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3-6 months
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John E.

“Whatever we can do to show our appreciation for different cultures, support learning, and do whatever we can to bring peace to the world, as difficult as it is, can never be undervalued.”

John E Headshot

1. What got you interested in the Peace Corps, specifically the Volunteer Service Pilot (VSP)?

I thought I had something to offer and wanted to do something different. I wanted to experience more of the world. I wanted to teach, but not in an ordinary place. Since serving in the Peace Corps in Uruguay over 50 years ago, the urge to travel and experience other cultures has been a driving force in my life. Since my wife has multiple sclerosis and is unable to travel, the VSP program provides an exciting alternative. It allows me to experience other cultures, provide a service, and promote world peace without leaving home. It sounds idealistic, but this is what the Peace Corps teaches. We shoot for the moon; if we hit a star, that’s fine.

2. What VSP projects have you worked on?

My first experience starting in 2022 was teaching students English as a second language (ESL) and working with ESL teachers in the Republic of Georgia for six-and-a-half months. Azerbaijani was the first language of my students. Georgian was their second language, and English was their third. I worked closely with my Georgian counterpart to plan lessons and teach the students together. It was very much of a team effort.

My second VSP experience in 2023 was working with a group of highly skilled ESL teachers in the Ukraine for two-and-a-half months. I co-taught the class with an American counterpart.

I spend three months collaborating with my Colombian counterparts for my third VSP experience, in the latter part of 2023. During this time, I coordinated an English conversation club with two groups of adults. It was very satisfying to share cultures and work on English language skills.

I am currently working with three teachers in Guatemala, my fourth VSP engagement. All of our conversations are in Spanish, so I had to do some reviewing since it has been nearly 60 years since I was in Uruguay. All the skills I learned in the Peace Corps are in play once again: listening, initiative, conversation in another language, courage, cultural characteristics, leadership, and more.

My recent ESL teaching experiences have struck me as somewhat ironic because my first job coming out of the Peace Corps in 1968 was teaching ESL to Puerto Rican students in North Camden, NJ. A few years later, I taught ESL in Iran. Having had no training in teaching ESL, I more or less taught by the seat of my pants. Without the qualities of tenacity and resilience I learned as a Volunteer, along with the delight and benefit of learning about other cultures, I would not have had much success.

3. What have been the results of your collaborative work with the community?

Developing collaboration techniques is not easy in virtual experiences, especially when time is limited. I always strive to get to know the people I work with to ensure that I am addressing their needs. At the same time, I do my best to share my culture, so they leave knowing more about me and the U.S. than when the partnership began. The same is true for them.

4. What is a highlight of your VSP experience?

The experience of working with and getting to know someone from another culture has always been rewarding for me. At the end of each VSP experience, they have given me a very meaningful farewell with testimonials from the students and teachers I worked with. I shall always remember them. You can get close to people quickly if you aim to get to know people.

5. What strategies have you used to meet the challenges of a short-term and remote experience?

It takes a few weeks to a) get to know the people you work with, b) identify the needs, c) provide meaningful experiences, and d) develop a working relationship with your counterparts in the host country. You must have these four goals and work at them. Showing photos of your family and community is a meaningful way to build trust. Essential to building trust is working together with your host country coordinator. We meet at least once a week to plan our lessons and talk about any concerns. The lesson plans are then sent to the students so they could review it before our next meeting. I still maintain contact with coordinators and some teachers. These are friendships that I hope will last forever.

6. What will you bring away from your experience as a VSP Participant?

I tell my students and collaborators that, in all cases, I become a better person because of them. I realize once again that people have more things in common than differences. We all want a fun and fulfilling life for ourselves and our families. We all want to experience some measure of success in our work, and we all want to do our best to bring peace to the world. I try to live by the axiom that if we don’t try, we don’t do, and if we don’t do, what are we here for?

My current engagement in Guatemala, which began in February 2024, is especially meaningful, as my wife and I have two adopted children from Guatemala.

7. How does VSP compare to your previous Peace Corps Volunteer experience?

The VSP program shares the same goals as the traditional Volunteer experience. We share the same need to work as partners with the host country. Because the VSP is a short-term experience, you must take advantage of every moment. In some respects, it is asking a lot of VSP participants. On the other hand, the effort to create such a virtual experience is time well spent. Whatever we can do to show our appreciation for different cultures, support learning, and do whatever we can to bring peace to the world, as difficult as it is, can never be undervalued.