The choices we make as young adults can profoundly effect the rest of our lives. The seminal seed of the woman I grew to be was planted during an assembly program my senior year at the Bronx High School of Science. A Science graduate who was joining one of the first Peace Corps groups came to talk to us. Peace Corps service resonated with both my desire to make a difference in the world and to have a life far beyond the Bronx. I would have signed on right then and there but you needed a college degree. I made a solemn commitment to myself that I would join the Peace Corps as soon as I graduated from college.
My father made it crystal clear that if I wanted a college education, I better get accepted by one of the City University of New York (CUNY) schools because they were tuition free. Hunter College in the Bronx was my choice. I lived at home and walked to classes. To appease my parents I was an Education major (“You can always fall back on it”). I did a second major in Anthropology to prepare myself for the globe trotting life I planned to live. After graduating from Hunter, I spent the summer of ’66 in a Peace Corps training program in Cambridge, Mass. My training group flew to the Philippines on September 12, 1966, my 21st birthday. I took it as a sign.
The Philippines was definitely not the Bronx but my assignment was also not the tropical paradise I had envisioned. My first year, I lived in a dusty, dangerous inland town on the island of Mindanao.
There was no running water; sometimes there was electricity 4:00-10:00pm; telegraphs were the most advanced communication technology available; pigs and chickens walked through my bedroom at will; the rats were the size of cats; sewage ran in ditches along the side of the road; women never went out unaccompanied; men played Mahjong with their guns on the table and the heat and humidity rivaled hell.
When the municipal judge was shot to death on Easter Sunday while taking Holy Communion (My family read the story in the NY Times and went CRAZY.), the Peace Corps finally granted my request to be transferred to Davao City. I had done a summer project for Bayanihang Manggagawa (Brotherhood of Workers), a local non-profit, and they wanted me back; I helped to create the first comprehensive telephone book for the city of Davao, which they sold to raise money.
Bayanihang helped indigent Filipinos who had been forced to leave land they had farmed as squatters adjust to city life and find a way to earn enough money to feed and house their families. A Maryknoll priest and a missionary couple from the United Church of Christ were the founders. Some of the most prominent businessmen in the city were on the board. They all thought it fitting for a Jewish Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) to join their ecumenical effort.
My year in Davao City was an extraordinary personal and professional experience. I found an apartment in the heart of downtown. While a woman could be on the streets unaccompanied, it was strictly taboo to live alone. I was to live with another PCV. For a myriad of reasons, roommates passed through at the rate Murphy Brown went through secretaries. No matter. I was incredibly happy and fulfilled.
Compared to my first assignment, Davao was heaven. Work was great. I designed training programs and spearheaded a study of Philippine handicrafts that would be suitable for cottage industries. Between my Bayanihang colleagues and the dozens of PCVs assigned as teachers at schools in and around the city, I had a busy social life. I spent holidays and vacations exploring the Philippines. Be there no mistake, most of the country is the tropical paradise of my fantasies. In addition, Filipinos are warm, welcoming people. I have been back several times in the last four decades.
By June 1968, the end of my tour of duty, Bayanihang was a highly respected and effective organization. A half a dozen PCVs were going to spend the summer working on initiatives I had help develop. The plaque I received at my farewell party still hangs in my apartment.
I took the long way home – Japan, Hong Kong, Thailand, Cambodia, India, Nepal, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel, Greece. It was mind-boggling. Serving in the Peace Corps and traveling so extensively at such a young age has informed my world-view my entire life.
Since it’s creation in 1961, 200,000 Americans have served in 139 countries. I am proud to have been one of them. Once I am no longer responsible for the care of my 95-year-old invalid mother, there’s a good possibility that I’ll sign up for another tour of duty.
For more information about the Peace Corps go to http://www.peacecorps.gov/
Happy Birthday Marian!
Would you join the Peace Corps or encourage your kids to join the Peace Corps???
Bio Marian Rivman is a New York based public relations and communications consultant. Her clients have included UN agencies, Fortune 500 companies, international non-profits, bold-faced names and the recreational scuba diving industry. She is known for her unbounded energy, directness and skill at translating complex issues into comprehensible messages for an array of audiences. Marian is particularly interested in the power of non-verbal communication. In addition to her independent consulting work, Marian is affiliated with New Solutions .