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Eric Knispel and Peter Tasker: Peace Corps Experiences

March 4, 2019

During assembly on Monday, March 4, Eric Knispel (Science) and Peter Tasker (Athletics, Spanish) gave this year's International Week speech, describing the life-changing experience of serving in the Peace Corps. Their remarks follow.

Hello everyone. Let me begin by thanking Daniel Harris and Mrs. Taylor and everyone involved in the JBS Community and Equity Partnership for extending the invitation to Mr. Tasker and myself to share with you this morning about our service as volunteers abroad, and to kick off International Week!

I must start by letting you know that Peter and I are not the only teachers at Burroughs with connections to the Peace Corps, but only the latest, Some of us will remember former math teacher Peter Hanson who served during the earliest years of the Peace Corps. Even fewer of us will know that former Headmaster William Craig was the director of training for all of the Peace Corps directly prior to his coming to work at Burroughs in 1964, which puts him in Washington, DC, right at the beginning of it all.

So let's quickly visit the beginning of the Peace Corps, which was another inspiration brainchild of the much-too-brief Kennedy Administration. Exactly 58 years from Friday, March 1, President Kennedy made this announcement: 

The entire Peace Corps mission can be summarized into three basic goals:

1. Provide a trained workforce to help another country
2. Promoet a better understanding of Americans while performing our service
3. And the third goal, which we are attempting to achieve today, is to bring home and share with fellow Americans a little about the people and cultures in the country we served.

You may notice some overlap between the mission of the Peace Corps and the goals that Burroughs has set for itself in the area of cultural competency. These manifest themselves in many of the classes, clubs, Montgomery Plan events, and the language trips that are sponsored every year:

1. We recognize that cross/intercultural skills, mindsets and perspectives are an important part of a liberal arts education.
2.We want our students to develop these mindsets, skills and perspectives so all can successfully navigate any cultural contexts we may encounter (locally, regionally, nationally, internationally).
3. We see cultural and global competency as an educational goal that equips students to leave JBS as experienced, informed citizens prepared for the breadth of our world's complexity.

And if you feel equipped or motivated to make use of your cultural competency while serving overseas, the Peace Corps can take you in many directions.

Dark Blue countries indicate they are currently hosting volunteers, while the purple countries have hosted them in the past.


Samoa, South Pacific, is between Tahiti and Fiji.

When they told me I had been accepted to the Peace Corps in Western Samoa, I said, 'Wow, that’s great, where is it?' To understand the nation, you have to understand its colonial past. British missionaries established a presence in Samoa in the 18th century, and management of the islands was the source of dispute between the US, Great Britain and Germany over the next century, which included several civil wars and a shelling of the capital city Apia by American and British warships. Samoa ultimately was administered to by New Zealand by mandate of the League of Nations, and ultimately gained its full independence in 1962.

I went to Samoa as a math teacher, and ended up teaching both math and economics. Their education system was based on the New Zealand school system, so all education was in English. Plus I coached basketball and rugby for my school and local community. Incidentally, I was the school photographer, and ran a rather crude, bare-bones dark room at the back of the school. Ms. Bahe and Mr. Newman have nothing to worry about in my photography skills.

With one of my classes. The average class size in my school was around 25 students. However, in the majority of schools class sizes commonly got as big as 40 kids to a class.

Natural beauty – Solo Solo beach black volcanic sand beaches. The lush mountainous interior was formed by volcanoes, and the tropical rains create lots of waterfalls.

Culture: woven mats are used as ceremonial garb, as well as the obvious practical applications of sitting in the hut. You will see lots of the people dressed in the lavalava, which is a sarong, worn by both men and women. It was the most comfortable thing to wear in the intense heat.

Siva: a dance ceremony that is a part of any community gathering, whether village or school. High chiefs used to be the ones who danced, to show their elegance and grace, as leaders. Now, it is more likely to have the best dancers and performers. Women are at the center of the dance, supported by men. You can imagine how much the students loved getting the teachers out to dance! I want you to know that I was cheering for our team and not against our opponent...

Economy: subsistence agriculture, egalitarian, all families have access to land to grow food. Knocking breadfruit (ulu) out of the tree.

Man carrying breadfruit in his woven basket.

Naturally, food is a big part of the culture. Preparing the Sunday umu, which is a traditional oven. Heating the volcanic rocks with fire on the left. Once hot, loading the oven with breadfruit. The last thing to go in the oven is a pig, which means there is a very special occasion going on. Cover with breadfruit leaves to bake. Family is centered around the preparing of food. The cooking hut is usually set apart from the family sleeping hut.

Making dessert. Sugar being carmelized over a hot rock, and added to coconut cream and breadfruit. Never to young to start the craft of cooking! My specialty was making the pe’e pe’e, or coconut cream. My family knew I loved doing it, so it was my job every time I was in the village.

One of the greatest contributions to the culture by Peace Corps volunteers was the fale pisikoa, or Peace Corps hut: a water sealed toiled. Here is an exterior/interior shot. As much of a contribution as it was, it still smelled pretty awful.

Not only is the experience rich learning about the culture of the host country, but also learning the cultures of the myriad volunteers from other countries. In my case there were Brits, Kiwis, Aussies, Japanese, and Dutch. Here is my Japanese flat-mate Yukinori Takaki. I guess in this case I was teaching him something about the legendary band, KISS, in our costumes for an expat volunteer party.

I can tell you that the experience an indelible mark on me. Not quite as big as my buddy Andrew Carpenter. A very big part of the culture is the Samoan tattoo that extends from mid torso to the knees. Andrew is showing a tattoo that is about 70% done. He went on to finish his later. I imagine it is a bit of a conversation piece now that he is back in the US...Any rumors of me having a Samoan tattoo are unsubstantiated!

Mangwanani, Ndinofara kutaura nemi nezve Zimbabwe! Good morning, I am so pleased to speak to you about Zimbabwe.

It was formerly known as Rhodesia, during its time as spent as one of many British colonies. As a result of its colonial history, a country of 16 million people includes people of African, European, Indian, and Arab ancestry. The small minority of white Rhodesians controlled the government and economy until 1980 when the black majority achieved political control and ended the Rhodesian apartheid system.  With a climate akin to southern California, Zimbabwe has long been known for its agricultural production and tourism. Boasting the reputation at times as the “Breadbasket of Southern Africa."  And in an attempt to dispel some very common negative stereotypes about Zimbabwe and Africa in general, the capital city, Harare, is as modern and metropolitan as most cities in the US. It hosts Museums and major corporations, cell phones and ATMs, fast food and middle class suburbs full of movie theaters and malls.

But just like the US, there are impoverished rural areas where there is shortage of trained professionals willing to work under very difficult circumstances. The rural areas of Zimbabwe struggle with a shortage of teachers and other professionals willing to relocate and work under difficult conditions. My school had no electricity at the time, no indoor plumbing. It’s located several hours by bus from its provincial capital. The Peace Corps provided several English, math, science teachers and even a few woodworking/carpentry teachers to help meet the country’s goals of universal education. I served as a science teacher for three years at a rural government secondary school known as Gwangwava Secondary teaching students in 8th, 9th and 10th grade. Life at this school might have more in common with your Burroughs experience than you probably expect. For example, Gwangwava is one of the largest schools in the region due to its positive reputation for academic achievement.

As a result, enrollment was close to 600 students. High enrollment is good for the school and for the country, but unlike Burroughs, this high enrollment resulted in a chronic shortage of classroom space, a large student to teacher ratio and a high turnover in teaching staff. We started each day with an assembly, and sometime a Music Performance (usually a capella…by that I mean it was always a capella). Parents pay tuition, and are hosted on campus for special events throughout the school year.

One of the bigger lessons I carry away from my Peace Corps experience is how similar students are no matter where I have worked… whether I’m working in Gwangwava village, or the Navajo Reservation, or the International Schools, or Burroughs…Students are inherently curious, fun, hard working and trying to do their best to make the most of their time and their school tuition. And yes, we DID have a school uniform and dress code.

It seems that an active interest in alternative energies keep showing up in my career…parabolic solar heating there…biodiesel here at Burroughs. Though not very often…we did organize a field trip. This was to the capital city, Harare, where we could visit the University of Zimbabwe with members of the science club.

Another aspect to Peace Corps service is the opportunity to be involved in Secondary Projects – projects outside of your main job description. These often involve helping connect worthy projects with outside funding. Like this unfinished science building.

Before my arrival, the parents and administration had made substantial progress on building additional classroom space. Molding and baking the bricks nearby, doing the masonry work with labor provided by the parents and students is how the schools get built. But this large science classroom ran into the perennial shortage of funds to complete the most expensive aspects-the roof and furniture.

With the help of a grant from US Agency for International Development, we were able to make substantial progress towards its completion. Although I never had a chance to teach in the building, it did get finished and students and teachers continue to benefit from the shared efforts of the school community and the donor agency.

Although the school provided housing on campus for its teachers, I opted to move into the village to get as immersive experience as possible. Subsistence farming is the main form of income for most of my students and their families so I was eager to experience first hand just what life in the village is like. My housing was simple but comfortable. A kitchen hut on the near right side, and a bedroom hut over to the left. And of course the ubiquitous chickens. The huts keep you cool in the hot season, and relatively warm during the cool dry season.

As mentioned, most families were subsistence farmers – growing corn, cotton, peanuts and other crops to earn money, feed their families and pay their school fees. The amount of crops grown depends on the strength of your cattle and the amount of time and energy you can commit to the task. Corn and peanuts are kept to feed the family and the cotton sold for cash…to pay for family expenses like school uniforms and tuition.

The significance of cattle and their importance to the famililes cannot be overstated...when hooked to plow, they are the tractor, when yolked to a wagon they become the truck. They are the bank account, retirement fund, and collateral for the future wealth of the family. Only at the end of their natural life will they be harvested for food. Which I hope emphasizes the value and importance of the latest GAP fundraiser. The money raised for the purchase of a cow for a family in Nicuaragua can have real impact, both immediately and over the long term.

Let me now turn it back to Mr. Tasker for a few closing remarks.

International Week is designed to broaden our awareness of the world, and push us along the path to build skills of cultural and inter-cultural competency. Mr. Knispel and I have shared our journeys, which were paths we chose to expand our understanding of the cultural diversity of the world. I think I speak for both of us when I say that we were also motivated by our desire to undertake a great adventure. And this great adventure was grounded in our belief in service to others, which naturally informed our career choice to be educators. Service-to-community can be as immediate as our back yard, and as broad as the global community. We are surrounded by diversity if we develop a sensitive eye and an empathic heart, but to do so we must be deliberate in seeking out and celebrating diversity. To this end, I think we are all on a good and healthy path at Burroughs. Do not let your career end here without taking one of the Montgomery Plan service trips or international trips. These trips will pry open your perspective of the world, and touch you in ways that will forever change you. Our hope is that you continue on this path in your life beyond these walls. I promise you that your spirit on this earth will thrive if you dedicate yourself to service to others, and to embracing diversity. It is this very diversity that will be one of your greatest teachers.

In closing, let me say what a distinct and profound honor it is to serve with the students, faculty and administration of this extraordinary place. As a Samoan would say: Tu’u tu’u lau upega i le lalolagi. (Literally means: Place your net in deep waters to catch the big fish – or, you will be rewarded for going the extra mile.)