Service begets service: the beginning of legacy volunteers

May 08, 2009
John E. Paul, PhD
Clinical associate professor, health policy and management
Peace Corps volunteer, Nepal, 1969-1971

The only thing John Paul might like as much as talking about his experience in the Peace Corps is talking about his son’s experience in the Peace Corps.

How does such a family tradition evolve?

“My parents were well-traveled,” Paul says, “and as a child, I developed a global awareness early on. That’s one of the things that led me to the Peace Corps. And because I was always talking about Peace Corps experiences, our son came by the idea honestly. He and his wife applied to the Peace Corps more than two years ago and are serving in Mauritania now.”

In fact, his three children are all well-traveled, having sought out international experiences in Mali, New Zealand and many other countries.

Paul sees the same legacy of service in his daughter-in-law’s family. Her parents weren’t in the Peace Corps as she is, but they are highly involved in local community service and committed to social causes.

“I like the current resurgence — or maybe it’s a quiet continuation — of interest in global affairs and service,” Paul says. “It requires you to have openness and curiosity about what happens outside your comfort zone, and that makes you a more interesting, valuable and contributing world citizen.”

A chemistry major as an undergraduate, Paul admits that the Peace Corps was attractive for two reasons: it would give him something to do until he figured out what he wanted to do with his Cornell education, and it would allow him to spend time in a country other than Vietnam, which was not a great place to visit in 1969 as a potential Army draftee.

John Paul, PhD, in 2008

John Paul, PhD, in 2008

So he applied to the Peace Corps with a sense of freedom and adventure. “It was great,” he says. “I had the ability to completely redefine myself; I didn’t have to conform to my peer group’s expectations. Everything I did was going to be strange to the people in rural Nepal, so I was able to reinvent who I was, and no one knew the difference.”

Now, the Peace Corps’ three-month training period all takes place in the host country so that volunteers are quickly integrated into the culture and have the maximum time to experience their surroundings before being on their own. In the late ’60s, however, volunteers spent two of the three months training in the U.S. Twenty-two people began the training in Paul’s group, but fewer than14 stayed the full two years in Nepal.

“My job was in rural development, designing and building small engineering projects,” Paul says. “It was difficult to recruit volunteers who were seriously interested in engineering. A well-trained engineer couldn’t or wouldn’t build a bridge, for example, because the “proper” tools or technologies weren’t available. A volunteer I knew who was a religion major was one of the most successful in this area. He knew how to interact with people. He was resourceful and flexible, and he creatively used the materials that were available.”

Paul recalls his own frustration at wanting to “modernize” a school building. The classrooms were small, with low ceilings and tiny windows. He thought raising the roof and enlarging the windows and the size of the room would create a more productive learning environment. It wasn’t long before he realized that the available structural materials would not support the weight of the larger walls and windows.

It was during his time in the Peace Corps that Paul first experienced death, close-up and not so pretty. “I watched people die of cholera at a nearby mission hospital. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a cholera bed,” he ventures, “but let’s just say the bed has an opening to accommodate the relentless diarrhea brought on by the disease. It’s a truly horrific thing to watch.

“That experience and so many others — both of horror and mostly, of unbelievable goodness and generosity – made the Peace Corps the most formative experience of my life, much more so than college. It continues to inform what I do today as a teacher and as a human being.”

To learn more about Tansen, the town in western Nepal where John Paul was stationed, visit Lonely Planet’s Tansen listing online.

View Peace Corps photographs on Flickr.
See other videos about the Peace Corps / public health connection at YouTube.

Join our Peace Corps discussion on LinkedIn.


Carolina Public Health is a publication of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health. To view previous issues, please visit