Peace Corps celebrates 50 years of building bridges

Local graduate, Jason Cochran, reflects on his career

Jason Cochran

Guest Writer

Jason Cochran
Jason Cochran

It was a cold November day when I was preparing to leave Minnesota for Panama and an unknown experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer. My mother took me aside and offered these words of wisdom: “Your life will now be marked as the time before Peace Corps and the time after.” Little did I realize how prophetic those words would be and that beginning that November of 1997, I would spend 12 of the next 14 years as a Volunteer and staff member in three different countries (Panama, Paraguay and now Colombia) with the Peace Corps. While my story with the Peace Corps began in 1997, the Peace Corps story itself began 50 years ago on March 1, 1961 when President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order creating the Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps, as my mother alluded to, is a transformational experience on so many levels. For the Volunteers, the community members with whom they work and the staff member who support the Volunteers’ work.

For the Volunteers, much like myself, they willingly board a plane to spend the next two years of their lives serving others and overcoming the many challenges, awkward situations and uncomfortable working conditions that this entails. Much like a teacher, it is very rewarding to watch this transformation across two years from the nervous, but excited Volunteer who first arrives in country to the experienced, confident and mature one who leaves. Not only do they have to learn a new language and culture, but they must utilize this new language to integrate into a host community, live in very rustic conditions, often without electricity and potable water or luxuries such as indoor plumbing, living in very basic conditions. Once integrated, they take on projects that need herculean efforts to simply organize a community and empower and lead individuals and groups. The amazing thing about all of this is that they do so willingly and more often than not, leave behind empowered leaders, community improvement projects and many, many life-long friendships. For the Volunteer, there is no “I cant;” there is only “When can we get started.”

But they are not the only heroes in this story. The communities in which they live and work are full of amazing leaders, perseverant personalities and caring individuals. As I have heard on many an occasion, they love Peace Corps, as we go where no one else will go to work with their often neglected and forgotten communities.They take the Volunteers in as family and inspire the Volunteers to work side by side on health, agriculture, education, environment, small business, youth empowerment and many other similar projects. They do  this work in order to transform their community through sustainable development. Many are the individual and collective stories of lives changed through interaction with a Volunteer. Whether it be through learning English leading to a better education, or a stronger co-op that reaches a national and international market, the community and its leaders are transformed through the work of the Volunteer. It is a perfect union. The leaders have ideas and dreams for a better life; the Volunteers have the skills and abilities to facilitate the realization of these dreams. Without inspiring leaders in the communities, Peace Corps could never be successful. I think of the individual who walked eight hours across mountainous terrain just to attend a seminar to improve coffee farming techniques. And I also call to mind the school director who works in an impoverished inner city school fighting hard to protect her very vulnerable students from extremely low income families against the drug runners, hit men and other criminals who want to recruit her students for their illicit activities. These leaders represent communities, who struggle daily just to survive to the next day, yet maintain such a faith in God and the good of people and the hope that they can bring their town or community along with them to a better life. With the help of the Volunteers, together they help transform their communities.

Finally, and perhaps one of the greatest joys I get from working for Peace Corps, is the absolute dedication and commitment of the host country staff members. For them Peace Corps is not just a well paying job in tough economies; it is a venue to support the Volunteers who serve their beloved country. For them it is a daily act of patriotism. The pride of working for the Peace Corps and supporting the Volunteers that staff members have is amazing. The project managers, language teachers, administrative assistants, drivers, medical officers et., have taken it upon themselves to ensure that the Volunteers have a safe, effective and happy service. They treat the Volunteers as if they were their own children. And many make great personal and familial sacrifices as the jobs require long hours and travel of up to four days a week in remote areas of the country for many weeks of the year. They celebrate their successes and feel their struggles. Volunteers and folks like myself come and go constantly, but the host country staff remain and carry on the torch, keeping John F. Kennedy’s vision and dream alive through it all.

So what is the Peace Corps Legacy for me? It is 50 years of Volunteers, community members and staff members giving all that they have and working together towards a very simple dream: That through Volunteerism in lands far away, cultural gaps are bridged, communities and lives are transformed and a mutual understanding that we are only divided by borders, but as people we have more similarities than differences. Has the entire world been transformed and changed by the Peace Corps in the last 50 years? Not likely and it would be arrogant of us to say that the world has a before and after Peace Corps benchmark. All the same, over the last 50 years, in more than 200,000 communities in 139 countries across the globe, the seeds of Peace and Friendship have been planted.  And from my own personal experience I can say that the harvest is abundant.

Happy 50th Anniversary to the Peace Corps and I hope the next 50 are just as successful as the first.

Jason Cochran, a 1992 graduate of Cambridge High School and 1997 graduate of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, joined the Peace Corps and was sent to Panama in 1997. He shared some of his experiences with the Isanti County News through a newsletter “Aqui en Panama.” After two and a half years, he returned to Minnesota, but found his way back to Panama where he was eventually hired by Peace Corps Panama to be the project manager for the Agriculture sector. He then was sent to Paraguay as the Deputy Director and is currently in Colombia where he is the Director of Programming and Training opening a new Peace Corps post on the Caribbean coast. He lives there with his wife, a Panamanian (and now US citizen) whom he met as a volunteer in Panama and their son. His mother, Kathy Minkler Krenik, still lives and works in Isanti County.