Alumni recall Peace Corps experience

Tanzania_wikipedia imageIn all, more than 235,000 Americans have served in 141 countries since Peace Corps’ inception in 1961. The Corps has three main aims: help meet the needs of interested countries, help promote a better understanding of people in other countries, and help promote a better understanding of Americans.

Nearly 10,000 volunteers have come from the state of Washington. Of those, about a tenth—1,008 volunteers, to be exact—is made up of WSU alumni, including Zoë Campbell (’09 biology) and Diane Kelly-Riley (’95 MA English, ’06 PhD Ed. Psych.), recently recalled their experiences in a Washington State Magazine web extra.

Zoë Campbell
Tanzania, 2012 to 2014

Zoë Campbell studied in Madagascar during college, earning a degree in biology. “I always wanted to be Jane Goodall,” she says.

Zoë Campbell.She graduated in spring 2009, near the official end of the Great Recession, and wasn’t finding work she was completely passionate about. So, “It seemed like a good time to go and have a bit of an adventure.”

Her dad did Peace Corps as a young man, teaching English in West Africa, and she was intrigued by the program—and the opposite side of the continent. “I keep getting drawn back to East Africa,” says Campbell, who taught environmental science to fifth-graders in the village of Mshewe in Mbeya region of Tanzania’s Southern Highlands.

“It’s not everybody’s cup of tea,” says Campbell (’19 PhD Interdis.). But, “travel can be quite a game-changer. For me, it led directly—no doubt about it—to getting a PhD” Plus, she notes, “I speak Swahili really well.”

One of the biggest challenges was “that it can be very isolating. Until you learn better language skills you can’t really communicate with people. It’s not always clear what to do, and it can be lonely.” She found love—and wrote a book about it, Labor of Love: A Guide to Intercultural Dating.

She’s also returned to Tanzania several times since her Peace Corps experience to work on her individual interdisciplinary doctoral degree in global animal health, sociology, and economics. Campbell started her doctoral program in 2015 and worked as a postdoctoral researcher at the Allen School for Global Animal Health at WSU Pullman before taking a position at the International Livestock Research Institute in Nairobi, Kenya.

Diane Kelly-Riley
Marshall Islands, 1989 to 1991

When Diane Kelly-Riley received her Peace Corps placement, she had “no idea where” the Marshall Islands were. “I couldn’t Google it. I had to look on a map. I went and got a globe and tried to find them.”

Diane Kelly-RileyThe long-running TV advertisements describing the program as “The Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love” really resonated with her, so she applied. Two weeks after graduating from a small, private liberal arts college in Iowa with a degree in English, she left for her assignment on Mejit Island, home to about 350 people. The entire island doesn’t quite encompass a full square mile.

Kelly-Riley lived in a thatched hut with no electricity or running water and slept on a mat on the floor. Her diet was mostly coconut, rice, and fish—including flying fish and tuna which the men of the island caught spear-fishing at night or ​by using traditional, hand-carved canoes. She taught English to teachers and organized exercise classes on the island’s airstrip, doing Jane Fonda’s workout. But, mostly, she taught eighth grade, helping students prepare for a high-stakes English exam. If they passed, they went on to high school and economic opportunity. If they didn’t, they continued subsistence living on their remote outer island.

“It really left an imprint on my life in a pretty significant way,” says Kelly-Riley (’95 MA Eng. Lit., ’06 PhD Ed. Psych.). She worked at WSU from 1996 to 2013, serving as co-director of the WSU Writing Program and director of the ​Writing Assessment ​Program. Now, she’s an associate professor of English and associate dean for research and faculty affairs at the University of Idaho. She also edits the Journal of Writing Assessment.

“I learned so much about how people view the world so differently and there’s a lot of different ways to live,” she says. “It helped me be open to opportunity. It made me more of an educated and concerned citizen. And it set my career path. All of my career has really focused on trying to make ​fairer and better writing assessments.”

Read these and other remembrances on the Washington State Magazine website.

By Adriana Janovich for Washington State Magazine