From Peace Corps to Peace Building

By Patty Harlan
April 6, 2018

When I began serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer at age 58, the previous volunteer at my site left me a wonderful piece of advice in my information packet:  “Fail big during your service. The people are worth it.” 

Patty and her program manager Nina.

Her words came back to me again and again — not only during my service in Moldova, but after I came home to America, where I eventually returned to Houston to teach English as a second language.

Peace Corps did more than strengthen my commitment to fight for marginalized populations. It helped me broaden my dreams and strengthen my resolve to succeed. Like so many returned Peace Corps Volunteers, I realize that I received as much in my own life as I gave to others.

Hîncești, a city 40 miles southwest of Moldova’s capital, Chișinău, was my permanent site. I was lucky to be placed with a wonderful host family and in a school with great students and staff who welcomed new ideas. In fact, the whole experience was inspiring. Support was overwhelming from my Peace Corps director and staff, the medical team, the drivers and everyone else, especially my program manager, Doamna Nina Potoroaca. 

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Patty, left, works at a seminar with fellow teacher Daria Prozorovschi.

Before completing my two years of service, I did what most volunteers did: I set up as many networks as possible to ensure the sustainability of my work.

I came home with renewed boldness in my language-teaching skills and my personal abilities generally. My Peace Corps service opened the door to graduate work in conflict transformation, a program that required no graduate exam, only experience. I found it in an advertisement in one of the Peace Corps magazines left in a pile in our volunteer library.

While I was in graduate school, I learned how to interview people and to produce and edit a documentary. I learned facilitation skills to help me work effectively with people from countries dealing with historical harms. I even helped to write a memoir of a friend who survived Libya’s Kaddafi regime and spent some time with Leymah Gbowee, the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Liberia.

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Topics in Patty’s English classes ranged from Black History Month to American accents.

Now that I’m back in Houston, I still speak often with my friend and former school director, Doamna Ana Vivdici, who has joined the Peace Corps Moldova staff. My resource teacher has contacted me for advice about a family member who might attend school in America. Another teacher friend, Doamna Daria Prozorovschi, visited the States, bringing several Moldovan students to Kentucky and Nevada for two weeks. It is amazing how my decision to spend time in another continent ended up producing professional and personal relationships that have continued after my Peace Corps service officially ended.

Houston attracts people from many places — Cuban refugees, expatriates working in oil and gas industries, people from the Middle East who have resettled here and others. I have many opportunities to teach English and help others peacefully resolve their issues. One reason I love working here is to show respect and dignity to students from war-torn countries. I also still use those dreaded Peace Corps Moldova lesson formats when I need more clarity for my classes.

Another thing I’ve continued is the passion I developed in Moldova for water-coloring children’s portraits. When Houston’s Hurricane Harvey floods devastated the city last summer, I switched to face-painting children daily at a local shelter. Peace Corps taught me to always be involved in some project.

Patty says goodbye to her student Costea at her school’s “Last Bell” ceremony.

My Peace Corps service deserves credit for much of what I’m doing now. It has also given me professional opportunities, such as with Let Girls Learn, the joint venture of Michelle Obama and the Peace Corps. I feature my Peace Corps service on a website I started with several people here to promote teacher experiences and accomplishments. I’ve also helped guide others in highlighting their previous service when applying for jobs, such as a friend who landed a position working as an engineer with a dam project in Peru.

Peace Corps Moldova is now approaching its 25th anniversary. For me, like for so many other returned volunteers, the values I pursued — respect, dignity and building bridges with other people — continue to serve me well every day back here in America.

Patty Harlan