A Life-Changing Experience
Nancy and Ron Tschetter served as Peace Corps Volunteers in India from 1966 to 1968. Ron Tschetter would later serve as Director of the Peace Corps.
- As Director of the Peace Corps, it has been my honor to have met Peace Corps Volunteers all over the world and to have seen firsthand the remarkable dedication, passion, and skill they bring to serving others.
My wife, Nancy, and I were Peace Corps Volunteers in India from 1966 to 1968. We were in our 20s, recent college graduates and newlyweds, when we decided to serve in the Peace Corps. We spent two years living and working with the people of India and learned to speak the local language. We came away from our experience with a great appreciation for the culture and values in India.
- The Peace Corps was a bit different back in the Sixties—nowadays Volunteers do their training in-country to become familiar with the culture and language, but back then our training was held in the United States, and we were sent overseas when it was time to begin our assignment. We completed our training on December 15, and, after an evening out and one last dinner in New York City, we left the Big Apple on a plane bound for London and the great beyond.
The following evening we boarded an Air India charter, a Boeing 707 full of anxious Peace Corps Volunteers just like ourselves. We flew all night to Delhi, India. I will never forget when we arrived, stepping off the plane: the smoky haze that rose from hundreds of small brown huts; the exotic smell of dinner prepared over wood fires; the pungent tropical air. We were truly on the other side of the world in a culture very different from our own.
It was midnight Christmas Eve when we finally arrived at our new community. Undeterred by the late hour, Bara, our proud host, gave us a short tour of the village, including the centerpiece of local entertainment—an outdoor movie theater that was in full swing, loud music blaring.
Decades later, I can still recall our exhaustion when we finally arrived at our house. It was situated among a block of shops, all resembling one another. Here, traders would sell their wares from the ground floor and live upstairs on the second floor.
Bara found us some plain metal bed frames, on loan from the clinic until we got our own, and we threw our sleeping bags on the frames and fell right to sleep. We didn't even realize we had a bedroom on the second floor until the next day! Things were very basic. We had a tank that we would fill with water, and a"basket latrine" inside the house. A little balcony upstairs added a touch of luxury.
- We gradually became acquainted with our environment. India at that time still revolved around a caste system, and we lived among the people we were to serve; they were called "untouchables." These were people from the lowest caste in Indian society, and they were very, very poor. Together with our Indian counterparts, we worked in a community health center at the other end of the village about a quarter of a mile away. We came to know our neighbors by walking to and from the clinic. From assisting in the clinic and living in our local community, we quickly learned about the development problems related to rural health. Certain illnesses such as dysentery, cholera, and malaria took their toll, and children were subject to catching every sort of childhood disease. Epidemics such as small pox and cholera could wreak havoc on a population already struggling.
- It was natural to wonder then how much of an impact we were making in the face of such widespread poverty. We knew our Peace Corps experience clearly expanded our horizons and taught us a great deal about how life is for people who are struggling in other parts of the world. We learned to appreciate what we have as Americans, and how as global citizens we have a responsibility to others who are less fortunate. But was it really possible for two young people to make a difference? It may be simply that we influenced one person, or one family, or one village in a faraway place. However, the effect was no less significant, for those individuals were the people we had come to know and care about during our years of Peace Corps service.
Two young boys from a lower caste family that lived close by were in the habit of hanging out on our front porch. We gradually got to know them and their family quite well, and we became close friends. We have been fortunate to go back to India five times and have kept in contact with the family we knew so well. We do know that we impacted at least two people—the young boys who used to hang out on our doorstep. Both of them finished school and grew up to be successful businessmen, and each has three lovely children.
- Since becoming Peace Corps Director, I have had the privilege of visiting Volunteers in 43 countries, from Albania to Zambia . I've seen that the challenges now are as great as they were back when Nancy and I served, or maybe even greater. I continue to be deeply impressed by the commitment of our Peace Corps Volunteers.
Though it was many years ago, our Peace Corps experience still reverberates in our lives and the lives of those with whom we were honored to work. You see, once you do something so bold, so enriching, and so all-encompassing, you realize that volunteering and giving to others is actually a gift to yourself. Our lives, and certainly our perspectives, were changed forever.