Chasing Change: The Peace Corps and the Trinity Effect
Chasing Change
Peace Corps and the Trinity effect

Stepping off the bus, David Young ’06 squinted into the sunlight. With two bags slung over his shoulders, Young surveyed his surroundings, taking in the vastness of the Sahara Desert behind him and the small city of Boudenib before him. The sun warmed his back, and tiny flecks of sand whirled around his ankles. He was home.

Or, at least, the new home the Peace Corps had chosen for him in southeastern Morocco. Taking a deep breath and letting it go, Young walked into Boudenib and the next two years of his life.

Embracing the Unknown

Young was the first Peace Corps volunteer ever to be placed in Boudenib. A history major while at Trinity, he was somewhat surprised to be chosen as a small business development volunteer, aiding the Moroccan Ministry of Artisans and Tourism. With little to no guidance about who to contact or which organizations to support, Young did the only thing he could: He began knocking on doors, an American traveling salesman of goodwill.

Young eventually discovered a local women’s and children’s association where he helped build a website, taught English, and assisted the women as they defined their mission and objectives. He structured the website to best facilitate grant requests and gathered content into a cohesive form. More important than all this, Young says, was that the association served as a social place for the women to congregate outside of their homes. In a country where the public domain is principally restricted for men, English classes doubled as a place for the women to come together and talk.

A collage featuring a city in Morocco and David Young ’06 working with a student and standing in front of the desert.

As he worked to empower the local artisans, Young says it was important to remain flexible and be willing to accept uncertainty.

“People in the Peace Corps need to be very creative, because you are never sure of what is going to happen,” Young says. “In this tiny desert town, I drew on the firm foundation Trinity gave me as an independent researcher and I figured out solutions to some hard, abstract problems.”

Eager to learn a new language and travel, Young joined the Peace Corps a year after graduating from Trinity. Still searching for a career path, he slowly discovered his calling through the letters and cards he sent home to the U.S. Always a gifted essayist, Young honed his writing skills as he attempted to encapsulate his Peace Corps experience for family and friends. In his ample free time, Young began writing fiction, eventually leading him to earn his MFA in Creative Writing from the University of San Francisco in 2013.

Now a freelance writer, editor, and journalist, Young says that learning Moroccan Arabic has made him more cognizant of how he uses English. Thinking of the initial Arabic conversations where he could only glean every other word, Young says his Peace Corps days taught him to be an active listener, a skill which he uses daily in his work.

Discovering Commonalities

Like Young, Oliver Gaines ’08 was also selected as a business development officer. Across the Sahara to the south, Gaines was posted in Senegal. Fueled by a thirst for adventure and a desire to get to know another culture “on a more intimate level,” Gaines went directly from Trinity into the Peace Corps. After leaving Trinity’s vibrant campus, he gradually adjusted to the unhurried pace of Ngaye Makhe, his Senegalese village. Gaines was then faced with a saturated market of well-qualified artisans all making the same product. Working with an association of 250 women, Gaines started a partnership with an organization in Oregon to export hand-woven baskets, and he also identified specific village women to lead operations once he left.

As he observed the operation, Gaines noticed that the plastic used for the baskets, broken down from colorful prayer mats, could be purchased directly from the factories. Putting his finance and economics double major to work, Gaines helped the association save valuable time and money. All profits were used to support community service projects, from restocking medical supplies to purchasing materials for the local school.

Although Senegalese and American culture are vastly different, Gaines came to comprehend how certain aspects of human nature are consistent across seemingly separate societies. While his host family were all devout Muslims and his host father had four wives and 30 children, Gaines saw how they, like parents in the U.S., simply wanted the best for their children—for them to be safe, to attend good schools, and to be well fed.

He also recognizes that while the women’s association and its basket export business are thriving, many Peace Corps projects are not able to stand the test of time.

“A lot of times, it is hard to get sustainable work done,” Gaines says. “Volunteers do great projects, but it can be difficult to continue that work once you are out of the country. In that sense, volunteers get more out of the experience than the community does, because you are thrust into a world so different from your own that will change you in many ways.”

Today, Gaines is a consular officer with the U.S. Foreign Service working in the U.S. Embassy in Luanda, Angola. It is his first assignment, and Gaines is kept busy handling visa applications, helping Americans who have lost their passports, conducting economic reporting, and anything else that comes his way. As a representative of the U.S. government, Gaines misses the up-close-and-personal view that Peace Corps allowed him. With his new title, security protocol prevents him from the completely immersive experience he enjoyed in Senegal. Nevertheless, Gaines is happy escorting Americans from tight spots.

Although more than five years have passed since his service, Gaines says his Peace Corps friends are still some of the closest in his life. Akin to Young, he admits that a certain amount of what happens to a volunteer during his or her service is out of the volunteer’s control, a feeling that can be both liberating and frightening. No matter the country, Gaines says he can find commonalities in the service of any Peace Corps volunteer.

“There is a certain aspect of that person that you automatically understand if they have served in the Peace Corps,” Gaines says. “You can identify with them on so many levels, and that’s really very cool.”

Valuing Relationships

Kristi Quillen ’03, who served three years in Costa Rica, feels the exact same way.

“When I talk to other Peace Corps volunteers, even people who have served 30 years ago or in a totally different country, there are still so many elements about their experience that I relate to,” Quillen says. “It is such an impactful experience that is hard to articulate sometimes what it was or what came from it.”

Quillen, an assistant editor at Mother Earth News magazine, joined the Peace Corps at age 29 after working as a high school English teacher. She was a member of the new English teaching program in Costa Rica and helped train local teachers, some of whom had never interacted with a native English speaker before. Quillen organized workshops at high schools to teach language learning skills, such as speaking, listening, reading, and writing. She also collaborated with the regional adviseor on rubrics and administering student feedback.

Two pictures of Kristi Quillen ’03, one lifting an enormous banana leaf and one stirring a large pot of food.

Similar to Gaines and Young, Quillen, an English major, noticed that life in Santa Rosa, Costa Rica, was more leisurely and that business was conducted at a much gentler rate. Whether it was convening a meeting or trying to organize an English camp, Quillen came to see that success was achieved not through set meetings, but through relationships and, often, through chance conversations on the street.

“Life was about being versus doing, and that has affected how I approach my life now,” Quillen says. “I learned to appreciate being with people, drinking coffee, and doing laundry. Now, even among the busyness of American life, I have learned to just be.”

Thinking of Trinity, Quillen says the University instilled in her a responsibility for engaging with the world and compelled her to think earnestly about what she would use her education for. That focus on service and thinking about oneself as part of a larger world played a definite role in Quillen’s decision to apply to the Peace Corps in the first place.

At home in Kansas, Quillen has turned her passion for sustainability, food, and the Earth into a full-time career. She edits articles on subjects ranging from gardening to energy to homebuilding, and says that a love for learning about new topics keeps her challenged and energized each day. Guiding articles from start to finish, she plans out editorial content and issues months in advance. For Quillen, working at Mother Earth News means sharing the lessons of sustainability that were at the heart of her Peace Corps experience.

“Sustainability comes back to being with people and being in a community,” Quillen says. “In Costa Rica, relationships were more important than agendas and living sustainably was about caring for other people and giving back.”

Joining a Community

Acclimating to la pura vida was also something that Gaby McKay ’13, ’16 contended with as a Peace Corps volunteer in the rural 300-person village of La Lucha, Costa Rica. Originally from Dallas, McKay says life in La Lucha, where the nearest town was a two-hour bus ride away, took some getting used to at the start. After the hustle and bustle of Dallas and then San Antonio, the culture of a small town, where everyone knew everyone, was a marked change.

As time passed, McKay, like Quillen, became thankful for the village’s intimacy. McKay, a communication and Spanish double major, taught in the elementary school where 50 children studied. The most rewarding part of her service was getting to know her students and their families as people. Sitting on the front porch of their homes, McKay came to understand family dynamics and incorporated that knowledge into her teaching.

“Although the people in La Lucha did not have many resources, they were always so willing to help, whether it was a ride if I missed the bus or a place to stay if my host family was going out of town,” McKay says. “I loved that sense of community.”

A collage featuring Gaby McKay ’13 with young students and a double rainbow in Costa Rica.

In addition, McKay also taught dance lessons. A highlight from her service was the Mother’s Day performance put on by students at the elementary school. Before joining the Peace Corps, McKay was unsure about her future as a teacher and whether it was a profession she genuinely wanted to pursue. In hindsight, McKay knows working in La Lucha and seeing the impact of an English class on students reinforced her decision to become an educator as the right choice.

McKay’s resolve was so bolstered that she applied and was accepted to the Trinity Master of Arts in Teaching. A Trinity graduate for the second time, McKay is excited to stay in San Antonio to teach Spanish because of the wide range among student skill levels. She starts at St. Philip’s Early College High School in August. Fluent herself, McKay is prepared for beginners and native speakers alike. She also likes that Spanish is not a state-tested subject, allowing for greater flexibility and freedom in her curriculum.

McKay calls the Peace Corps a truly transformative experience that allows you to learn about yourself and break free from your comfort zone.

“I would encourage anyone to join the Peace Corps because you learn about different cultures in a more in-depth way than study abroad or even an extended vacation,” McKay says. “I lived and worked in a community where the people had an open door for me at all times.”

Reminiscent of the other Trinity Peace Corps volunteers, McKay is hesitant about exaggerating her personal imprint on her village. Although she knows she made a difference, she surmises she was more impactful on certain students and families. She recalls the 4-year-old in her host family and how much she saw his English improve by the end of her service. More than the phrases and words she taught him, she says it is his “love of learning” that will continue to last.

Learning through Experience

A fellow educator, David Meeske ’13 taught English in a slightly colder climate than Costa Rica. An international studies major, Meeske was assigned to the remote village of Mankhan, Mongolia, for his first two years. The only foreigner in Mankhan, he taught English and lived in a ger, a type of yurt, complete with electricity, a bed, a stove for fires, and a dry sink. Meeske then extended for a third year, moving to Erdenet, Mongolia’s third largest city, to conduct community development work.

As a Trinity student, Meeske excelled in German and studied abroad twice in Berlin and Vienna. In Vienna, he taught at a high school and practiced English with students. After those experiences, Meeske envisioned Peace Corps as a means for him to experience being a foreigner outside of Western Europe. Posted in Mongolia, he undoubtedly got his wish.

One of the projects that Meeske is proudest of is a life skills course he co-organized in Mankhan for the children of nomadic herders. While their parents are out herding, these young adults live in a dormitory next to the school and can sometimes fall behind their peers due to a lack of structure and regular family support within the dorms. To assuage this trend, Meeske and his Mongolian counterpart taught healthy modes of communication, beneficial attitudes toward power, and empathy. Although he envisioned much grander accomplishments for his service, Meeske says managing expectations throughout his service kept him from too many disappointments.

“Some volunteers set extremely specific expectations, but I did my best to simply let the experience be what it was going to be,” Meeske says. “Despite different cultural habits and immense linguistic barriers, I found that I adapted to life in Mongolia a lot faster than I thought. It goes to show that you can get used to just about anything.”

A collage of three pictures of David Meeske ’13 in Mongolia on top of a camel, with a family, and outside some buildings.

Meeske, who just finished his service in June, will begin an English-teaching Fulbright in Turkey this fall, working at Yildirim Beyazit University in Ankara. He believes Peace Corps has brought out certain aspects of his personality that were once less evident, such as confidence and perseverance, rather than an overt change in who he is as a person. As he learned Mongolian and how to become an effective teacher, Meeske says he came across his fair share of failures. Yet, he views these experiences as opportunities to grow and re-evaluate his attitude toward the situations.

Analogous to Gaines, Meeske claims a person’s Peace Corps experience is what they make of it. Be it lessons with students, laughs with his host family, or riding a camel across the frozen steppe, Meeske says he has absorbed so much through observation and experience.

“It is really fascinating to learn about people and different ways of living,” Meeske says. “At Trinity, I got a taste of how diverse and complex the world is, but being in Mongolia took that to a whole other plane—one I never even knew existed.”

Serving with Love

A greater worldview was precisely what Laura Martel ’08 set out to find when she graduated from Trinity as a biology major. As an undergraduate, Martel had spent her summers interning in her home state of Colorado at a summer camp for disabled children. Returning every summer, Martel realized her calling lay in rehabilitation and she decided to become a physical therapist. However, when graduation came, Martel felt she needed a more global perspective before starting physical therapy school. She found it, and more, in Zambia’s James Katuna village.

After the Peace Corps’ requisite three months of training, Martel began teaching English in a brick schoolhouse with open windows and no electricity. In a classroom designed for 30 kids, Martel taught nearly 80, jammed together three children per desk and textbook. In addition to teaching, Martel and her fellow volunteers also performed HIV/AIDS education. The hardest part was adjusting to the work culture, where a meeting scheduled for 10 a.m. would inevitably start at 11. Martel learned to always bring a book.

Nevertheless, despite the challenging teaching conditions, Martel came to love life in her village. Her host family, in particular, taught her “way more than I ever could have taught them.”

“My host family took me in as one of their own,” Martel says. “They taught me patience, to be accepting, and the community aspect of life. They portrayed the saying that it really does take a village.”

After leaving Zambia in 2011, Martel became a doctor of physical therapy, graduating from the University of Colorado, Anschutz Medical Campus, in 2015. She works in neurological rehab at Craig Hospital in Englewood, Colo., tending to people with traumatic brain injuries, strokes, and spinal cord injuries. Martel applies the lessons in acceptance to her work, saying her Peace Corps service has “definitely impacted my ability to not judge patients and to listen to their full story.” By listening to every patient’s story, Martel comes to know who they are as people.

“If I can make even one person’s life a little bit less painful or a little easier, then that will make me happy,” Martel says.

On top of her Peace Corps experience, Martel has also given back through an organization titled Comunidades Unidas Peru, or United Communities, Peru (CU Peru). It is a nonprofit composed of medical students from the University of Colorado that provides medical training to community health workers in a rural area of the Peruvian Amazon. As a student, Martel served as vice president, and today she has continued on as chair of the communications committee. In addition to CU Peru, Martel has also started volunteering as a physical therapist in the Sacred Valley of Peru.

As a senior in college, Martel was scared by the two-year time commitment required of Peace Corps volunteers. As an alumna, she laughs at her reservation, saying that two years was necessary to “learning everything I did and to come home the person that I am.” She says she absolutely found the perspective she went searching for, and learned, like her fellow Trinity Peace Corps volunteers, that she received more than she gave.

Carlos Anchondo '14 is an oil and gas reporter for E&E News, based in Washington D.C. A communication and international studies major at Trinity, he received his master's degree in journalism at the University of Texas at Austin.

You might be interested in