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Making a Difference in the Peace Corps

Alice E. Towey '98
Alice E. Towey '98

Bolivia is one of the least-developed countries in South America, where per-capita income is a little over $1,000 and almost two-thirds of the people live in poverty, according to the U.S. State Department. With a long history of political and social turbulence marked by periodic violent upheavals, Bolivia experienced growing social unrest from 2003 to 2005 over the government's plans to export liquefied natural gas through Chile. Large-scale protests erupted in May and early June of 2005, leading to yet another transfer of political power and almost forcing an evacuation of Peace Corps volunteers. Alice E. Towey '98 was one of those volunteers, on a two-year commitment as a basic sanitation worker in Aiquile, a town of 7,000 people in the Andes mountains.

The Peace Corps was established in 1961 as a federal agency by President John F. Kennedy, who had challenged students to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. Since that time, more than 187,000 Peace Corps Volunteers have been invited by 139 host countries to work on a wide range of issues: education, youth outreach and community development; business development; agriculture and environment; health and HIV/AIDS; and information technology. Volunteers make a 27-month commitment to the program. After a training period, they live and work independently in their assigned location. The Peace Corps provides volunteers with a living allowance that enables them to live in a manner similar to the people in their host community.

Over the life of the program, 122 Bryn Mawr alumnae have served as volunteers. In 2005 and 2006, Bryn Mawr was among the top five colleges and universities in the number of volunteers per capita. Seven Bryn Mawr alumnae currently are serving as volunteers.

For this issue of S&T, we talked to seven alumnae who served in the Peace Corps between 1981 and 2006. Here are their stories.

Sustainable Improvements

As a Peace Corps volunteer, Towey worked with a Bolivian nongovernmental organization (NGO) on a project designed to make sustainable improvements in hygiene in rural communities, where most people scratch out a living as subsistence farmers. With a master's degree and three years of professional experience in environmental engineering behind her, Towey was a natural for some of the technical and educational components of the project — inspecting existing water systems, training local water committees in operations and maintenance, and educating residents about the health and environmental consequences of activities such as burning plastic trash.

"What tends to happen in the developing world is an NGO will come in and build some piece of infrastructure, such as a well or gravity water system, and leave. When something breaks, the people don't know what to do," Towey explains. "So I led a series of workshops on organizing a water committee, basic bookkeeping, and operations and maintenance. We'd help residents learn how to use plumbing tools, and we'd walk the distribution system and look for leaks. I also worked with the municipal government to gain more support for rural communities."

Towey says the experience not only gave her the gratification of contributing toward a sustainable improvement in people's lives, "I gained a broader perspective of what it means to be human and a different way of defining who I am. In the United States , we define ourselves in many ways: where you went to college, what you do professionally, what you do in your free time. Then you go to a place like Bolivia , where none of those things exists. You're left with nothing. It forces you to dig deep inside yourself and figure out what you value, what you bring to the table and who you really are inside."

Now, as an environmental engineer with Metcalf and Eddy in San Francisco, Towey is working on a project for the City of San Francisco toward development of a bio-fuel program for its municipal vehicles.

For Towey, who had wanted to become a Peace Corps volunteer since childhood, the time was right. "In 2004, I was starting to feel a little restless in my job, and I wanted to do it before other commitments, like family," she says. "I've always been interested in learning about other cultures, and I think the Peace Corps is probably the best way for an American to experience a different culture. You live at the level of the people you are working with and you become part of their lives."

It doesn't surprise Towey that Bryn Mawr has contributed so many volunteers to the Peace Corps. "I think the College attracts a certain type of person," she says, "who is really dedicated to her beliefs and isn't afraid of challenges."

Bottom-up Development

Jennifer A. Lewis '00
Jennifer A. Lewis '00

Jennifer A. Lewis '00 joined the Peace Corps in 2001 as an agroforestry and environmental education volunteer working in La Hacienda Pañanalapa, El Salvador, a village of about 100 homes in a mountainous, forested region in the northwest. Lewis assisted local teachers to develop a participatory environmental education curriculum and helped to run children's environmental education camps and an ecology club. Through a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development, she helped the community build 20 latrines. She also worked with local women to develop a jewelry-making business.

Lewis measures her impact in large and small ways. "The construction of 20 latrines in the community was huge for health and sanitation reasons," she says. "On a smaller scale, the women's jewelry project gave women a space to interact with each other in friendship and dialogue. This was an opportunity they rarely have access to, given typical gender roles and responsibilities. I think it was a very positive component of that project, which had nothing to do with the potential financial gains."

From her experiences in El Salvador, Lewis derived insights that she is applying to her life and career. "First and foremost is the importance of being patient," she says. "It also gave me a chance to engage in and evaluate bottom-up approaches to development, which are based on community participation and local goals. The challenges and limitations to community participation are a much more formidable issue than I had imagined. The Peace Corps provided me with broad lessons that I think will affect my career decisions."

This summer Lewis plans to apply these development approaches in a project with the United Nations Human Settlements Program in Mexico City through her master's program in environmental management and international relations at Yale University . "We will do needs assessments in communities on the periphery of medium-sized, rapidly urbanizing cities based on residents' origins, cultural identities and access to basic services," she says, "which will guide provision of land tenure and basic services to these communities."

For Lewis, it is a natural extension of what she learned at Bryn Mawr. "The Bryn Mawr philosophy fosters the ability to go to a place, not with all the answers, but with almost none of the answers," she says, "reinforcing through life experiences my strong commitment to the value of learning."

Open-ended Questions

Rebecca F. Perlmutter '03
Rebecca F. Perlmutter '03

Like Lewis, Rebecca F. Perlmutter '03 served as an agroforestry and environmental education volunteer in El Salvador from 2003 to 2005. Partnered with a small elementary-middle school in Ahuachapio, Perlmutter worked with teachers to develop their skills. "The Peace Corps is supposed to be about sustainability," she says. "So I was trying to give teachers a new outlook on teaching environmental science and health. In El Salvador, education is still very much about rote memorization, so the concept of asking open-ended questions was novel."

Perlmutter also gave talks about birth control, condom use and sexually transmitted diseases. "When I asked older women how many children they would have, the answer was, 'As many children as God gives me.' When I talked with some of the younger girls, especially those I hung out with a lot, they would say 'Three.' These are things that a lot of Bryn Mawr women would take for granted: that you have a choice about how many children you are going to have."

At Bryn Mawr, Perlmutter had begun thinking about pursuing a master's degree in public health. "While I was in El Salvador, I realized it was definitively my biggest interest," she recalls. "Just before I left in October 2005, Hurricane Stan came through and many people were getting nasty staph infections on their skin. I puzzled it out and realized that the hurricane had caused a mosquito population explosion. People were scratching mosquito bites, which were getting infected."

In July, Perlmutter will begin a master's program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, most likely with a concentration in epidemiology and infectious disease.

Life Experience

Elizabeth Beil Howland '01
Elizabeth Beil Howland '01

Like many of her peers, Elizabeth Beil Howland '01 was seeking life experience before starting a career. Her quest took her to Greece as a volunteer for a sea turtle project, to a Massachusetts farm run by Heifer International, and then to La Capellania, Guatemala, as a sustainable agriculture volunteer in the Peace Corps. About 80 percent of Guatemala's people live in poverty, and two-thirds of those, or 7.6 million people, live in extreme poverty, according to the U.S. State Department. Infant mortality and illiteracy rates are among the highest in the Western Hemisphere, and the rural poor suffer from chronic malnutrition. "One of the large problems in this area of Guatemala is the lack of water," Beil says. "During the dry season, the faucets on people's outdoor sinks run about once every two weeks and then only for a few hours during the day. During the wet season, they run about once a week, and remain on a little longer."

Beil worked with residents and other Peace Corps volunteers to build underground water storage tanks, and she taught residents some of the animal-care skills she had learned during her time at Heifer International. She also translated for a medical team from the United States that performed cleft lip and palate surgeries on local children.

The rewards were as varied as Beil's service projects. "It could be just sitting with another woman, having a cup of coffee and talking," she recalls. "Another was seeing and communicating parents' joy after their children had surgery."

Beil, who works as a program coordinator for Project Independence in Hobart, N.Y., assessing the needs and goals of developmentally disabled clients, says she gained the life experience she sought. "The Peace Corps taught me that women everywhere have a lot of strengths but also a lot of struggles. It was amazing to see that women who have to ask their husbands for everything are very strong and really do run those communities.

"I also learned that we don't necessarily know how to do everything right in the United States," Beil continues. "The Guatemalan people may be monetarily poor, but they have a very rich culture, including a strong sense of community and family. I realized that I want to maintain that kind of connection with my family."

Beil's service also strengthened her belief in her dream — to run a sustainable farm that also provides a social service. "I always thought it would be wonderful for a farm to be a shelter for victims of domestic violence, a place they could get away and be involved with the land, with animals and plants, and with each other," she says. "The Peace Corps showed me that if I work hard enough, I really can do this." She and her husband, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, already have purchased land in upstate New York. And they have continued to volunteer for community-development projects in Latin America.

Mutual Learning

Marion E. Howard '01
Marion E. Howard '01

As a maternal and child health volunteer in the village of Nyamassila, Togo, fresh out of college, Marion E. Howard '01 worked with a local nurse to design a program to reduce the spread of HIV infection. Approximately 3.2 percent of Togolese adults between the ages of 15 and 49 are infected, according to the UNAIDS 2006 Report on the Global AIDS Epidemic. "The village is on a main trucking route, and when the truckers came through, some of the women prostituted themselves for money or goods," she says. "A local nurse and I designed a program to educate women through local hairdressers and clothing makers, and we also worked to educate the truckers unions."

Howard was frustrated by what she saw as the limitations of grassroots organizing without the infrastructure to support concrete, sustainable change. "It was impossible to measure real outcomes because there was no money to do outcome studies," she says. "The issue is sustainability. You hope that the people you interacted with became more interested and motivated."

Nevertheless, Howard says, "I feel like they took away a lot from working with me and getting training from the Peace Corps. HIV is kind of new to them. Even if people in the village are infected and are dying of AIDS, they often attribute the cause to other diseases like malaria, which is a huge killer."

During her time in Nyamassila, Howard also made an awkward transition from being an outsider to developing lasting friendships. "It was uncomfortable at first," she recalls. "I wanted to identify with the women, but I was often treated like a man. I was introduced to all of the people in power — the priests, the head of the mosque, the village chief. If I went over to someone's house for a meal, I would be served with the men unless I knew the family really well. Then I would stay with the women, who were cooking the meal."

Howard has remained friends with the people with whom she regularly worked and socialized. "We still correspond on a regular basis," she says. "I learned a ton about them and about life there. At least in that way, it was a mutual learning experience."

Currently a third-year medical student at the Weill Medical College of Cornell University in New York City, Howard plans to pursue a residency in internal medicine and then, perhaps, a fellowship in infectious diseases. "When I joined the Peace Corps, I was pretty sure I wanted to go into medicine," she says. "My experiences in Africa confirmed the fact that medicine is one of the most fundamental things you can do to help people. I also realized a career in medicine can take me wherever I want to go in the world."

Public Health Issues

As a community-health volunteer in Kassoum, Burkina Faso, Neeta R. Ginde '94 also was frustrated by the limitations of her service. The country had decentralized its health-care system and encouraged residents to rely on local clinics rather than the central hospitals for primary health-care needs.

"The problem is that all these health clinics function as small businesses, so the Ministry of Health gives them start-up materials — medications, supplies, etc. — which the clinics can only restock once they have sold these to their patients," she explains. "But most patients could not afford the consultation fee and materials. If a patient didn't have the money, they would have to be turned away.

"Most of the villagers are subsistence farmers," Ginde continues. "If they needed money, they sold some of their own food supply to pay for medication, so the malnutrition was terrible. Teaching is important, but ultimately, money is the biggest factor in health."

In a country where per-capita income is $424, according to the U.S. State Department, "You could tell people to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, but they didn't have the money to buy them," Ginde says.

Before joining the Peace Corps in 2000, Ginde worked as a medical physics research assistant at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York and completed all but the final project for her master's degree in public health at George Washington University . At the public health school, she met many Peace Corps veterans. "It's almost like paying your dues," she says. "If you're going to practice public health you need to really understand the issues that prevent people from being at optimal health levels — anything from finances to culture to politics. The Peace Corps was a great way to immerse yourself in these issues and learn about them from experience rather than just by reading about them."

In Burkina Faso, Ginde also taught basic physics and chemistry in a local middle school that lacked science teachers. "That was the more fulfilling project, because I saw the fruits of my efforts — most of my students passed the standardized exams," she says. "One of the difficult things about the Peace Corps is that you never really get to see if what you do is working, and that was the one thing that gave me validation."

When she returned to the United States, Ginde completed her M.P.H., as well as a bachelor's degree in nursing at Columbia University School of Nursing, and she is now enrolled in a master's program to earn a degree as a nurse practitioner. "One of the things I felt while I was in the Peace Corps is that I could have been more helpful if I'd had clinical skills," Ginde says. "Studying public health gave me a lot of context, but I wanted to be able to do something with my hands — something concrete."

Full Circle

Debby Prigal '81
Debby Prigal '81

When Debby Prigal '81 joined the Peace Corps fresh out of college with a bachelor's degree in economics and mathematics, the Peace Corps was at its nadir in number of volunteers. She recalls, "I was the only one from Bryn Mawr or Haverford who applied — the students thought I should go earn a fortune on Wall Street and the faculty hadn't heard about it in 10 years."

Prigal was assigned to Ghana, where she taught mathematics, including single-variable calculus, at Our Lady of Apostles Girls' Secondary School in Ho, the capital of the country's Volta Region. "It was a very good, well-run Catholic girls' school at a time when a lot of schools were closing because many Ghanaian teachers were leaving. Ghana was in economic and political disarray. During my two years, there was one successful coup, dozens of attempts, a currency 'recall' and a massive influx of Ghanaians expelled from Nigeria. There were no manufactured goods and very little food. Volunteers changed money on the black market just to feed themselves.

"It was Ghana 's low point, but it was the highlight of my life," Prigal says.

Since returning to the United States, Prigal has had successive positions as an economic analyst for various government agencies and private-sector companies. Along the way, she earned an M.B.A. in finance, statistics and marketing from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in operations research from the Georgia Institute of Technology. Currently she does mathematical modeling in Washington, D.C.

Prigal has remained active with the Peace Corps community and has been on the board of the National Peace Corps Association, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers/Washington, D.C., and Friends of Ghana. In 2004, she returned to Ho for the 50th-anniversary celebration of her school, and discovered that her former students are thriving. "One of my students went to medical school in Moscow , and she is now head of medical care for the Volta Region," she says. "Two others are pharmacists, one works for a U.N. labor organization, another does market research, one is a businesswoman and seamstress, and another is a banker. Several are nurses or teachers. All were thrilled to see me.

"Going back and seeing them made me aware of how much I did make a difference," Prigal says, "even though I wasn't sure at the time."

About Our Sources

Neeta R. Ginde '94 (Physics) worked as a research assistant at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York City before serving in the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso from 2000 to 2002. She earned her master's degree in public health from George Washington University in 2004, a bachelor's degree in nursing from Columbia University School of Nursing in 2006 and is completing a master's degree as a nurse practitioner at Columbia.

Marion E. Howard '01 (Chemistry) served in the Peace Corps in Togo from 2001 to 2003. She is a third-year medical student at Weill Medical College of Cornell University.

Elizabeth Beil Howland '01 (Psychology) is a program coordinator for Project Independence in Hobart, N.Y., which serves developmentally disabled clients. She served in the Peace Corps in Guatemala from 2003 to 2005.

Jennifer A. Lewis '00 (Biology) served in the Peace Corps in El Salvador from 2001 to 2003. She is working toward a joint master's degree in international relations and environmental management at Yale University.

Rebecca F. Perlmutter '03 (Biology) served in the Peace Corps in El Salvador from 2003 to 2005. In July, she will begin a master's degree program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Deborah L. Prigal '81 (Economics, Mathematics) is an SAIC operations research consultant to the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C. She served in the Peace Corps in Ghana from 1981 to 1983. She earned an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago in 1987 and a master's degree in operations research from the Georgia Institute of Technology in 1998. Prigal has also worked as an economic analyst in government and private industry. She is a member of the National Peace Corps Association, Returned Peace Corps Volunteers/Washington D.C. and Friends of Ghana. 

Alice E. Towey '98 (Physics) is an environmental engineer for Metcalf and Eddy, San Francisco. She earned a master's degree in environmental engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2001. She served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia from 2004 to 2006. She is a member of the California Water Environment Association and the National Peace Corps Association.


Dorothy Wright contributes news and feature articles on science, technology, engineering and general-interest topics to a variety of publications, including Civil Engineering and Engineering News Record.