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  • Jim Herne

My Path to the Peace Corps

My Path to the Peace Corps

By Jim Herne

RPCV Zaire, 1971-73

In the fall of 1968, I was a senior in college and like many of my classmates I was starting to think about what to do with myself after graduation in June of 1969. A number of recruiters came to our campus (Western New England College in Springfield, MA) and among them was a team of recruiters from the Peace Corps. While I was intrigued by the prospect of the Peace Corps, as an alternative to traditional employment, I eventually caved to the appeal of working for a large company and earning the big bucks. I took a job with Eastman Kodak in Rochester, NY to become part of a large team of 250 scientists and engineers that were hired to work on a contract for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). Not long after starting with Kodak I would get one of my first lessons in the world of work when President Nixon cancelled the MOL project and Kodak lost their contract for the work. Kodak did its best to try and absorb all of us into other parts of the company but about half of these new hires, myself included, were tossed overboard.

I eventually found a new job with an industrial chemical company, as a Plant Engineer, located in Geneseo, NY. The contrast with my job and life in Rochester could not have been much more extreme as Geneseo is a very rural part of New York and there were not many social opportunities in the area. To add to my difficulties the job was quite boring and tedious and I had an older boss who was quite difficult to work with. After about six months in this job I knew I had to find something else to do as I could never spend the rest of my life in the situation I found myself in. At that point I recalled my meeting with the Peace Corps recruiters and the article on the Peace Corps that appeared in our college newspaper in December 1968 (see clipping at the right). So, in the summer of 1970 I filled in the application forms for the Peace Corps and sent them in. Little did I know at that time that the Peace Corps would offer me a volunteer posting in Guinea, which was an opportunity the recruiters discussed with me at the school, and that even though I would begin my Peace Corps stint as a trainee for Guinea I would never make it to Guinea and would eventually end up in the Congo.

In the fall of 1970, I received an offer from the Peace Corps for the Guinea program and I was being recruited because of my mechanical engineering background. All of the volunteers in Guinea were assigned to the Conakry Bus Company and about half of them worked in the maintenance department making sure the busses kept running. The Guinea program was unique because prospective volunteers spent four months in Geneva Switzerland, at the ORT School (Organization for Rehabilitation through Training), to receive specialized training in both bus mechanics and the French language in preparation for the assignment in Guinea. The ORT School was known worldwide for its training programs for students from sub-Saharan Africa and the Mahgreb. Needless to say, it did not take me long to respond positively to this offer and once the Peace Corps confirmed my acceptance I resigned from my job, moved back to my parent’s place in Williamstown, MA and got ready to head off to parts unknown.

By the end of January 1971 all was in place and my initial destination was Philadelphia as our group was to meet up there for some initial indoctrination and for medical check-ups and vaccinations. I don’t remember much about this phase of the process but I do remember lining up for our vaccinations and one of the trainees fainted in the line before he even got jabbed. The nurses reacted by quickly rushing over to him and giving him the jabs while he was down. After a couple of days, we were ready to go so we took off from Philadelphia, headed to JFK airport in New York and then boarded a PanAm Boeing 707 for the flight to Geneva. We took off the evening of February 9th and landed in Geneva on the morning of the 10th of February 1971 as can be seen from my visa entry stamp at the right.

Our training program got off to an uneventful start and all was going well until, at about two months in, our Training Program Director called us together to share some news with us. It seems that there had been an attempted coup in Guinea and the President, Sekou Toure, decided to kick the Peace Corps out of the country (for the third time) for good measure. As a result, we were informed that we would not be going to Guinea and that we had two choices to continue with the Peace Corps. We could stick it out in Geneva and complete the training as planned and then we would be sent to the program in the Congo where they were starting up a big program with the Office des Routes in collaboration with USAID and the World Bank. The other alternative was to leave the program, return to the states and wait for an offer for another program. About half of us decided to stick it out in Geneva (it was a tough assignment, but somebody had to do it!) and head to Kinshasa in mid-June at the end of the training program.

So that is how I got started with the Peace Corps and how I ended up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (which later became the Republic of Zaire), after almost heading to Guinea along the way. As with many volunteers I spent more than two years away from home arriving back in New York on the 21st of August 1973. Here is a clip of the photo page from my passport at the time showing my arrival stamp at JFK.


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