8 Enduring Lessons of Our Peace Corps Years

March 01, 2011

By Betty Soppelsa

Nearly 43 years ago, my husband and I went to live in a small town in Côte d’Ivoire as Peace Corps English teachers.  We had never been in Africa before; we had never taught before; we had barely studied about Africa in college. Miraculously, we moved into a new life and a new profession in that small town, and were transformed by the warmth, generosity, and openness of the people around us.  Some of the lessons we learned have deeply shaped us and are never far from our minds.

Peace Corps

TEFL Group, 42 years later

  1. We are alike; we are different.
    It was easy to see how much we had in common with our hosts, despite our many surface differences.  Love of home, love of family, appreciation for education, the desire for health and peace—these were part of all of us. Racial, religious, and cultural differences became more and more inconsequential as we became part of the community and our school.  Yet learning about and accepting the differences was part of the evolution we experienced living in a new place.

  2. The astounding impact of education.
    The English classes we taught at the town middle school were a small part of the effect of our presence in the lives of our students and their impact on us.  Our living room became a library for them with Newsweeks, newspapers, and books from home.  Learning from each other day after day showed us all the joy of encountering new ideas, new values, and new ways of thinking. Their questions about American society and its ugliest moments challenged our understanding of ourselves.

  3. Common languages make community possible.
    Peace Corps classes in Dyula, the local language and language of markets across Cote d’Ivoire, gave us access to the life of the town.  Every morning and evening, the women in the courtyard next to ours would ask how I was; how my family was; if I had slept well—checking to see if we needed anything. French was the medium of communication with our school colleagues, reviewing student progress, planning schedules and courses, debating pedagogies, and learning about each other. Our English classes gave our students a view into another society and the opportunity to explore beyond the borders of their country.

  4. Islam I consider the fact that our town was predominately Muslim to have been one of the most significant sources of learning for us.  Islam infused the lives of our neighbors, colleagues and students.  Daily prayers demonstrated the union of faith among believers.  The sacrifice of food and drink during Ramadan created a month where the entire town was focused on the lessons of the faith. And the traditional commitment to generosity to strangers helped us overcome our shyness and smoothed our entrée into the community.
  5. Close your gate at night!
    Our yard had a low fence around it with a gate at the road.  For the first few weeks, we saw no reason to close the gate at night. But then we awoke one night to terrifying noise just outside our bedroom window.  Elephants?  Burglars?  Cows from our neighbor’s herd had ambled into our yard, entered the narrow space between our bedroom wall and the fence, and didn’t have enough room to turn around and get out!  Fortunately, our neighbors came over to corral the beasts and lead them away.
  6. Physical resources are scarce; value them.
    Living more “simply,” as we say in the United States, taught us that many trappings of our materialistic culture are unnecessary and wasteful.  No cheese or butter, no paper towels or napkins, no air conditioning, no hot water, and no washing machines caused us to adapt and accept other ways of cooking, cleaning, and washing.  Soon those old comforts were forgotten.  Did we ever need them?  Do we need them now?  But clean water is an inestimable treasure.  Our house had running water; many of our neighbors carried water from wells to their households. Even in our “simpler” lifestyle, we had enormous advantages our neighbors did not.
  7. Innovations here may not apply there.
    A young boy who had become homeless joined us as a “gardener,” using our sturdy shed as his room. With seeds sent from our family in Ohio, he helped us plant a small garden using the ridges and furrows design that prevents torrential rains from washing away seedlings.  But our Ohio vegetables could not withstand the intense sun.  Lanciné, quietly, replaced our plants with peanuts and okra that grew rapidly in the environment they were suited for.
  8. Shared, transformative experiences keep friends together across the years.
    A year ago, twenty-two members of our Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) group and their life partners met for the first time in 42 years, to celebrate the anniversary of two volunteers who met and married in Côte d’Ivoire.  We caught up on each others’ lives, ate West African food, and looked at pictures of younger selves. We laughed about our inadequacies and successes as teachers, talked about what we missed in West Africa, and recalled students, colleagues, and meetings we had had.  Across all these years, we are still tied to each other through the incredible time we spent in Côte d’Ivoire.

In celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Peace Corps this year, we see how central these experiences were in shaping our lives and careers.  We would never have taught in West Africa those years ago if the Peace Corps had not made it possible.  The experiences that filled the two years were enhanced by the training and support the Peace Corps provided:  It prepared us for the journey; it introduced us to the culture and language through a training program that included West African teachers; it placed us in authentic roles in an indigenous community; it helped keep us healthy and focused on our work and our relationships with our community.  It was a great gift to us, for which we remain grateful.


Betty Soppelsa is the deputy executive director for conference planning at NAFSA. Fifty years ago today, on March 1, 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed the executive order establishing the Peace Corps. Read the original executive order and watch the presidential press conference from 1961.


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