Serving the world - HHS grad shares Peace Corps experienceZachary Haugen graduated from Hudson High School in 2002 and from the University of Minnesota in 2006. In his senior year at the U, he applied to the Peace Corps.
By: Margaret Ontl, Hudson Star-Observer
Zachary Haugen graduated from Hudson High School in 2002 and from the University of Minnesota in 2006.
“I was interested in doing a service-oriented project before looking for a job or continuing school,” said Haugen. So it was that in his senior year at the U, he applied to the Peace Corps.
It was not until his final semester, which he spent at sea with 650 other students visiting 11 countries, that he knew for sure what his course would be.
It was while he was visiting law schools in Washington that his path crossed with a group of returning Peace Corps volunteers. Shortly after, he started the nine- to 12-month application process; the Peace Corps has 8,000 volunteers serving in 70 countries worldwide.
In July 2006, Haugen received his invitation to become a Peace Corps volunteer in Kyrgyzstan, one of the many countries that resulted from the break-up of the Soviet Union. It is a relatively small, land-locked central Asian country that shares its borders with China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. It is slightly smaller than South Dakota, with a population of 5 million.
Haugen spent the first two and a half months in country with his fellow volunteers undergoing intensive training, in a village of 4,000 just outside of Bishkek, the country’s capital. Seven days a week: four days on language training, one day on techniques and three days on safety, security and health. After the volunteers completed the training, they were sworn in and their two-year commitment began.
“They want you to be able to go wherever they send you,” said Haugen, who said you can turn down the invitation if it is to a country you don’t want, but you may never get another invitation.
Haugen’s destination was the village of Jarkymbaev, the northeast corner of the country, on the shores of the second largest alpine lake in the world, with a population 2,000. There he was to be one of the first Peace Corps volunteers to serve the area.
“I stayed with a host family,” said Haugen. “It was one of the most rewarding parts of the experience.”
The family lived in a four-room home with no running water. The mom was a physics teacher, dad a farmer. They had four sons, two of whom still lived at home.
“My job was at the village school, which included first through 11th grades,” said Haugen, who was to teach English to grades 5-11. Normally, the PC volunteers are paired with a local teacher, but on his arrival Haugen’s teacher announced she was taking a two-year maternity leave. That development did not deter Haugen from his mission.
“I created my own material, lesson plans and work sheets,” said Haugen, who taught 20 to 24 hours of formal classes a week, conducted English clubs and held after-school “office” hours to help students. He was one of 25 teachers at the school of 350 students.
“At first I was a novelty,” said Haugen. “Once they got to know me, they just considered me a part of the village and by the time I left they all knew me. I felt safer being a part of a small community.”
Haugen not only taught English but wrote grants as well. The school directors (equivalent to our principals) may request the volunteers write grants if they see a specific need.
The first grant Haugen wrote through the Peace Corps Partnership program was funded almost immediately. The $3,000 grant awarded in the summer of 2007 meant that Haugen could transform his classroom and leave the school with a resource center and a reminder that the Peace Corps also leaves behind tools.
It allowed Haugen to purchase all new furniture for his classroom, a chalkboard, computer, printer, dictionaries, new learning materials and posters. He also contacted Gov. Jim Doyle, who had also been a PC volunteer. Doyle sent him a state and federal flag that had flown over the state capital, which were hung on his classroom wall. The project was complete in October 2007.
The second request was a matching grant (the village was required to contribute), which Haugen received through USAID. It basically gave the school a new kitchen and nutrition plan. The school provides food for students from first through fourth grades.
Haugen admits the winters were bleak and he survived by reading, swapping DVDs with fellow volunteers and villagers and having long after-dinner conversations with his host mother. Once a week he traveled to a larger town to conduct his banking and have access to the Internet.
“Over there you can just stick out your arm and you will get picked up,” said Haugen. “It is not like hitch hiking because they expect you to pay, and fees are set based on the distance you travel.” He admits that traveling by bus was a bit challenging.
“One time I shared my seat with a dead goat,” said Haugen, who found using the mini-buses a bit more desirable. During the summers, he and fellow volunteers conducted youth camps throughout the country. His commitment ended in August 2008, after which he traveled for six weeks through Turkey and the Balkan states before returning to Hudson.
“I am not sure how much my primary assignment (teaching English) will affect them,” said Haugen. “Probably the biggest thing in the Peace Corps is the cultural exchange. It is huge for both the hosts and the volunteers.”
Out of the 100 invitees that went to training, 60 took their commitments and only 30 completed their service.
“It can be pretty bleak and depressing,” said Haugen, who admits his classroom was rarely above 40 degrees. “They have no indoor gym for activities and the electricity is rationed.”
All in all, Haugen doesn’t regret his decision to serve first and continue school later.
“I’m not sure I would do it again,” said Haugen. “But I am definitely happy I did it for two years.”
He plans to attend law school and specialize in international human rights.