In a remote village in Zambia, Amber Cohen, CAS/BA ’15, assembled a meeting of farmers. Together, they’d built 27 fishponds during her Peace Corps tenure. “It didn’t really hit me that this was the last meeting I’d be having.”
Brianna Hawk, SIS/BA ’17, had been teaching English high in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan. “At school, it was my director’s birthday. The teachers were celebrating,” she says. “I walked in, and they asked me to give a toast. I was so upset I just started sobbing.”
In Madagascar, Danielle Montecalvo, CAS-SIS/BA ’18, also reeled. “I was devastated. Such a wreck. Now I’m in a better mindset.” A mindset she described from her parents’ home in Rochester, New York. Self-quarantined for two weeks in the RV in their driveway.
Home from Peace Corps. But not really.
On Monday, March 16, all 7,300 Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs) around the globe received a message from Director Jody Olsen: You’re being evacuated because of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Right now.
To protect volunteers’ safety, Peace Corps has evacuated individual countries during its 59-year history. But never everyone at once. Not until 2020.
Maura Joul, SIS/BA ’18, taught at Tianshui Normal University in China’s Gansu province. China was first to be pulled. Mongolia was next. Willem Opperman, SPA/MPA ’17, who taught in Dornogobi, Mongolia, a province on the Chinese border, left so suddenly he couldn’t collect his things.
“I had with me five T-shirts, a pair of jeans, shoes,” Opperman says. Road closures prevented his return from the provincial capital, Sainshand. “I had to call my counterpart [a project partner from the host community] and say, ‘Hey, I can’t even come say goodbye.’” Over the phone, he told his colleague what to pack.
After Mongolia, PCVs around the world—most living in countries not yet infected by the coronavirus—tuned in for instructions.In Mahajanga, Madagascar, Montecalvo rode an emotional rollercoaster as directives flipflopped. “Crying, trying to figure out what to do, talking to other volunteers. Panic.” Details were fuzzy: each of the 60 countries where Peace Corps operated was a unique puzzle piece. “We had to say goodbye and at a moment’s notice be ready,” she says.
Montecalvo steadied herself. “I had to stop crying. I said, ‘I need to focus.’” Antananarivo, the capital, was 600 km away—on “a not great road,” she says. “Twelve hours to get there.” Volunteers in surrounding villages were more like three days away.
That Monday, on her morning run, with dismay she relayed the news to “my coffee and bread ladies . . . I ran everywhere.” Her university threw an impromptu goodbye party. She hustled to form a hurried closure. “We had some hope that we’d be back soon,” Montecalvo says. Tuesday evening, she was out with Malagasy friends at the bord de la mer, a seaside promenade with people strolling, sipping drinks, sitting on the seawall listening to music—COVID-19 social distancing had not yet arrived. Then Madagascar’s borders closed. Her country director flew into motion. The message? Everybody be in the capital by tomorrow.
Montecalvo stayed up all night packing, ruing the incompleteness of her vague Monday farewells. One of the hardest moments of her Peace Corps experience, she says—not the new language, a foreign culture, a university job when she was a new graduate herself—was that night’s phone call to her host mother. “She was keeping it together, but she was freaking out.”
For her host sisters, Wednesday was a normal day, Montecalvo says. “I had to go see Fifa and Aniah early before school. They were so distraught, holding back tears. It was strange—mostly silence. We joked and talked like normal, but we were quiet, thinking about our connection. We didn’t even know what to say.”
The final glimpse of her residence made her physically sick. “I have a strong stomach usually—maybe it was the [lack of] sleep—but seeing my house as I walked away, basically how it was before I got there . . . I was beside myself.”
What she felt, Montecalvo says, “was that a piece of me was dying.”
The close partnership between American University and Peace Corps goes all the way back. The School of International Service served as an early predeparture training site for volunteers bound for postings in places like Pakistan and the Philippines, and President John F. Kennedy delivered “A Strategy of Peace” during AU’s 1963 commencement, just two years after he established the corps. Since 1961, more than 1,100 Eagles have served in 100-plus countries.
In 2019, AU produced 51 volunteers, ranking second among medium-sized colleges and universities for the second year in a row. But AU bats at a much higher percentage than the giant universities. First among all schools, University of Wisconsin–Madison launched 75 volunteers out of its many thousands of graduates.
Why does AU mint so many PCVs? Stephen Angelsmith, SIS/MIS ’14, assistant director of global learning at the Center for Community Engagement and Service, says SIS—the largest school of its kind in the US, founded at the height of the Cold War—is particularly connected with Peace Corps. Its culture of public service, environmental stewardship, and human rights and social justice aligns with the Peace Corps ethos.
“SIS connects students to creative ways of solving problems,” says Angelsmith, himself a returned PCV, who served in Turkmenistan from 2007 to 2009. “The people who are drawn to Peace Corps are interested in the world and in making a difference.” Angelsmith, who helped found AU’s Paul Coverdell Fellows program for returned PCVs to deploy their skills and experience to serve needs in Washington, DC, says the natural match was a shared belief in “practice over theory, or theory informed by practice.”
“In terms of the mission, we just always jived.”
That mission? On the ground, small-scale sustainable development. Person to person.
Lindsey Grutchfield, SOC/BA ’19, left for Moldova immediately after graduation. Stepping off the plane, she “had a sudden, overwhelming feeling: 27 months! I told myself, ‘don’t think about that now.’” After training, she settled in south of Chis‚in˘au, teaching 19 lessons a week and conducting six after-school English clubs—four for students, two for adults. She would not get to finish her first year.
For many, recall was abrupt. Madeleine Rapp, SIS/BA ’18, taught in Mizhhirya, a village in the Ukrainian Carpathians. She was at a teacher conference a thousand kilometers away when the evacuation order came. Rapp jumped on a train for the 32-hour ride back to site, receiving five updates en route. She had two hours to pack and say her goodbyes. “I had no time to even think about it,” she says. “My counterpart drove me back to the train station. It didn’t feel like a goodbye, because I wasn’t prepared. It seemed like just another trip to Kyiv. It was really disappointing that I didn’t get to say goodbye to my students.”
Rachael Rosenberg, SIS/BA ’17, taught English in Ninotsminda, a cold, isolated, Armenian-speaking region in the Republic of Georgia. When the email came, Rosenberg was outside the country, on spring break in Yerevan, Armenia. “Peace Corps met us at the border and took us straight back to Tbilisi,” she says. Rosenberg phoned another volunteer who accessed her apartment and threw things into a duffel bag: passport, SIM card, a beloved pair of snow boots. “The number one worst part of my Peace Corps experience was no goodbye whatsoever,” Rosenberg says. She called friends and students, who at first disbelieved her. After each call, “your heart just breaks a little more.”
Ross Babineau, SIS/BA ’17, lived in a village in Georgia’s subtropical Guria region. Babineau had bonded with his host family—Natia and Mikhail and their two sons, ages 7 and 4. After teaching and tutoring at the village school, he helped out on the hazelnut farm, and with winemaking. “My host dad invited me to a lot of supras, which is like a Georgian feast,” Babineau says. “Georgian hospitality is famous. They’ll invite you out at every chance.” He felt at home.
So Babineau’s parting was likewise brutally sudden. “I told my host family ‘I think I’m leaving the day after tomorrow,’” he says. His host brothers were stunned, his grandmother and mother in tears. “While they’re making all this food for me, getting me ready to go, I get a call: You’re leaving now.”
Up until then, they’d urged him to remain in the village—rent free!— for a few months. “They said, ‘You’d be so much safer here. We grow all our own food, you don’t leave the village. Wait for it to all end—and then go back to America!’” Babineau sighs. “It’s crazy to me that a rural village in Georgia is so much less susceptible” to a global pandemic.
It was over. Every Peace Corps volunteer in the world headed back to a drastically changed, locked-down United States.
The recall hurt. “We were trained to live on our own in this place—but now it’s too dangerous?” Montecalvo asks. Mid-second year, long-term efforts had started bearing fruit. “I felt like I was just getting the hang of it,” she says. But three days after evacuation, Madagascar confirmed its first three cases. “So we wouldn’t be teaching or going outside there either.”
Opperman doesn’t blame Peace Corps. “If I got really sick? They couldn’t even get us out,” he says. At the time, it was hard to swallow—but “they made the right call. It was just the craziness of evacuating 7,000 people.” Opperman plans to return for a preapproved third year. “I’m still hopeful I can get back soon. I would have preferred to stay in Mongolia,” he says.
For now, he was in Nashville, a place he had never been—his parents moved there after he went overseas. Rosenberg sheltered in Texas, quarantined in her childhood bedroom, feeling disoriented while recalling her interrupted life in the Caucasus. Rapp is home in Buffalo, New York, quelling sadness with American foods she missed. “Wings, obviously. Goldfish crackers. Twizzlers. Weird snack food I couldn’t get there. But I didn’t feel like coming home. I felt safer in Ukraine. Here, it’s like a different planet.”
Hawk decamped in Pittsburgh. “You commit to not seeing your family or friends. Making money, anything like that. Living in discomfort for two years. And it’s all right. But then for that to feel ripped out? To not know when or if we can go back? So many feelings.
“It’s hard to talk about,” she continues.“I keep going back and forth. Am I having a fever dream that I’m in the States? Or did I even really go to Kyrgyzstan? Was the last nine months a dream? Sometimes I just don’t know.”
Like most, Babineau communicates regularly with his host family, friends, and counterpart. “What did Keti say the other day? She’s like, ‘Is your country OK?’” He had eased her concern. “They are so caring. I was part of a family—the same way you wouldn’t want your own mother to worry about your health and well-being. So I didn’t feel comfortable saying how anxious I am sometimes now.”
Then Babineau pauses. “If you’d told me two years ago I’d be coming back to America and reassuring my host family—who has trouble putting food on the table sometimes—telling them not to be worried? I don’t think I’d know quite how to process that, to be frank.”
Cohen says she’s “not the same person I was when I got on the plane to Zambia. Peace Corps makes you reflective.” Now in quarantine, “we are all learning how to be alone with our minds. To accept changes and growth.”
Grutchfield was reflective too. “When I’m overwhelmed with sadness about leaving my post,” she says from rural Vermont, “I remember it’s bigger than my personal feelings. The whole world is going through a hard time.”
Before Grutchfield began her Peace Corps service, people asked her if Moldova was in Africa. “Or is it an island?” she recalls, laughing. But Moldova, it turned out, “was the best place in the world for me,” she says. “I wouldn’t have wanted anywhere else.”
Jane Haines, SIS/BA ’17
Tubara, Atlantico, Colombia
After one year in coastal Colombia, Jane Haines motorcycled up to a mountain village called Guaimaral.
“There was no road, just a little trench that washed out when it rained,” she says. During wet season people got stuck—or even died. Haines sought isolated areas: More enthusiasm, more opportunity for economic development, she found.
The treacherous trench meant no Peace Corps volunteer had connected Guimaral with resources—grants, government funding, training. But during her tenure, a new road arrived. Local attitude, she says, was: “‘Finally, a Peace Corps volunteer!’ I said, ‘What do you want to do?’ They didn’t know. So we started practicing English.”
Soon two artisans, enterprising local leaders, expressed eagerness to collaborate. “On the coast, Carnival is really popular,” Haines says. The artisans carved wooden masks of bulls, or tigers, and taught kids their techniques. But they ran out of knives, wood. “The kids started carving with machetes. They worried they would cut a finger off.” The artisans shut down the project.
Haines doubted success. “The grant application starts with this questionnaire. An hour and a half, we didn’t get anywhere. I kept forcing them to meet, calling them five or six times.” They lacked not motivation, she says, but practice in detailed planning, goal setting, and organizing. “In past programs, the government just gives them something.”
Meetings from July until December paid off when a Peace Corps small grant helped the team purchase equipment. “Until then they carved masks with kitchen knives.” No saws or power tools. To supply stores in the city, they needed uniform quality.
Increased income supported a school and transferred skills to youths. “We thought it would give kids hope for some kind of job. So they learned how to do this carving.”
When Haines was evacuated, mask making was underway—an opportunity for Guaimaral to plug in to Colombia’s larger economy. A pathway that didn’t exist before.
Amber Cohen, CAS/BA ’15
In 2018, Amber Cohen started a new life as an aquaculture volunteer in Itinti, a 15-hour bus ride from Lusaka. In training, she learned to speak Bemba, one of Zambia’s 72 languages, and gathered resources to teach fishpond construction and management. By the time of her March evacuation, her village had dug 27 new ponds teeming with fish—offering her community food security and surplus income.
Yet Cohen downplayed her role kickstarting the project: “My community should get the shout-out. I was the cheerleader.”
Cohen lived 10 steps from the village well, so dozens of people visited multiple times a day. She soon knew everyone in Itinti’s 80 dwellings. Her counterpart, Laston Mukuka, was highly motivated, Cohen says. His enthusiasm—along with support from village leadership—meant construction began promptly. “I arrived in May, and we had ponds built by September,” she says. “That’s not typical. I was lucky to find interested, motivated farmers.”
An adjacent grassy field with a clogged furrow—a ditch with a little water in it—became the village’s “rosary system” of ponds, strung together in a chain. “The field had been mostly untouched for three years,” Cohen says.
The ponds were stocked with fish called palé in Bemba—green-headed tilapia. “But the name in English sounds strange when I say it,” Cohen laughs. “I’ve been saying palé for so many months.”
Before she left, Cohen and the villagers gathered outside her house. “I talked about how proud I was of the work that we did.” And they discussed the coronavirus, which had yet to infiltrate Zambia. “There’s a big greeting culture,” she says. “You shake hands, there’s a lot of touching.” The opposite of social distancing.
Eventually, Cohen will head back—this time to Malawi. Her new passion is malaria prevention. Bed nets and behaviors informed by science. She’s gotten pretty good at motivating people and supporting their efforts. But it’s a bit beyond cheerleading.
Andre De Mello, SIS/BA ’19
Andre De Mello arrived in Timor-Lesté in late 2019 in the country’s tenth group of Peace Corps volunteers. After training, he settled in with a host family and started teaching. But his two-year commitment was not to be.
At first, De Mello practiced his new Tetun language skills with host parents Miguel and Lucia and their three children. He joined in housecleaning and gardening. Miguel described growing up during Timor-Lesté’s war for independence from Indonesia. “Hearing stories is a great way to integrate with family,” De Mello says. With host siblings, he played soccer and bantered as they puzzled over “this strange American who seemed a little lost,” De Mello laughs. A volunteer’s first months are the toughest.
News of the coronavirus started trickling in. “A lot of Timorese go to China,” De Mello says. “We weren’t too scared—Timor-Lesté is a small island. But when cases appeared in Indonesia, Thailand, Australia, things got more concerning.” After just three months on site, he was recalled to the capital, Dili. Borders were closing. He packed and prepared to go home.
Headquarters held a rushed sendoff—lunch, dinner, goodbyes. “Some of us were lucky,” he says. “Our host families came to the airport. I was mostly in shock. Numb.” That final day, he decided, was a chance “to make a forward-looking connection to remain a part of Timorese culture.”
Today the evacuated volunteers make video lessons. Or, with new friends at Timorese NGOs, they collaborate online, building websites and drafting budgets from afar. De Mello’s helping with study abroad, writing an overseas guide in Tetun.
“It’s easier to understand the rules about standardized testing and interviewing for college when they’re in your own language,” he says.
Sequestered back home just outside New York City, he misses Timor-Lesté—a country that eight years ago still retained a UN peacekeeping force. “Going from so much freedom to being stuck inside,” De Mello muses. Not what he signed up for.