Questions about the Peace Corps

Recently, I received a questionnaire from Susquehanna University, my alma mater, asking about my Peace Corps service.  I thought my responses lent themselves to a blog post.  I elaborate on the "right" time to serve, my living conditions, work placement and  what I found most challenging as a volunteer.  Overall, I highly recommend Peace Corps.  It exceeded my expections and I treasure the experience.  I also posted some pictures.

Peace Corps Volunteer Survey

Name & Class Year

Ted Bongiovanni, 1992

Current Occupation

Associate Director, Production – Columbia Center for New Media Teaching and Learning, Columbia University

Q) When did you serve in the Peace Corps?  How old were you at the time?  Why did you feel this was the ‘right’ time for you to serve?

A) I served from 1995 to 1997–though I had initially applied to be a volunteer in 1992 just as I was graduating.  I was a little late in the application process, which took about a year to complete–by the time the Peace Corps got around to offering me a slot, I had found a job working as a legislative aide to Sam Coppersmith, a Democratic Congressman from Arizona.  I asked them to defer my application for a year–which they did.  I used this time to take on volunteer opportunities that would give me teaching experience–literacy and English as a Second Language training.  In 1994, when our election prospects were less than rosy, I called Peace Corps back and asked if I could reactivate my application.  After some negotiation and updating, they re-instated my application and within a month I was invited to become a volunteer.

Q)  Where did you serve? 

A)  Lithuania

Q) Please describe your living conditions.

A)  Varied.  We began initial orientation at a place called Bulduri, just outside of Riga, Latvia at their equivalent of a vocational school.  We slept 4 to a room on creaky beds with thin mattresses.  There was no hot water and about 1/2 of us didn’t have our luggage.  In a few days we moved onto our host countries and were placed with families.  I lived at the end of the number 11 trolley bus line in a planned community called Pasilaiciai–imagine about 50 gray monolithic 12 story towers, add a squat white boxy school house and a grey box shopping center and you’ve got a pretty good picture.  While the exteriors were bleak, my host’s apartment was lavishly decorated–pretty small, two rooms–a living room with a pullout (mine for the summer) and my host mom Daina’s bedroom which she shared with her daughter, Ugne.  At the end of the summer, we moved to our sites–where we’d be for the next 2 years. 

Again, for the first 3 months we would live with a host family and then we would get our own places.  I was placed in Rietavas, a town of about 5,000 with a white spire church in the town square.  My family lived near the center of town in a two-story house on the edge of large pond where people would fish in the summer or ice-skate in the winter.  My host family occupied the first floor and I was told I’d have the upper floor.  I had to ask a couple times if they meant a room on the upper floor and my hosts just kept saying "no, upstairs."  It had a breakfast nook, shower (and ample hot water), bedroom, living room, kitchen and satellite television. 

But these material comforts were only part of the picture.  I was placed with the Lithuanian equivalent of the Cleavers.  I became part of their family.  Vytautas, Aldona and Lauris taught me Lithuanian, fed me, and generally took care of me for my two year stay. 

The town itself was one of the smaller sites–people wondered why on earth I’d come there.  It was sort of like living in a fishbowl–everyone knew who I was.  Shopkeepers would greet me by name and ask me if I were married, sad, or lonely.   And my favorite "can’t you get a job in America?" 

Q) Please describe your work placement

In Peace Corps lingo, my "primary assignment" was teaching English to grades 8 to 12 at a Secondary School.  I was assigned a Lithuanian co-teacher who would help me with students and organizing my classes.  We taught four days per week–the fifth day was left for "outreach" on other projects.  My students were demure, kids who were both amused and intimidated by their new teacher who spoke little Lithuanian and insisted that they use English in the classroom.  I persisted in this tactic until my second year when I became more confident in my teaching and Lithuanian language abilities where I would sometimes use Lithuanian in class.

In Lithuania, there are three professions that confer instant respect:  doctor, priest and teacher.  The school itself was a bit run down, but my colleagues were passionate about teaching.  There were many after-school activities and they were curious about alternative approaches to teaching.  The environment was fairly social–in Lithuania there’s always time for coffee, tea or champagne and inevitibly, something to toast–a birthday, name-day or holiday of some sort.  It was both more laid back and more intense than my own high school experience.  The kids took 12 subjects including calculus, geography and usually two languages.  There were national exams to prepare for which caused a great deal of stress for teachers and students.  What we would call cheating was pretty common–a feature of a culture that’s more about the group than the individual.

I had other work that I did–outreach activities at the town’s vocational school on Fridays, creating a textbook called  "Essential English" to help 12 grade students and teachers prepare for the national english exam.   I also worked with a group of teachers and townspeople to help open a youth center.

Q) What did you find to be the biggest challenge of your service?

A) Returning to the US after 2 years.  I have 2 years of references that seemed difficult to translate and my friends and family had 2 years of references that seemed very foreign to me.  I felt a bit like an imposter when I got "home" and felt very uncomfortable in my own skin. 

On a professional level, preparing for school every day was a prodigious amount of work–I felt like I spent the first year figuring out how to teach and put resources together.  The second year got easier–but was still challenging.  Opening up the youth center made me realize just how hard it was to start something up for scratch, delegate, track finances and meet grant reporting requirements. I also started to learn that you have to get comfortable asking for help to meet goals.

Q)  What do you consider to be your biggest accomplishment? 

A) I made friends that I have to this day.  I think I succeeded in immersing myself in the culture and its language. 

Q) Would you recommend the Peace Corps to a recent college grad?

A) Absolutely.  I think it was one of the most worthy things that I’ve had the privilege of doing and am still grateful for the opportunity and experience. 

2 thoughts on “Questions about the Peace Corps

  1. Ted

    Why don’t you tell us what you are doing now and how the Peace Corp experience has affected it? There is also some interest in what activities you would like to pursue going forward.

  2. Renata

    Ted, thanks for sharing these responses about your experience in Peace Corps. Being one of these students in Rietavas (Lithuania) that you taught, it’s really great to look back at these days and see it from your point of view. And I’m happy to repeat that you left a great impact in many people’s life in this little town where everyone knew you. Thanks:)


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