In Peace Corps, IU alums say they gain more than they give
John Kennedy-Twyford may not have known what to expect when he joined the Peace Corps after leaving Indiana University, but the experience has been anything but disappointing.
"I have gained much more than I have given. I think every volunteer will tell you that," he said by email. What he has gained includes "the language, the country, the culture, the cuisine, a peek into the Eastern European mentality and lifestyle."
Kennedy-Twyford, who graduated from IU with a double major in French and Germanic studies, is serving his Peace Corps tenure in Bulgaria, working in an orphanage in Shiroka Laka, a picturesque village of about 800 people in the Rhodope Mountains.
He is one of 42 Indiana University Bloomington alumni currently serving in the Peace Corps, a number that puts IU back among the top 25 large U.S. universities for Peace Corps participation after a one-year absence from the list. Some 1,469 IU alumni have served in the Peace Corps since it was founded in 1961, making IU the No. 14 all-time producer of volunteers.
"Indiana University has always been a high producer of Peace Corps volunteers, and we are really interested in recruiting at IU because so many of these graduates fill assignments in important Peace Corps areas such as education and English teaching, public health, agriculture and environment," said Katie O'Connor, manager of the Chicago Regional Peace Corps office.
O'Connor is herself an Indiana University alumna, having earned master's degrees from IU Bloomington in public affairs and Latin American and Caribbean Studies and having served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua in 1999-2001. "As a grad student alum from IU, I know first-hand the quality of education our IU volunteers receive and that these are students who have been exposed to an international curriculum," she said.
In addition to providing a large number of volunteers, the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs offers the Peace Corps Master's International and Fellows/USA graduate programs in the areas of public affairs and environmental science. The programs allow students to combine graduate study with Peace Corps service for credit and/or financial assistance.
The orphanage where Kennedy-Twyford works, called Katya Vancheva, houses about 60 children and youth between the ages of 7 and 18, most of them of Roma ethnicity. In the Bulgarian system, orphanages shelter not only children without parents but kids whose parents can't care for them on a full-time basis. About two-thirds of the residents of Katya Vancheva come from a ghetto 12 miles away and stay Monday through Friday.
Shiroka Laka is an architectural and folklore reserve known for its characteristic two-story houses, set in tiers on both banks of the local river, and for its singing and musical traditions. Kennedy-Twyford is one of 149 Peace Corps volunteers currently serving in Bulgaria, and one of 1,156 to have served in the country since the program opened there in 1991.
He started out teaching English to the kids and to orphanage staff and community members and working at after-school homework help sessions. Once his Bulgarian language skills improved, he got involved with information technology projects, putting together a computer lab and using computer games to teach English, math and science.
He also set up a Web site -- www.domshirokalaka.bg -- to post news and information about the orphanage for its international donors and friends. During summers, he works with orphanage summer camps and a program that brings artists from across Europe to teach the kids about music, art, photography and dance.
"This is my first time working in an orphanage," Kennedy-Twyford said, "and it's shocking to learn how many kids don't have someone to love them and look after them, how many kids fall through the cracks. As much as I've taught these kids in sports, English, math, computers, they have taught me about patience, understanding and tolerance. I will leave here a much different person."