To help advance Korea’s development process, U.S. Peace Corps volunteers engaged in such activities as English-language education, public health, and vocational training, from 1966 to 1981. After returning home, these volunteers formed a “Friends of Korea” group to maintain their ties with Korea. A recent reunion in Korea of former Peace Corps volunteers stirred up heartfelt memories.Foreign Policy Direction
I was 22 when I applied to become a Peace Corps volunteer. Being an international relations major, I was very much interested in Asia, and I was assigned to serve in Korea. In fact, I did not know much about Korea or its situation, but I was curious. My spirit of adventure led me to Korea, just like that. It was difficult to know how I might influence and change this country and its people, as a Peace Corps volunteer, when I first arrived in Korea. Now, when I look back on those days, I think that I gained more from the experience.English Teacher in Uijeongbu
I taught English at Uijeongbu Girls’ Middle and High School, which indeed proved to be an unforgettable experience. At that time, Peace Corps volunteers like me were an object of curiosity. People would stare at us and often treat us specially. We were thought to be weird beings. Once, a student riding a bike was so shocked by seeing me that he lost his balance and fell over. To the students who learned English from me, I probably seemed strange – tall and speaking an unfamiliar language. Moreover, I taught English in a new way that people were not familiar with in those days. I organized an English drama club and staged a school play. The students were very shy at first, but I could sense their desire to do well. So, I sometimes pushed hesitant students onto the stage, forcefully when necessary.Life-Changing Experience
When I returned to the U.S. after completing my term of service as a Peace Corps volunteer, many people were curious about my life in Korea. But no matter how hard I tried to explain my experiences, they could not fully understand me. The experiences that I had enjoyed could best be understood and shared through the heart, rather than through verbal communication. Personally, I gained confidence from my experiences in Korea and felt that I could do anything, which led to my enrollment at Harvard graduate school. Later, I worked as a Peace Corps staff member for five years, which included working for the Pearl S. Buck Foundation in Korea. Of note, the family relations and love of family that I learned from the Korean people was a great help when I eventually formed my own family. I came to Korea to be helpful to Korean society, but in fact it was Korea that changed my life.Reunion in Korea
After returning home, the Peace Corps volunteers set up a “Friends of Korea” group to share their experiences in Korea, and to remember the lessons of life that had been learned. The group united us, and we introduced Korea to other people. It was, however, difficult to get everyone at our meetings, because the volunteers lived throughout the country, although regional meetings were held as well. This reunion in Korea provided us with an opportunity to again gather together. In that sense, this visit was even more significant.
Personally, I visited Uijeongbu again. I felt a lump in my throat and was overcome by emotion when I met the teachers and students, with whom I had lost contact after all the years. I went to the former site of Uijeongbu Girls’ Middle and High School and looked around every corner of Uijeongbu. I even met the very girl whom I pushed onto the stage, because she was too shy to participate in the English drama club. It was so touching, beyond expression, when she bounded over, greeting me with “Seonsaengnim” (teacher)!Significance of the Peace Corps
Of course, I may have had an impact on the people I met as a teacher and an individual. As I mentioned earlier, however, I gained far more than I gave. If you asked me – “What contributions did the Peace Corps volunteers make?” – it would be difficult for me to give a simple answer. Of course, there are people like Gloria Mamokin, who contributed to the establishment of a speech-therapy center at Severance Hospital and Seoul National University Hospital.
There are numerous reasons for the successful development of Korea, and I think each individual Peace Corps volunteer perhaps made a small contribution to this process. After spending time with so many volunteers during the reunion visit, I thought about organizing a kind of “senior Peace Corps,” so that people could return and participate in other types of volunteer and service activities. It would be ideal for Korea and the U.S. to jointly plan and operate this kind of volunteer program. When I return home, it will be with more cherished memories of Korea in my heart. Korea, thank you for your warmth and hospitality once again!
Interview by Park Sang-won, Photography by Kim Hyun-min