Keep the peace

Desk-image.jpgIn February the Peace Corps ranked the University of Chicago among its top ten medium-sized schools, with 30 Chicago graduates currently serving abroad. For Will Cohen, AB'08, who has spent the past 19 months working in a small town outside of Maputo, Mozambique, it's the U of C education that enables graduates to contribute in a meaningful way.

Cohen points to the Peace Corps' three goals: help the people of interested countries meet a need for trained men and women, promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served, and promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

"If...the Peace Corps wants to send people abroad who can work on all three goals, and not just the first, then a liberal Chicago education fits perfectly," Cohen says. "This is someone who could be a good though not flawless English teacher or community organizer or agricultural development worker. But it is also someone who is perceptive and tries to figure out why a different culture is the way it is, and who looks for a way to make a small, sustainable, but also meaningful improvement in his or her community."

Still, Cohen says, classroom studies of international development could only bring him so far in preparation for the Peace Corps.

"I knew that teaching in this environment would be challenging and I tried to prepare myself ahead of time, but that preparation didn't and couldn't actually make the difficulties less difficult," he says. "There's knowing and then there's knowing, and that second kind of knowing is what I learn every day here."

Cohen has had to come to grips with that second kind of knowing as he has worked to set up a computer lab at his school—he teaches eighth, ninth, and tenth grades—and help spread computer literacy. The project started with the donation of a dozen brand new desktop computers, but Cohen found he couldn’t jump right into the functional lessons, such as using computers for e-mail and, for teachers, school-based processes like grading and class-scheduling.

“Every time I’m working with a teacher trying to teach a certain concept on the computer, I realize for how much of my life I’ve been using computers and technology, and just how integrated the whole process has been in my daily routine up until now,” he says. “It’s not enough to teach my coworkers how to use computers to aid their daily work. I need to show them in the first place that that is what computers were invented to do, and that they are not just fancy typewriters or symbols of conspicuous consumption.”

Cultural differences don’t always mean challenges, though; in fact, a Mozambican version of “Old MacDonald” provided Cohen with one of his favorite memories of his stay. He was teaching animal names one day in class—important words, he thought, to go along with some of the students’ other classes and agricultural work at school—and he decided to use the nursery rhyme to help with the lesson.

“It took a while to get the words right, but once we had the pattern down and were going through the song animal by animal, the students started to improvise. You know that style of rhythmic African choral or gospel a capella music, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and ‘Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes’ and all that? They started changing their singing to fit that style, and soon the students in the back were whooping and boys were chanting and the girls were clapping,” he writes. “I don’t actually think that the students learned the names of animals any better that way, but it’s the best version of a nursery rhyme I’ve ever heard. As a single event it managed to join two normally separate worlds in a way that while surprising seemed to make sense.”

Jake Grubman, ’11

May 5, 2010