The Peace Corps Wants You!
Why 'Kennedy's Kids' are again in demand during the agency's 50th anniversary
Editor's note: Ginger and Fritz Morrison spent two years with the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian republic eager for programs that teach English and sound organizing and business practices. From planning for their commitment to breaking away from it, the Morrisons offer a practical example for those considering a volunteer experience abroad. Today, they live in Washington, D.C., where Fritz is a placement officer for the Peace Corps and Ginger pursues job and volunteer opportunities.
Over the course of a year, Ginger Morrison has endured heat stroke, severe food poisoning, a scorpion bite, a broken leg and an earthquake. That's about par for the Peace Corps, an institution founded on a culture of self-mortification. "The toughest job you'll ever love" remains the Peace Corps' most memorable slogan — so macho that it's often mistaken for a U.S. Army jingle.
The suffering may be typical Peace Corps, but everything else about Ginger Morrison is not. For starters, she is 61, which makes her a good 34 years older than the average volunteer and places her in a tiny minority — 7 percent — of all recruits. She has joined with her husband, Fritz, 63, and as a married couple they occupy an equally small slice of the Peace Corps pie.
The Morrisons, volunteers in the Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan, are not merely outliers. They represent one possible future of the Peace Corps as the federal agency, which was founded by President John F. Kennedy 50 years ago, gropes for new relevance.
You still hear a lot about the "magic" of the Peace Corps experience. A kind of cross-cultural alchemy occurs when people of vastly different cultural backgrounds spend a lot of time together. Worldviews do change, not immediately and (usually not) profoundly, yet undeniably.
But the number of Peace Corps volunteers peaked in 1966, at 15,000. Today, it's roughly half that amount.
That's one reason the Peace Corps is trying to recruit aging boomers such as Fritz and Ginger — people with skills and not merely youthful exuberance. It's not the first time the Peace Corps has tried this — the late Lillian Carter, mother of President Jimmy Carter, being the most famous older volunteer. This time, however, there's a greater sense of urgency: The boomer generation is reaching retirement age and more developing countries are requesting skilled volunteers.
The Peace Corps calls it the The 50 Plus Initiative.
The program has no budget for advertising, but it has dispatched recruiters to AARP conventions and launched a special website designed to lure older volunteers. It features photos of older volunteers in exotic locales and words that deliberately echo Kennedy's. "Still asking what you can do for your country? The Peace Corps wants you. It's not too late."
The push for experienced volunteers represents a radical departure from an unspoken assumption that has informed the Peace Corps since its inception in 1961: that Americans, even young, inexperienced ones, know things that the rest of the world (the developing world at least) does not. That assumption, though, is under strain.
For starters, many of today's developing countries suffer from a surplus of college graduates, not a shortage. That's certainly the case in Kyrgyzstan, where the security guard at the Peace Corps office has a law degree.
"You have someone with no teaching skills trying to teach someone who has 20 years experience and an education degree, simply because that first person is an American," says Sam Tranum, a former volunteer. "It's arrogant and counterproductive."
The Peace Corps needs to get rid of its "Peter Pan" mentality and grow up, says Robert Strauss, a former Peace Corps country director in Cameroon and now one of the agency's toughest critics. It cannot continue to send well-intentioned but green volunteers abroad when that's not what the developing world needs, he argues. The people there need expertise. They need experience.
In other words, they need people like Fritz and Ginger Morrison.
Find out whether they need you — and whether you need the Peace Corps experience.
Next: Are you ready for the Peace Corps? >>
Are you ready for the Peace Corps?
Ginger has an old 1960s itch that just won't go away. She still remembers watching JFK's inauguration and perking up during the famous "Ask Not" speech.
One late summer evening in 2007, sitting on the front porch in their Raleigh, N.C., home, Ginger lays it out for Fritz. "Let's think outside the box," she says. "What would you think about going into the Peace Corps?"
They're both healthy. Their children are grown. The timing is right, Ginger argues.
Fritz, a man who Ginger describes as "very enthusiastic, or not" is, in this case, not. The Peace Corps had never occurred to him but, as usual, he is willing to listen to his wife. Besides, his work life has grown stale. He is ready for a second act.
Do you have what the Peace Corps needs?
The Morrisons know they have a lot to offer the Peace Corps. Fritz, a former Air Force pilot, has a master of business administration and 35 years of business experience; Ginger has a master's degree in education and 10 years of experience as a geriatric social worker.
But would the Peace Corps want them? They attend an informational session at a nearby college. They are both pleasantly surprised to discover that the Peace Corps is recruiting older volunteers. Fritz is sold, and he displays the conviction of the converted ever since.
Next: Are you fit to go? >>
Are you fit to go?
There is the significant matter of medical clearance. "Daunting" is how Fritz describes it. In an e-mail to family and friends, he writes: "Unless you've done it, you can't imagine how extensive, detailed and maddening the process is."
They have to fork over several thousand dollars of their own money for exams and spend days tracking down 30-year-old medical records. The screening is rigorous and drags on for months.
Meanwhile, the Morrisons are putting their affairs in order.
They fix up their house and put it on the market. They reach out to everyone they know to find foster homes for their two cats and two dogs. When an official invitation from the Peace Corps finally arrives 10 weeks before departure, the Morrisons must still sort through a lifetime's worth of attachments.
Are you adaptable?
Fritz and Ginger's living conditions are not typical Peace Corps. No mud hut in a remote village but rather a solid, comfortable, if not luxurious, house, complete with a garden. It is in Jalal-Abad, a city of 75,000.
Sure, there's a lack of modern toilets. The power outages are constant. The food is monotonous. And the driving is homicidal.
Life in Kyrgyzstan is certainly hard, but it's not Africa hard. In the morning, the Morrisons drink Peet's coffee, shipped from friends back home; in the evening, they sip passable Moldovan wine while curled up in bed watching episodes of 30 Rock on their laptop. "This is as sweet as it gets in Kyrgyzstan," Fritz says.
During training, the Peace Corps hammered home this message: Integrate but don't assimilate. Volunteers are warned not to, in effect, "go native." Looking at Fritz this morning, there is clearly no danger of that. He's dressed in khaki pants, a blue blazer and a floppy sun hat with a blue-and-white North Carolina Tarheels bandana wrapped around the brim.
Next: Can you break the language barrier? >>
Can you break the language barrier?
After a few minutes of a bouncy, uncomfortable ride, Ginger says to the driver: "Toak-toap-koi" (Stop here). Nothing. "Toak-toap-koi," repeats Ginger, this time louder, and the van stops. Ginger's relationship with the Kyrgyz language is short and troubled.
During training, the language, an obscure Turkic dialect, brought her to her knees many times, as she puts it. She passed the proficiency exam, barely, convinced that the Peace Corps proctor took mercy on her. Fritz also wrestled with the new language, but he's learned enough to get by.
As a trainer of English teachers, Ginger finds her students' proficiency in her own native tongue improving, even if one day she detected a faint but undeniable trace of a Southern accent.
"I thought, 'Oh, my God, Ginger, you're teaching them Southern,' and then I thought, 'Oh well, I'm all they've got, so I guess a Southern accent is better than nothing.' "
Will you be accepted?
The Kyrgyz were, at first, highly suspicious of the Morrisons' motives, as they are of all volunteers'. Inevitably, the first assumption is that they are spies, or possibly Christian missionaries in this predominately Muslim nation. Finally, people conclude that Fritz and Ginger couldn't find a job in the United States so they came to Kyrgyzstan.
It makes sense. The Peace Corps pays them a stipend of about $220 a month, an amount that doesn't quite cover the cost of their storage locker back home but compares favorably with a typical Kyrgyz salary.
There's not a trace of suspicion in Ginger's classroom. When she enters, the students rise as one and chant, "Good morning, Miss Morrison." Ginger shakes the hand of each student, working the room like a master pol. Sometimes, she'll give them a high-five.
"They really love that," she says. "Come to think of it, they love pretty much anything I do. It's nice. Who wouldn't like to be adored? But I work hard. If I didn't work so hard, they'd still admire me, but I'd feel guilty."
Fritz has his admirers, too. Moving through the local bazaar, he says, "Do you see this Kyrgyz woman with the head scarf? The one selling tomatoes? Watch her smile when she sees me."
Fritz greets her with a "salaam" and sure enough she flashes the most beautiful smile.
Can you manage expectations?
Does Ginger feel she is making a difference? Yes, she says without hesitation.
Fritz, however, is in something of a funk. He's assigned as a business adviser to a local organization that helps farmers. At first, Fritz was thrilled. He pictured himself teaching Western business concepts such as strategic planning to Kyrgyz hungry to learn.
Instead, he says, the organization seems more interested in using Fritz as unpaid labor. "It's like, ‘You go into your office and do the website and come out when you're done.' It's irritating and demoralizing."
Every few weeks, the Morrisons send e-mail updates to friends and family back home. The missives offer insight into the Morrisons' evolution from wide-eyed idealists enthralled by the "warm and welcoming people of Kyrgyzstan" to hardened, tough idealists. "After six or eight weeks, it was pretty clear that our expectations were too high," Fritz says.
Bryan Schubert, a former volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, says that kind of recalibration of expectations is not unusual. "The key to being a successful Peace Corps volunteer is a willingness to accept failure," he says. That is not to say that Peace Corps volunteers don't make a difference. They do, but rarely as much of a difference, or of the kind, that they anticipated.
Can you handle the unexpected — even danger?
Several months later, in May 2010, Fritz and Ginger are sipping coffee at their Kyrgyz house, preparing for a busy day ahead, when they receive a phone call. Then a text. Then another phone call. All come from the Peace Corps' security officer.
Supporters of ousted Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev are threatening violence. Fritz and Ginger are told to "stand fast" and remain in their homes.
That, by itself, is not unusual. They have received perhaps a half-dozen such orders in the past. But by the next day, it becomes clear that this time is different. The unrest is spreading.
The Morrisons, along with other volunteers in the region, are ordered to evacuate immediately. They hire a van, crouching down low during the two-hour drive to the airport in case they encounter roadblocks.
They do not. Everything goes smoothly.
As Fritz puts it, "We got the Full Monty Peace Corps experience — including a revolution."
Eric Weiner is author of The Geography of Bliss: One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World.