Barbara Colson was a freshman in college when she first heard of the Peace Corps.
It was 1966, and another girl in her dorm had just received a phone call and found out she had been accepted.
“I had no idea what she was talking about, so I decided to learn more about it,” the retired Dade City teacher said. “I thought it sounded good, like something I wanted to do, but life got in the way.”
And it was a lot of life. Colson would raise her family, excel in her career with the Hillsborough County school system, and travel when she could. It wasn’t until she turned 59, after her retirement, that Colson finally applied for the Peace Corps.
“This was something I always wanted to do, and I was finally doing it,” Colson said.
She was one of thousands of people vying for just 8,000 slots that are available each year in the Peace Corps, but Colson’s education background and community service made her a perfect fit to teach English as a second language. She found out quickly that her home for the next two years would be Armenia, a former Soviet Union republic that was still struggling to get back on its feet.
“They loved the Russians,” Colson said. “Back then, everybody worked, and everybody had a house. But then the Russians just packed up everything and left, and they left these countries without the resources to continue.”
Factories closed and jobs dried up. Many Armenians now look for a better life in Russia, or even the United States. That has refocused attention on education, working to help the country become more self-sufficient, and more involved in worldwide economics.
“Many of them follow learning methods originally written by the Russians,” Colson said. “We started a Girl Scout group there, and one of the things we realized was that no one there knew how to brainstorm. That was a skill we had to teach them.”
That is what helps make the Peace Corps necessary in countries like Armenia, said Alethea Parker, public affairs specialist for Peace Corps in Atlanta.
“It’s is a large commitment to be away from your family and friends for two years,” she said. “But from our perspective, it’s very rewarding and impactful … and it is important work.”
The only requirements to become a Peace Corps volunteer is being at least 18 years old, and a U.S. citizen. But getting selected, that is a much more daunting process.
“Our application process is quite competitive,” Parker said. “Most of our programs do require at least a bachelor’s degree, and we are typically looking at several years of full-time professional work experience.”
Yet, being a Peace Corps volunteer has its advantages beyond just helping out overseas. Medical expenses are covered at 100 percent, and a decent stipend is offered to cover day-to-day living expenses.
Colson lived in Kapan, a small city of just 45,000 people in southern Armenia. That worked out great for Colson, who struggled to learn Armenian. Unlike more rural areas, the cities in Armenia tend to have a more international feel.
“A lot of people speak English as it’s an international language,” she said. “They want to be a part of the world, and to get along in the world. And they’re working hard to achieve those goals.”
Even if Colson was in a bind, where she couldn’t just point to something on a store shelf she wanted, it seemed there was always someone willing to help. It’s the kind of neighborly actions she wishes existed more back home.
“The things that Americans get upset about, it’s beyond me,” Colson said. “Try really being in survivor mode, and you’ll find out there’s a lot more we can do for our own people back home, too.”
The Peace Corps currently has 36 volunteers from the Tampa Bay area serving overseas, and have joined more than 850 volunteers from the region who have participated since President John F. Kennedy founded the program in 1961.
Right now, however, the Peace Corps needs 1,000 volunteers, and are recruiting. Details can be found online at www.PeaceCorps.gov.