A lasting effect
How serving in the Peace Corps continues to affect UR professors decades later
October 24, 2011
The Peace Corps celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, giving its volunteers at the University of Richmond an opportunity to reflect on how their service affected their lives.
Not only have many graduates of UR gone on to serve in the Peace Corps—more than 135 in the last 50 years, according to Benjamin Burns, Peace Corps regional recruiter for UR—but Richmond’s faculty is made up of several returned Peace Corps volunteers as well. English professor Ray Hilliard, physics instructor Henry Nebel and geography professor David Salisbury all served in the program.
Hilliard spent his early 20s in Nigeria and Tunisia teaching French and English in secondary schools. Because the Peace Corps was established while Hilliard was in high school, he said “droves and droves” of people were applying.
“The whole idea was very inspiring for young people at the time,” he said. “I was very young and it had a long-lasting influence on me and my outlook.”
Hilliard always knew he wanted to become an English professor, so although the experience did not have a direct influence on his career path, it expanded his international outlook.
Even today, his literature courses at Richmond tend to feature international authors.
“If you go into the Peace Corps, you’ll come out with a clearer sense of who you are and what you want from life,” he said.
Physics instructor and lab director Henry Nebel didn’t funnel into the Peace Corps directly out of college, but instead after he had begun his academic career in the early ’70s. He applied to the Peace Corps to teach at a university in El Salvador.
Not only was he teaching physics in a foreign place, but he had to learn the language as well.
“All I knew was the present tense and a few words,” he joked. “The first year was a struggle every day, but by the second year I could just go in and talk. I learned a lot more from my students as I was teaching.”
Spanish wasn’t the only thing Nebel learned in El Salvador; his roommate in the Peace Corps was a swim coach and taught him how to swim.
“(The Peace Corps) is not for everybody, but it can be one of the greatest experiences of your life, which it was for me,” he said. “The group of seven students that I worked with most, I kind of felt a bond with them. The feeling that we’re all in this together.”
For David Salisbury, who specializes in human environment geography at Richmond, his experience volunteering in Guatemala in the early-mid ’90s had a defined effect on his career and research.
Salisbury served as a rural youth educator, creating agricultural boys’ clubs. He led organic gardening and reforestation projects with no prior experience, but today studies the reconciliation of conservation and development in Latin America.
“It had a profound impact,” he said. “I saw a part of the world that I had not seen before. I lived with and had friendships with poor, rural peoples whose situation was very different from mine. Interestingly enough, now I do research in the Amazon with poor rural peoples whose situation is different from mine.”
In addition to working with the agricultural clubs, Salisbury also coached basketball, helped establish the town’s semi-pro soccer team and illustrated a cookbook for illiterate women.
“The Peace Corps is about giving,” he said, “but ultimately the one who receives the most is the volunteer.”
Faculty aren’t the only source of Peace Corps veterans on campus. The women’s swim team head coach, Matt Barany, is a returned volunteer, as well as Chris Klein, associate director of study abroad, and Carl Sorensen, associate vice president of human resource services.
The Bonner Center for Civic Engagement, the Career Development Center, the Office of International Education, the Department of History, the School of Arts & Sciences and UR Museums together are hosting an event Oct. 26 to commemorate the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary. A panel will explore the history of the program and its role in the world today.
Pictured above: David Salisbury with a group of men in Guatemala.