Posted : 2010-01-21 22:22
Updated : 2010-01-21 22:22

Peace Corps Made Me Better Diplomat

U.S. Ambassador to Korea Kathleen Stephens poses with her former co-teacher Kwan Young-ran at Yesan Boys Middle School in South Chungcheong Province in 1975. The photo with the inscription “Walking in Yesan Suburbs” was sent to the ambassador by Kwan. / Courtesy of Friends of Korea

By Chung Ah-young
Staff Reporter

About 30 years after Kathleen Stephens, the U.S. ambassador to Korea, served in the Peace Corps in Korea, she still remembers that life back then was pretty tough for both Koreans who were struggling for a better life and herself at just 21. But at the same time, she looks back with a certain amount of romanticism.

``Certainly I fell in love with the intense beauty of the changing seasons in Korea, which I experienced so vividly in the countryside,'' she said in an email interview with The Korea Times.

Stephens taught English at a middle school in Yesan, South Chungcheong Province from 1975 to 1977. In a book of photographs, ``Through Our Eyes: Peace Corps in Korea, 1966-1981,'' she expressed her long-held mixed feelings about her memories.

``I am grateful to have experienced a Korea that in some ways is now gone forever. Many of the photographs in the book are in black and white, but when I look at them I remember the intense blue skies above the deep green rice fields, and I remember the pleasure I took in watching the bright gold of the freshly-thatched roofs in the autumn turn elephant gray by summer. It's a little bit romantic but it's a memory I treasure,'' she said.

She also had to deal with physical challenges ― adapting to Korea's winter without modern heating or plumbing, and keeping healthy and motivated through the sweltering summer heat.

``But for all the difficulties, I never failed to be impressed and inspired by the Koreans I knew, particularly the students. They were cheerful, curious, and determined to move forward. The `can-do spirit' is often considered quintessentially American; but I soon learned that for Koreans, it really was, `ha-myeon, doen-da,''' she said.

The ambassador commented that the Peace Corps these days, which is bigger than ever and works in even more countries, is described as ``the toughest job you'll ever love.''

Stephens said that the experiences shaped her skills and ideas about what she wanted to do with her life later on. She took what she learned from living in Korea, from witnessing its economic and political transformations, and from the wisdom and generosity of so many individual Koreans, and applied it to her diplomatic assignments over the years.

``It made me a better diplomat. And my first exposure to Korea in the 1970s left me, as it did many Peace Corps volunteers, with a lifelong interest in all things Korean,'' she said.

She has also become a fan of Korean folk art such as traditional Korean depictions of the tiger. ``I still seek these kind of pictures out today, and I'm glad to see so many now.''

Concerning aid-giving activities, the ambassador said that serving as a volunteer overseas is an extraordinarily valuable experience for a young person.

But she emphasized that ``You have to have a sense of adventure, a genuine interest in other cultures, a readiness to go and stay outside your comfort zone, and an ability to deal with inevitable times of frustration and loneliness.''

In return, the volunteer also brings back home a unique perspective on another country and the complexities of the world, unattainable in any other way, she added.

In the few decades after her time in the Peace Corps, she maintains strong ties with other volunteers. Even if they didn't serve in the same country there's a bond between them, she said.

The U.S. Embassy in Seoul has a sizable number of former Peace Corps volunteers, who have served throughout the world.

``As far as I know, though, Korea is the only country that has organized a reunion program for former volunteers. These reunion trips, there have been three so far with more planned, coupled with a Web site for former Peace Corps/Korea volunteers, have renewed old ties, and sparked an interest in former volunteers in reconnecting with Korea and each other,'' she said.

Serving in the Peace Corps gives a sense of having contributed in a very small way to something that now, more than 30 years later, is still paying dividends, not only in the lasting friendships between Koreans and Americans built during that time, but in serving in some way as an inspiration and model for young Koreans now to go abroad themselves to share their energy and skills and to bring back to Korea their own experiences of life in other countries. ``That's what brought us into the Peace Corps and that's what's sending Koreans out now. It means a lot to see these photographs together -photographs from then and photographs from now and to think about that special connection,'' she said.
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