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Peace Corps provides midlife adventure
by Judith Serbe Hunger ’63
“Like lots of parents, I assume that my kid’s childhood will neatly end at the campus gates, at which time I will join the Peace Corps.” —Amy Dickinson, Time, November 1, 1999
For or many of us who didn’t volunteer for the Peace Corps in its earliest days, middle age may be the time to resurrect the idealism and sense of adventure that we shelved to follow more traditional paths when we were in our twenties. Now seemed the right time for me, which is why in the spring of 2000 I found myself in the last group of Peace Corps volunteers sent to Poland.
Judith Serbe Hunger ’63 poses at Dunajec Castle, not far from the town of Nowy Sacz, Poland, where she teaches English as a Peace Corps volunteer.
In my early days here, I felt inspired to think back to my last experience in a collegiate atmosphere and I was struck by the similarities between Poland’s current status economically, socially, and educationally and that of the United States and Skidmore forty years ago. For example, “Dom Studenta,” the Stalin era concrete-block dorm where I live. Its multi-windowed facade, self-contained dining hall, and hotel lobby-like entrance are not unlike the Moore Hall I encountered when I arrived on campus in 1959. And it is pink! The building is four stories tall with the ubiquitous European balconies lined with flowers all summer and/or drying laundry when the weather permits. The Polish women who staff the front desk seem reincarnations of Skidmore’s hall clerks. These ladies watch the students come and go and “tsk, tsk” at their antics. They man a switchboard that rings an in-house phone in each of the rooms. It’s not quite like having to run down the hall when your name came over the speaker, but it’s close. Want to call out? The pay phone is in the lobby. I remember Sunday nights at Skidmore, waiting in line to call my parents. Well, this line is shorter since Polish students, barely a decade free of third world status, still write letters and respect the cost of a phone call.
Dom Studenta translates literally as the home of college-age students, but it is as well Hotel Nauczycielski, a hotel for teachers. If you check Lonely Planet Poland you’ll see it listed as the next-to-cheapest place to stay in the town of Nowy Sacz. My two-room flat (quite luxurious by Peace Corps standards) comes with the job.
Each morning I gather my cloth bag of teaching materials and head out to the Nowy Sacz NKJO, roughly translated as the college for teachers of language. (It is part of a cluster of such schools with its center at the Jagellonian University in Cracow.) It takes me thirty minutes to walk through this city of 80,000 (founded in 1292!). I pass charming shops and houses, many with the steeply pitched, tiled roofs prevalent in southern Poland’s foothills of the Tata mountain range. Some of the buildings are filthy from the coal that keeps us warm in the winter; but many have been cleaned and painted, reflecting a civic pride that many say has come only in the last five years. I pass women on foot doing daily food shopping; I pass lots and lots of students; I pass older, disillusioned men, already reeking of alcohol at 8 a.m. People don’t readily make eye contact or smile; but the American in me often challenges them to look up and it’s hard not to respond to that old U.S. friendliness. After eight months here I have “trained” many in the shops where my daily purchases occur to smile even before I get to the cash register!
My students are in a three-year program, much like the old normal schools or teacher’s colleges of our pre-’50s postsecondary system. Students are accepted by means of a fairly rigorous entrance exam and graduate with a teacher’s certificate. Students in Polish universities finish with an M.A., in a sense bypassing the bachelor’s level. Therefore, some of my students aspire to finishing this program and going as commuter students on weekends to the Jagellonian, to achieve the more academically prestigious master’s degree.
What do I offer them as a Peace Corps volunteer? As this is written, the school year is drawing to a close and my perspective has altered considerably. I thought I was going to teach practical English skills, writing, and the history of the English language. I do teach all these subjects, but more importantly the students are exposed to American culture, albeit that of a fifty-eight-year-old woman! They hear, on a daily basis, American English (though British English is the examination criterion); they are exposed to a colloquial, real-world vocabulary; and they observe a teaching style that reflects a relaxed classroom manner. They’ve been astonished at the concepts of raising their self-esteem and working to their personal best, rather than being judged by rigid tools of measurement. And this teacher has centered her course work—reading, writing, speaking—as much as possible around issues and discussions of risk taking, the values of healthy competition, and choices—all alien to the philosophies of the communist era.
In my “spare time,” I volunteer at a private language school run in part by a teacher at the college. All Polish teachers have at least one other job, since the bureaucracy limits their hours at a particular school (and of course they are teachers, underpaid at a level that recalls the U.S. in 1950-60, before teachers’ unions became bargaining forces). Also, a group of older women at the British-Polish Society asked for conversation around women’s issues twice a month. Their English is pretty good and we’ve chatted about home mortgages, hormone replacement, and the care of elderly parents. This is very challenging and satisfying, sharing and comparing with my age and gender peers.
Of course being in the Peace Corps is an opportunity to live in another culture and to travel within your host country as well as neighboring nations. I am one of a group of older Peace Corps volunteers, self-styled the WOW’s—Women of Wisdom—which the young volunteers agree is an appropriate sobriquet. We have experienced the major cities of Poland: Warsaw, Cracow, Lodz, and Gdansk; Prague and Budapest have been sampled; and we have a whole year yet to go. Our WOW group also serves as a very necessary support system. We came to this adventure with an entirely different set of life experiences than the traditional twentysomething Peace Corps volunteer. Our issues include parenting, divorce and widowhood, grandchildren. We have different health issues and real-world job experience; we find the rules and regulations as employees of our federal government at times stifling and inappropriate. But we love it! Most of us also enjoy a certain financial security that makes our return in June 2001 less threatening.
It sure has been a good choice for me at this point in my life.
Before she joined the Peace Corps, for twenty-three years Hunger was owner-publisher of the Rangeley Highlander, a newspaper geared to her small community of 1,200 residents and the seasonal tourists who visit the lakes and mountains of western Maine. She was widowed in 1996 and sold the paper in 1999.