Peace Corps alumni discuss diversity


Peace Corps recruiter Nicholas Langston and volunteers spoke about their service experiences in countries like Swaziland and Morocco on Pitt’s Peace Corps Diversity Panel Wednesday. Jingyu Xu | Staff Photographer

By Janine Faust / Staff Writer

Munya Jakazi disappointed a lot of Filipino children when they found out he couldn’t play basketball.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in 2012, Jazaki, a graduate of Lebanon Valley College who is black, travelled to the Philippines, where he worked as a youth development volunteer coordinating extracurricular activities at a rehab center for youths.

“The people there, they only knew what they knew about black guys through the media, which can be pretty incorrect in how it portrays people,” Jakazi said. “Right away, some of the kids tried to get me to be on their basketball team. I’m actually not good at basketball at all.”

Jakazi, who is now a graduate student at Pitt studying international development, served in the Peace Corps until 2014, because he was pursuing a career in service work and foreign culture.

On Wednesday afternoon, Jakazi sat with several other Pitt grad students and former Peace Corps volunteers on Pitt’s Peace Corps Diversity Panel. The panelists, who varied in race, sexuality and gender, discussed their experiences serving communities in other countries, including Morocco and Swaziland.

Some of the stories, like Jakazi’s on basketball, offered perspectives on dealing with preconceived notions about race around the world.

“A lot of [the children] were surprised about the way I acted. Being around me, it defeated the stereotypes they thought were true,” Jakazi said. “And I learned a lot from them by being immersed in their culture.”

Other panelists also discussed the way traveling and living in other countries had shifted their own cultural understanding — which was a broader goal of the panel, according to Pitt Peace Corps recruiter Nicholas Langston.

“We want people to know that the Peace Corps isn’t just made up of a bunch of white guys,” Langston said. “And that anyone can discover more about themselves and others, gain experience and make connections through working as a Peace Corp volunteer.”

According to the Peace Corps website, 28 percent of accepted volunteers identify as minorities in America based on their race or sexuality. But, as several panelists pointed out, those who identify with a majority or minority group in America can find their experiences flip-flopped in other countries.

Ryan Stannard, a Pitt graduate student studying international development, said he felt like a “white blond guy who stuck out” while volunteering in Thailand from 2014 to 2016. For that reason, he didn’t want to talk about his homosexuality.

“I figured I already attracted enough attention just by how I looked,” Stannard said. “It was a little hard not saying anything, but it gave me a new perspective on how some people are viewed differently just by their appearance.”

Ryan Flint, a graduate student and former volunteer who is black, said his race helped when he was teaching English to students in Africa.

“It was easy for me to get the community to trust me, and I was able to convince them to work with me pretty quickly,” Flint said.

As a Peace Corp volunteer, Langston has been to Rwanda and Uganda. In Rwanda, he taught English and entrepreneurship classes and helped coordinate clubs for women’s empowerment. In Uganda, he served as a development consultant for an under-construction orphanage.

Both times, he found people assumed he was wealthy because he was a white American man.

“They’d all think that I owned a BMW and had a lot of money,” Langston said. “Part of the job of being a [volunteer], besides educating and empowering communities, is to teach others about your culture, and to learn from theirs and take that back home with you.”

Mariana Dougherty, a sophomore psychology major who attended the panel, had traveled to Nicaragua in high school to work with an organization that constructs schools in places without the adequate infrastructure for education called buildOn.

She said she’s interested in doing similar work after graduation and came to the panel to hear from Peace Corps alum.

“I think this panel was pretty useful, since I was able to learn more about what a Peace Corps volunteer experiences in different cultures through some new and unique perspectives,” Dougherty said.

Joel Garceau, a graduate student studying international development at Pitt, also did service work in Thailand and felt comfortable coming out to his co-teacher about halfway through his time there. He quipped that she treated him the same afterwards and “stopped trying to find [him] a girlfriend.

Overall, Garceau’s experience made him feel less intimidated about interacting with other people.

“You’ve got to be a lot more outgoing when you’re immersed in a different culture in order to connect with others,” Garceau said. “And when you connect with them, you find out that although people have different beliefs and attitudes, we’re all basically imperfect humans.”