A greater purpose: Cornellians in the Peace Corps
On Oct. 14, 1960, then-candidate John F. Kennedy launched a quiet revolution at 2 a.m. in Michigan that would come to resonate deeply with a small school in Iowa.
His impromptu remarks would go on to be regarded as the founding moment for the Peace Corps, inspiring hundreds of thousands to volunteer.
Cornellians, then and today, have been drawn to serve. More than 150 Cornellians have served around the globe—ranking Cornell 22nd on the list of small colleges and universities with the most Peace Corps volunteers. Right now, 10 Cornell alumni are working in underserved communities around the world.
Their stories are unique. Some shared Kennedy’s earnest desire to shape the world. Others discovered a wider world through Cornell and sought to explore it after graduation. And yet more were inspired to help because of lessons they learned at Cornell.
All of them left the world a little better for having gone out into it.
Why they went
How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past. — John F. Kennedy, Oct. 14, 1960
There’s something about Cornell that inspires a willingness to put forth a far greater effort, jokes about the block plan aside. For some, it’s that Cornell is a portal to the world through the heart of Iowa. For others, it’s a feeling that they can do more because of Cornell.
For Craig Vickstrom ’92, it was a bit of the latter. He literally fulfilled Kennedy’s first question about future doctors going to Ghana, serving in Asesewa, Ghana and, later, becoming a doctor who would work in Sierra Leone with Ebola patients.
“Didn’t George Bowman found it as a training college for teachers, ministers, and upper-level civil servants?” Vickstrom asked, somewhat rhetorically. “That’s what Cornell was made for. That’s kind of right in line with what the college is about, at least historically.”
For Maria Goodfellow ’16, meanwhile, it was the former. She got her first real taste of the world at large in an anthropology class. Scratch that, in the anthropology class. The well-known and loved Bahamas anthropology class. But for Goodfellow, it was more than just a trip somewhere tropical. It was a window into a wider world.
“It was my first time being in an area that was considered a developing nation,” Goodfellow said. “I’m sure that if I hadn’t had that experience, the Peace Corps wouldn’t have popped into my head.”
Cornellians found inspiration outside the classroom too. Maggie Rudick Taphouse ’08 credits her exposure and connection to other students in Pfeiffer for her drive to make the world a better place.
“It really made me feel that drive to step outside my comfort zone and see what other people in the world are experiencing on a day-to-day basis,” she said.
That drive, in turn, led her to study abroad in Tanzania, which then led her to seek out service opportunities in Africa.
Cornell held a special place even for those who heard Kennedy’s original calls to action, back before traveling overseas was a regular part of a Cornell education.
Carol Parish Compton ’61 was practically born into a life of service. Both of her parents were lawyers with a social conscience. Her father was an active supporter of UNESCO (United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Her mother served on the Minnesota American Indian Commission, working with the Native American community. Her grandfather, a Methodist minister, was pleased she chose Cornell, a Methodist college.
“When Kennedy announced the Peace Corps, I was already thinking of something along those lines,” Compton recalled.
She was a senior then. She had been active in the Public Affairs Club, Young Democrats, and had even participated in a United Nations event in Iowa for college students. Her time at Cornell had primed her for service.
Then, on June 5, 1961, Compton graduated. The Cornell commencement address that year was given by a Peace Corps recruitment and training director and was titled “The Peace Corps—A new Dimension in Public Service.” It sparked something in her.
“As soon as I heard about the Peace Corps, I was excited about it,” she said. “So our commencement address was particularly inspiring for me.”
Two years later, Compton began training to travel to Thailand, a journey that would come to define her life.
What they did
We will only send abroad Americans who are wanted by the host country—who have a real job to do—and who are qualified to do that job. — Kennedy, March 1, 1961
Once Cornellians made the decision to spread their wings, they did such remarkable things.
Bill Aossey ’63 is widely credited as the first Muslim volunteer in the Peace Corps. He went to Senegal to hand dig wells, sure, but he also coached what would become Senegal’s first Olympic wrestling team.
“When I was selected to go to Senegal, I couldn’t find Senegal on the map because it was so newly independent,” Aossey said. “It turned out to probably be the best decision of my life.”
Aossey arrived to find they were looking for coaches, and he was one of the few qualified to coach wrestling. He was sent to a “stadium” that had “no mats, no nothing,” he said.
So, in addition to coaching, he and other volunteers built a place for the newly formed team to wrestle. They
framed out a mat area on the floor, filled it with wood shavings and sawdust, and covered it with a heavy canvas. A year later, Senegal competed in the Olympics for the first time as an independent nation.
Craig Vickstrom ’92, the one who literally answered Kennedy’s call to become a doctor, went to Ghana as a teacher. He taught English as a second language and even stepped in as the health teacher for a term. In true Peace Corps fashion, he also stepped in where they needed help—in this instance, as a soccer team medic.
“That’s what got me interested in being a physician,” he said.
Carly Pierson ’17 is currently serving in Paraguay, where the environmental studies major is working to educate locals about the importance of forest
conservation and sustainable farming. She’s working within the local culture to help people adapt sustainability measures to their way of life.
“Minds may be changed by education, but I am finding that a missing necessary step to behavior change in my community is the opportunity and resources to do so,” Pierson said. “My goal now is to support community members in finding those resources so that they can make the changes in their lives they desire.”
Stephen Grummon ’69 and Corrie Root Grummon ’70 started a lifelong passion for Middle East issues when they traveled to Iran to teach English as a second language. Stephen went on to serve on the National Security Council, shape policy after the first Gulf War and was a scholar-in-residence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. And it all started by teaching seventh- and eighth-grade Iranian students the oddities and intricacies of the English language.
Teaching was a common vocation for Peace Corps volunteers. Donald Utroska ’60 and his wife taught in Nigeria, she English and he zoology, biology, and general sciences. Carol Parish Compton ’61 also taught English as a second language in Thailand.
“These young men that we had in our school came from mud houses, thatched roofs, and their parents didn’t even speak English in most cases. And yet they came into our schools and were so bright they picked up the language, and it was really, really incredible,” Utroska said. Of the 32 boys he taught zoology for two years, half became medical doctors.
Life in the Peace Corps will not be easy. There will be no salary and allowances will be at a level sufficient only to maintain health and meet basic needs. Men and women will be expected to work and live alongside the nationals of the country in which they are stationed—doing the same work, eating the same food, talking the same language.
But if the life will not be easy, it will be rich and satisfying. For every young American who participates in the Peace Corps—who works in a foreign land—will know that he or she is sharing in the great common task of bringing to man that decent way of life which is the foundation of freedom and a condition of peace. — Kennedy, March 1, 1961
Time and again, Cornellians echoed Kennedy’s sentiment about the difficulty of the Peace Corps task. And of the fulfillment it brought them.
Donald Utroska ’60 and his wife had not ever been abroad when they signed up to teach in Nigeria. And yet they found themselves boarding a plane in 1963 that took them from Iowa (where they were spending the holidays) to New York to London and then down to Lagos, Nigeria.
When they arrived in the town where they would be staying, there were no street lights. Instead, they drove by candlelight, as the shops that lined the road glowed with dim flames.
“It was very, very hot, even at night, because Lagos is 4 degrees north of the equator,” Utroska recalled. “And we had come from winter in New York. So we weren’t dressed for winter, but our bodies were still used to it.”
And when Utroska saw a lizard in the shower that night, the culture shock fully set in.
Others had similar fish out of water stories. Maggie Rudick Taphouse ’08 lived in a small mud hut in Gambia with no electricity or running water. Maria Goodfellow ’16 had a rough first few weeks in Paraguay.
“When I first arrived, it was a mess,” she said. She didn’t speak Spanish, her first host family wasn’t a good fit, and she had to be moved several times.
But everything turned around to the point that she now misses Paraguay and hopes to go back soon.
Jessa Harger ’03, who worked for the Peace Corps in Jamaica, found the initial landing difficult as well.
“It was certainly the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life to that point. It was really exciting in a lot of ways. It was really existentially hard in a lot of ways,” Harger said. “I had to wrestle with my understanding of how to be in the world.”
However, like everyone I spoke with, Harger said it was all worth it.
“It was extremely rewarding because I was able to connect with this very different culture,” she said.
Everyone agreed, in their own way. Craig Vickstrom ’92, for example, still visits the family he lived with in Ghana. “The room that I left 25 years ago in their house, they keep it for me.”
Time and again, Cornell alumni said the experience was worth every difficulty along the way.
“To be immersed in a community like that with a family … I loved having that family connection. I took on their name; I had a local name. The community really took me in as one of their own,” said Maggie Rudick Taphouse ’08. “They really looked out for me and really treated me like a member of their community.”
“I’ve made absolutely amazing friends down there [in Paraguay]. No one else is going to understand that experience,” said Maria Goodfellow ’16.
“We got more out of it than we probably gave,” Donald Utroska ’60 said.
Let me say in conclusion, this university is not maintained by its alumni, or by the state, merely to help its graduates have an economic advantage in the life struggle. There is certainly a greater purpose, and I’m sure you recognize it. — Kennedy, Oct. 14, 1960
Although Kennedy was speaking to students at a state university, his message of a greater purpose is very likely what led Cornellians to enroll in record numbers.
While at Cornell, Carol Parish Compton ’61 was in Orchesis, a modern dance group. It’s where she became interested in dances from other areas. In fact, she even once wrote a paper on Thai dance.
“It ended up being the one thing I knew about Thailand before traveling there with the Peace Corps,” she said.
It became a point of interest for her, and while she served in Thailand, she spent some time observing and learning about dance in the area. It had nothing to do with her Peace Corps assignment, really, but it was an interest that had piqued during her time at Cornell.
Years later, a group of refugees from Laos (which sits above Thailand) came to the United States. Among them was a dance troupe. Compton helped support them and helped them resettle—in Iowa.
Time and again, the Cornell experience and the Peace Corps experience went hand-in-hand.
“I sometimes think of my undergraduate as a six-year thing where I got my education and then I went out in the world and applied it,” said Jessa Harger ’03. “I think One Course At A Time was definitely helpful. One Course At A Time really helps you have project-based learning. You’re able to focus on one thing fully. That’s why I chose to go to Cornell, and that was actualized. So I was already equipped.”
Maria Goodfellow ’16 echoed the block plan’s utility in preparing you for the Peace Corps.
“The block plan was really helpful for Peace Corps training. Peace Corps training is very intensive,” Goodfellow said. “In a lot of ways, it was like going back to class on the block plan.”
But there’s more to the Cornell experience feeding Peace Corps inspiration than the block plan. Steve Grummon ’69 and Corrie Root Grummon ’70 said their Cornell education was “the foundation” for everything that came after. Craig Vickstrom ’92 saw it as the start of the rest of his life.
“For me at least, the Peace Corps was a defining experience of my life, and I learned more about the world than about anything. Without my Cornell education, I would never have had the opportunity to do that,” Vickstrom said. “Cornell was also what largely got me into medical school as well. My time at Cornell really set the stage for the rest of my life.”
More so than anything else, that feeling of destiny is one Cornellians in the Peace Corps share. They answered Kennedy’s call to make the world a better place—because they were supposed to.
“I know that every step of the way—from going to Cornell to joining the Peace Corps to moving to D.C.—this is what I’m supposed to be doing with my life,” said Maggie Rudick Taphouse ’08. “There’s no place I should have been in my life other than Cornell.”
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