I Ran Away from Home and Joined…The Peace Corps

Karen Potter recounts her adventures

In August 2018, during Older Student Registration, students Carol Chester and Gail Johnston, with guidance from Joanne Jaber Gauvin from the Urban Action Institute, initiated the Older Student Writing Project (OSWP). The goal of the project was to collect personal essays written by older students and to have them printed in a university publication. The purpose of the project was to highlight the work of older students, showing that they add to the diversity of the WSU community.

By Karen V. Potter

In 1999, at the age of 48, after finishing what I had started and abandoned in 1969, I graduated from college. Like all newly-minted college graduates of any age, I was faced with the question: What am I going to do now?

Helping others, the Golden Rule, reaching out, giving until it feels good–these had been instructions given to me as a young child. Therefore, I began to wonder: What if I were to give up everything to serve others? I began to explore options available to me.

While web-crawling on the then somewhat-new internet, I accidentally found myself on the Peace Corps website. During my teenage years, I had been fascinated by the Peace Corps,  recognizing President John F. Kennedy’s enthusiasm for the new program.

In August following graduation, my best friend Valerie and I attended an open house at the Peace Corps office in Boston. We brought home armloads of colored brochures filled with photos of smiling children, thatched-roof mud huts, mothers and babies, and happy volunteers  in classrooms of eager-faced students. Valerie and I spread the brochures out on her kitchen table and marveled over what it would be like to experience these places.

I remember her exact words as she grabbed my hand: “I can DEFINITELY see you doing this.” Maybe that’s all I needed—permission from someone who knew me very well.The idea took root, and soon thereafter, I mailed a 26-page paper application to the Peace Corps office in Washington DC. If nothing else, I would have an answer to the “now-what-are-you-going-to-do” question. During the next two months, I went to interviews in Boston, submitted recommendations, and underwent a special medical exam to prove my old MS diagnosis would not present a problem. Then it happened—the phone rang. It was Krista from the Peace Corps.

“We think you’re going to be great! We have several possible jobs for you,” she said. I broke down sobbing. Someone thought I’d be great at this? Was she crazy? Was I crazy?

I am proud to say I served as a Peace Corps volunteer for 24 months in the Republique du Benin, West Africa, where I taught English at a secondary school in a market town. Between 50 and 70 eager students attended my two-hour classes. Some students walked six kilometers to school each morning. All students had to raise money for tuition, school supplies, and uniforms.

While in West Africa, I learned to speak French, barter for everything from tomatoes to taxi rides, talk to lizards, and understand cultures I had never even heard of. I was an American ambassador of hope and progress through peace. I washed my clothes by hand in a bucket. I also used the bucket for a shower, spilling water by the cupful over my body, and for washing dishes. I learned to stay healthy by ALWAYS sleeping under a mosquito net, boiling my drinking and tooth-brushing water, and wearing my bike helmet at all times.

People often ask if I would like to visit the place where I served. For me, the question evokes conflicting feelings. On one hand, I would like to reunite with the people whom I served to see how their lives have progressed. On the other hand, however, I have a nagging feeling that I might be disappointed that, despite my efforts, not enough has changed.

I like to describe the experience this way: when you place your hand in a bucket of water, it displaces the water. When you remove your hand from the bucket, the displaced water fills in the hole. You cannot tell that your hand had been in the bucket of water. However, you must remember: your hand has changed the water. Your skin has left something behind, and the water will never be the same again. Neither will you be the same because the water has left trace elements behind—on your hand and on your soul.

Karen Potter is a graduate student studying history at Worcester State University. After 40 years in the insurance industry, she retired to concentrate on her passions: grandchildren, golf, genealogy, and grad school (not always in that order). She conducts history research, writes an irregular blog, and is currently working on two (longish) short stories.

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