For Many, Ties to Peace Corps Service in Iran Remain
By Howard Cincotta
Former volunteers recall transformative experiencesWashington - Donna Shalala felt like many students after graduating from college. "I was tired of school and I wanted adventure," she recalled in a newspaper interview more than 40 years after serving with the Peace Corps as an English teacher in a remote Iranian village.
The last U.S. Peace Corps volunteer left Iran in 1976, but even decades later, many of those who served in Iran regard their encounters with the Iranian people and culture as among the most important events of their lives.
"I still think of myself as a Peace Corp volunteer," Shalala said recently in an essay posted on the Peace Corps Web site. "My service in Iran was one of the most important experiences of my youth."
Shalala, former secretary of health and human services in the administration of President Bill Clinton, is now president of the University of Miami.
THE PEACE CORPS IN IRAN
Iran was one of the first countries to welcome the Peace Corps in 1962, a year after President John Kennedy announced what would become one of the signature programs of his administration.
Although the Peace Corps has evolved over the years, its three overarching goals have remained unchanged: provide trained personnel for countries requesting them, promote a better understanding of America, and help Americans gain a better understanding of the world and its peoples.
Since its inception, more than 195,000 Peace Corps volunteers have served in more than 130 countries in the areas of education, health and HIV/AIDS, economic and business development, environment, agriculture, technology and youth affairs. Today, there are more than 7,800 Peace Corps volunteers working at 70 posts around the world.
As a former community organizer, President Obama has called on all Americans to "answer a new call to service to meet the challenges of our new century," and proposed expanding the Peace Corps to 16,000 volunteers by 2011. (See "Obama to Expand Volunteerism to Meet Global, Domestic Challenges ( http://www.america.gov/st/foraid-english/2008/December/20081223141751CLwoD9.472072e-03.html ).")
The Peace Corps in Iran initially focused on education, eventually working with more than 150 teachers and teaching more than 6,000 students in subjects ranging from English to science, according to an official Peace Corps summary. Volunteers helped organize evening classes, started kindergarten programs, and established more than 30 school libraries with donated books.
In the late 1960s, Peace Corps volunteers began several environmental projects to combat pollution and depleted resources in the Caspian Sea. In Tehran, volunteers teamed with urban planners to draw up guidelines for the city's rapid population growth and helped create 45 urban parks.
By the time the program ended in 1976, a total of 1,748 volunteers had served in Iran alongside several thousand Iranian colleagues.
A LIFETIME COMMITMENT
For some volunteers, Peace Corps service has been only one chapter in a lifetime of study and engagement with Iran.
For Michael Hillmann, professor of Persian studies at the University of Texas at Austin, his Peace Corps years at the University of Mashhad changed the course of his professional and personal life.
Hillmann was already headed toward an academic career, but Iran led him to a lifelong engagement with the Persian language, literature and culture. He met his wife, Sorayya, at Mashhad, and their daughter was born in Tehran, where Hillmann was working as a Peace Corps trainer.
"When I teach [T.S.] Eliot's poem The Waste Land, the experience and the enjoyment of thinking and talking about poetry seem the same as when I teach the ghazals of Hafez," Hillmann told America.gov.
Retired Ambassador John Limbert taught English in Sanandaj, the capital of Kurdistan Iran, from 1964 to 1966. Limbert served as a U.S. diplomat throughout the Middle East, including as ambassador to Mauritania.
Despite the brutal experience of being an embassy hostage in Tehran from 1979 to 1981, Limbert's affection for the Iranian people remains undiminished.
"Iran has been part of my life for 40 years," Limbert said in a 2006 interview on National Public Radio. His wife is Iranian and both his children were born there; he and his wife still speak Persian at home.
Both Limbert and Hillmann are proponents of increased dialogue between the United States and Iran. Limbert has written a report for the U.S. Institute of Peace called "Negotiating with the Islamic Republic of Iran." Hillmann has proposed a low-key exchange program with former Peace Corps volunteers fluent in Persian.
Hillmann says, "The greatest service the Peace Corps provided people like me ... was its readiness to let me do my own thing, my job, my social life, my travel, and, most importantly, my changing into the person I became when my Peace Corps days ended."
For more information see the Web sites of the Peace Corps ( http://www.peacecorps.gov/ ), the Peace Corps Association ( http://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=resources.former.staycon.npca ) and Connected Peace Corps ( http://community.peacecorpsconnect.org/ ).
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://www.america.gov)
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