. I went to see him in his office and asked him why he hadn't called my name. He said that he didn't know what to say. He had no experience calling on female teachers.

I took it one day at a time. There were women students who needed my attention, so I became an Instructor of English and Dean of Women.

The women, too, were struggling. Most of the girls their age were already married. Classes were integrated, but the girls and boys sat apart. Gradually we made progress -- we created supervised time, including sports, where the students could meet and talk. Two years later there were friendships as well as engagements, not in the traditions of American colleges, but in an Iranian version.

There were other signs of progress. The dean eventually began calling on me at faculty meetings, and the male students, while they still stuck weird things in my teacher's desk, became much more respectful.

My college was located next to a traditional mud village. One day a college guard, who lived in the village, became ill. I asked about him and found out that he had not been to our health clinic because his salary was too low. And he clearly needed to go to a hospital.

I asked our dean to help, and I'll never forget what he said to me: "The problem with you Americans is that you care about individual human life."

That was true, I said. And I persisted and told him that good workers needed good health care. Finally, we got the guard to the hospital.

The day that I remember most vividly in the Peace Corps was the day after President Kennedy was assassinated. Depressed, some friends and I were not in the mood to deal with the local beggar when he approached us. But then with a sad smile, he said, "No money. I want to tell you how sad we all are that your young president was assassinated."

There, in a remote town halfway around the world, a distraught young Peace Corps Volunteer and a beggar embraced and cried together over the death of President Kennedy.

Years later, looking back at my Peace Corps service, I realized that a wise "mullah," an insensitive Dean, and students struggling to preserve a traditional society in a modern age had changed me forever. I had become a citizen of the world. Because of the Peace Corps, I was sensitive to cultural differences, comfortable sitting on mud floors and talking to tribal leaders, respectful of the role of religion, and in awe of the struggles of desperately poor people who manage to maintain their dignity and care for their children.

For me, it has been quite a journey, one that began thirty-five years ago with a letter welcoming me to the "Pace" Corps. I am proud to say that I still think of myself as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

Donna Shalala (Iran)

Donna E. Shalala was appointed by President Clinton to be the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services in 1993. As Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison from 1988-1993, she was the first woman to head a Big Ten University. She also served as President of Hunter College of the City University of New York for eight years, and as Assistant Secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Carter Administration.

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