Special Note: This column will now appear in the Wednesday edition of the UDC.
In mid-March a news item related to the coronavirus – as all news items are nowadays – caught my attention: the Peace Corps program was being temporarily suspended and its 7300 volunteers evacuated from 60 countries around the world back to the United States. When I later read on Facebook that one of my former students had been a Peace Corps volunteer a few years ago, I just had to make a phone call.
Some background is probably in order here. As an idealistic seventh grader, I was totally enamored with John Kennedy, the dashing new President who replaced the grandfatherly Dwight Eisenhower. JFK had ideas about putting a man on the moon and – in the spirit of asking what we could do for our country – brought to fruition the idea of a cadre of young people fanning out across the globe to voluntarily provide assistance and promote international understanding. Starry-eyed as I was, I found it all very exciting to contemplate. Although my global aspirations eventually took me in a different direction, the Peace Corps has always represented to me what cooperation among the people of the world could accomplish.
Learning that Tony Hoyt – a student in my German classes and fellow traveler to our partner school in Germany – had spent two years as one of those volunteers I so admired, more than piqued my interest. We had quite the phone conversation, sheltering-in-place in Chicago and Urbana, as we talked.
Following his graduation from Falconland in 1999, Tony became a Bobcat at Ohio University, where he began his pursuit of business and finance as well as German. With the full support of his family – including his mother, Darlene Brown Hoyt-Monbeck, herself a member of my first travel group in the early 70s – Tony made the brave decision to spend the second semester of his freshman year in Leibzig, Germany. He further extended his learning opportunities that year by backpacking solo through Europe before returning home.
Back on campus in Athens, the Peace Corps seed was planted in an internationalized Tony when he saw the program’s recruitment sign on his way to class one day. Oh, he used the well-established organization with its laudable mission and enticing opportunities for a speech class assignment, but the Peace Corps idea burst into full bloom five years after he received his degree. Tony left the accounting department at the Perpetual Federal Savings Bank in Urbana to become a full-fledged Peace Corps volunteer.
Admittedly, in my mind’s eye, I pictured all Peace Corps volunteers as teaching language classes or modernizing farming practices or ministering to health needs in Third World countries. So I was fascinated to learn that Tony served from 2009-2011 as a community development volunteer in Ukraine. He completed the traditional Peace Corps training: living with a host family for three months, immersing himself in the culture and customs of Ukraine. He also spent 4-5 hours 5-6 days a week in intensive language study.
Fortunately, Tony’s business background served him well in his primary project: helping local organizations improve project designs and management skills. Tony described the assistance he provided in grant writing, for example. It seems the locals used Google to translate their grant applications into the English required for submission, a practice that never yielded the awarding of funds. Tony, bridging language difficulties, helped them reverse that trend.
Upon his return to the USA, Tony resumed his work in finance in Chicago – although his global awareness continued to grow. Three years ago when he discovered that Bard College in the state of New York gave Peace Corps veterans credit for experience, I began seeing Facebook airplane symbols crisscrossing the country as Tony pursued his MBA in Sustainability – which he will complete in May. He is seriously considering consulting with companies on how best to promote ecological balance by protecting the natural resources of our planet – climate change and energy issues that depend on global cooperation.
As Tony and I wound to the end of our chat, I was most interested in what he had learned about others – and himself – by virtue of his experiences. Citing the Peace Corps goals of understanding and respecting foreign cultures, he found developing international understanding to be a two-way street. Tony’s natural American tendency to jump-in-and-make-it-happen could have clashed with the guarded independence typical of Slavic cultures. However, each side worked at gracious acceptance and gradual trust. The Ukrainians, whose culture may be perceived by Westerners as simpler and more basic, slowly realized that Tony did not fit their preconceived stereotype of a rich American living in the luxury portrayed on MTV and accepted him into their inner circle. Both sides learned how to live patriotic lives true to their own nationalities while respecting citizens of other countries as they are: people are people the world over.
I am proud of what Tony has allowed himself to learn and humbled by his insight. And I am impressed by his many Road-Not-Taken moments in such a young life. Robert Frost’s poem about way-leading-onto-way choices could not be better demonstrated than by Tony’s original Facebook comment: “the German exchange program was a game-changer and the reason I jumped to study abroad my freshman year in college, which led me to serve in the Peace Corps, which led me to my current graduate school program.” Pandemic notwithstanding, the future of the world is bright with guys like Tony involved.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.