A Peace Corps Volunteer reflects on her service in Sri Lanka
As Peace Corps celebrates the agency’s 60th anniversary, we look back at the decades of service our Volunteers have provided.
Margaret Legowski has quite a few stories to tell regarding her service in the Peace Corps. Not only was she a Volunteer, but she was also director of the agency’s Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools program, which promotes global learning through activities, classroom resources, and partnerships with Volunteers.
“I always wanted to be a teacher, and before becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer, I taught elementary and junior high in the U.S. and Denmark and I was also part of a summer Fulbright program for teachers in Israel." she said. "My Peace Corps service was in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1989. At the time, I was 34 and the eldest in my batch of five District English Language Improvement Center instructors. After our pre-service training, I was assigned to a former British hill station in the blessedly cool, tea-covered central highlands,” she recalled.
In the 1980s, at the invitation of the nation’s president and education minister, Peace Corps Sri Lanka assigned Volunteers to serve at accelerated English teacher training institutes. Margaret was in the cohort that served in the Education sector.
“Our center was unique, and I loved being there with three Sri Lankan teachers and another Volunteer — all of us single women," she said.
"Our 85 students were in their early 20s, and they represented Sri Lanka's various religious and ethnic groups from all over the island. They came to improve their English-language skills, as they needed to pass the exam that would qualify them to teach English in rural schools. The idea then was that English could create a connection between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities."
Sri Lanka has two national languages used by the two ethnic groups mentioned above — Sinhala and Tamil — but English is recognized as the link language. English is taught as a secondary language from the third grade onwards, in recognition of its utility in commerce and beyond.
“I also volunteered at a children’s home, at the invitation of one of my colleagues. Initially, I went to observe a Girl Guide troop meeting and when I got there, it turned out that I was the leader of Little Friends, which is what we call Brownies [in the United States]," she said.
"We had a great little troop and had lots of fun together, particularly when we participated in the Girl Guides' 60th anniversary jamboree in Colombo, which was six hours away by bus."
A tumultuous time to serve
In the 1980s, political unrest escalated in the northern and eastern areas of Sri Lanka, eventually leading to deployment of government forces. Margaret received special notices from the Peace Corps that alerted Volunteers about any political turbulence. Peace Corps staff also made site visits to assess and discuss risk — sometimes even pulling Volunteers from certain areas of the country. In 1998, due to increasing violence related to the country’s civil war, the Peace Corps program there was suspended.
“It was definitely the best of times and the worst of times," Margaret said. Part of the country was strictly off-limits due to the war, and the rest of the country frequently experienced anti-government violence and ongoing strikes. Her work site was under nighttime curfew almost the entire time she was there. The situation was tense for her students, colleagues, and neighbors as unrest permeated through schools and communities.
"Fortunately, I was always able to work with the youth at the children’s home, and I never felt unsafe. Eventually, Peace Corps pulled all Volunteers into the capital for a few months to ride out the election season,” she said.
During her last year of service, Margaret developed a project in collaboration with USAID. The children’s home where she worked was on the side of a hill, and the water it used came from a pipe originating in a nearby mountain stream. The small pipe was constantly clogged with silt. Under the leadership of a USAID engineer, Margaret searched for alternate sources of water. Eventually, they developed a plan to install larger pipes that included filters. After Margaret’s departure from Sri Lanka, the project was completed by Laura Hinck, another Volunteer in Sri Lanka.
Upon completing her service, Margaret served as a Peace Corps Fellow in the Hanover County School District of Virginia. Afterwards, she was offered a position at the Peace Corps’ World Wise Schools program at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.
“I helped shape the educational side of this program. We matched Volunteers with teachers and classes for ongoing written correspondence and supported that connection with curricula and videos," she said. "We arranged for returned Volunteers to visit schools and we partnered with the Smithsonian and other groups to get the word out about Peace Corps and our countries."
Margaret eventually became director of the program. Her entire team was dedicated to learning from other countries and teaching a deep respect for nations served by the Peace Corps. They developed educational materials alongside in-country staff, which were broadcast across television networks. The team also organized an anniversary event at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. The event focused on teaching visitors how host countries’ cultures developed, communicated, and celebrated. The uniqueness of each culture was the anniversary’s theme.
“Despite the troubles, I have wonderful memories of my time in Sri Lanka. I have been back twice. Once was for the World Wise Schools program, and the next visit was about five years ago, when I retired," she said.
"What a gift it was to observe a former student in her classroom and to see my family and colleagues again.”