They ferried the empty coffin upriver by motorized canoe. As the engine sputtered to a standstill, former cadet Jeff “JT” Shupe ’89 and his Fijian companions got out, lifted the coffin, and began the long hike in the dense rainforest. Through fields, up a mountain, and through more fields, time dripped like water off the leaves.
At last the village appeared.
Mourners from miles around had gathered to pay their respects. They sat cross-legged on woven mats as the most respected elders began to pass the yagona—a traditional South Pacific ceremonial drink, muddy and grey in its coconut shell bowl.
Story after story poured forth as the bowl passed from hand to hand. Chants and cheers erupted as guests presented gifts to the family. Hundreds of rolled woven mats appeared and multiple gifts of whale’s teeth were bestowed—the highest honor in Fijian culture.
As Shupe took in the scene, a burning question was building. More than four hours into the ceremony, he turned to a companion and asked, “Where is the body?”
“He’s over there,” the man pointed.
In a corner, rolled up in a mat like all the others, lay the deceased.
Then, as it had many times since Shupe began his Peace Corps service in the South Pacific, a Talking Heads song began to replay itself in his head … “You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack. You may find yourself in another part of the world. You may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile. You may find yourself in a beautiful house with a beautiful wife. You may ask yourself, how did I get here?”
The answer, for Shupe, was Norwich’s Peace Corps Preparatory Program (PCPP).
A light bulb goes off
“There are two ways to prevent war,” former Norwich President W. Russell Todd ’50 said, as he announced the school’s new Peace Corps Preparatory Program in September of 1987. “One is to make friends, and the other is to be so strong that nobody wants to attack you. I see the Peace Corps program as being the first.”
As the oldest private military college in the country and the first university in the nation to offer Peace Corps service training, the announcement made headlines. Indeed, the perceived irony of a military school intent on training “a few good men and women … to wage peace,” as Maura Griffin would write in the Montpelier Times Argus, was big news.
Todd had been wracking his brain for a way to deliver a meaningful service experience to the students at Vermont College, which Norwich had acquired in 1972, when his wife, Carol, happened upon an idea.
While at a conference for volunteer administrators, she attended a lecture by former Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh. During his talk, Hesburgh called for the creation of an “ROTC-like” program for students who wanted to serve by being in the Peace Corps rather than the military.
In that moment, Mrs. Todd had an epiphany. She immediately called her husband and pitched the idea.
The president responded enthusiastically.
“That’s exactly what we’ve been talking about, isn’t it?” he told her right then and there. “A leadership experience outside the Corps that can lead to service for our students, non-military service … to the country … to the nation.”
A program is born
JT Shupe wasn’t really thinking about service when he enrolled at Norwich. During high school he admits he “was Michael J. Fox from ‘Family Ties.’” He had grand plans for his life. They began with becoming a military pilot and, using that as a stepping stone, he planned to grow an international real estate empire and eventually begin a consulting business.
While at Norwich though, his life took an abrupt turn. The military was making cutbacks and his dream to become a pilot was cut short. At the same time, he found Christ.
“The Lord took my vision and my plan and said, ‘I have another idea for your life.’”
When the Peace Corps Preparatory Program was created during his junior year, Shupe was one of the first to sign up. Two years later he became the first to finish the program and go on to serve in Fiji.
Today he is Rev. JT Shupe, an associate pastor at Bethany Covenant Church in Bedford, N.H.
Led by Carol Todd, the program was initially financed by a grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education. Its two-year curriculum—designed by former Peace Corps volunteer Tom Taylor (now Dean of Social Sciences) who had served in Ethiopia—prepared students for service in develop ing nations. Taught by former Peace Corps volunteers, it combined classes on world communities, conflict resolution, leadership for change, and development skill with required community service.
In 1990, program director Mitch Hall was hired. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Togo, Hall brought a broad world view and big personality to the program.
In the 10 years of Hall’s tenure, the program averaged 55 students a semester. While only a couple dozen graduates of the program ended up with actual Peace Corps assignments, all of them became involved in community service, and several of the outreach programs created during that time, such as the Youth Mentoring Program in Northfield, still exist today.
In only its fifth year of existence, Norwich’s PCPP was nationally recognized as a model program and honored by Peace Corps Washington, D.C., with a memorandum of cooperation. “All of us here at the Peace Corps,” said Director Elaine Chao, “are quite excited and proud to be joining hands with your university to ensure that our country’s youth are trained as peace makers as well as peace keepers.”
Now celebrating its 51st year, the Peace Corps has had its fair share of NU students and faculty among the more than 200,000 Americans who have served—among them, Professor Taylor’s daughter Amelia ’06, who left for Moldova in 2010.
“I think [the program] attracted different types of people who questioned things and didn’t fit the mold,” says Hall. They were “really bright students” who “wanted to learn about the world.”
Driven to serve
Though students signed onto the PCPP for a wide variety of reasons, one thing they all shared, Hall believes, was the “call of service.”
Mike [Yush] Matarasso ’94 was one of those who answered the call. He wasn’t a stellar high school student, but he had a drive to join the military with the intention of joining Special Operations.
“When I entered university I felt that as a soldier you will go out and help protect people who don’t have any means to defend themselves,” says Matarasso, “but then while I was [at Norwich] I realized you don’t really have a choice of why you enter a conflict, where you go, and whom you protect. You are just an employee of the government and you have to go where they send you […] luckily, I met Mitch, who introduced me to another way to serve.”
While enrolled in the PCPP, Matarasso did a summer service project with the Lakota Sioux and lived with the tribal shaman in the Black Hills.
After graduating from Norwich, Matarasso earned an M.A. at the University of Connecticut in conservation and economic development, did field work in Latin America, and eventually served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi. That experience led to a job for the World Wildlife Fund in Indochina, and finally film school in the Czech Republic. During that time, he learned to speak six languages and wrote a book.
Currently he is responsible for setting up systems to evaluate the impact of $500 million worth of development projects in six African countries.
What he does now, he says, reflects in many ways his reasons for wanting to be in Special Ops.
“You are basically living from nature in some of the remotest places on earth; you are training people to take care of themselves; you are fitting in with the local people; and you know the culture and speak their language. And the driving force is that you want to help people somehow. It’s just a different way of doing it, but deep down it’s because you have some idealism of wanting to help other people.”
Like Shupe, Tom Niner ’92 also had a plan for his life. From as early as he can remember, he had his heart set on being an airborne ranger. When he was finally old enough, he eagerly enrolled at Norwich. But during his freshman year his dreams were dashed when he flunked the Army physical due to hearing loss.
“My heart was broken,” says Niner. “My lifelong dream was killed.”
He couldn’t be in ROTC but he loved Norwich. Around the same time, Evan Schumann ’88 came back to give a talk about his Peace Corps experience in the Solomon Islands—and Niner decided to go and listen.
Schumann’s two-year service as a math teacher in the South Pacific was “one of the best things I could have done,” he told the assembled Norwich students. “You come out a much better human being. You come out with a much better concept of what goes on around the world.”
He went on to explain that being a Norwich graduate made him a little different than some of the other volunteers, but that he wanted to dispel some of the stereotypes of Peace Corps service. “I don’t want everyone to think that the Peace Corps is all for flower children and hippies,” he told his young audience.
Schumann’s speech inspired Niner, who enrolled in the program soon after. He says it was the single most influential part of his Norwich experience.
“I learned more from those classes that made me a better person than [from] anyone else at the school,” says Niner. “They opened my mind. I realized there is more to this world than me going to work, more than me being an engineering student at Norwich.”
Niner was eventually chosen for a Peace Corps slot in the Ivory Coast and went to Philadelphia for orientation.
“They went around the room and asked, ‘Why did you join the Peace Corps?’ I said, ‘To serve my country.’ At the time I had the same haircut as I had in the Corps [of Cadets] and people looked at each other like, ‘what’s up with this whack job?’”
After two years in West Africa, eating pounded yams, living in a family courtyard, and experiencing moments of bribery and corruption, Niner says he developed a greater respect for the United States and what it means to be an American. Today he works as a project manager for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency: the Department of Defense’s official Combat Support Agency for countering weapons of mass destruction.
Schumann also works to counter destruction, but on the ground, while running a Federal Emergency Management Agency urban search and rescue team.
“Our military training was all about service to others,” says Schumann. “I credit Norwich for teaching [me] that.”
Schumann says his Norwich education provided a natural transition to the Peace Corps.
“[The attributes emphasized in the Corps]—courtesy, honor, character … and an ability to engage with the world in a way that shows you have an appreciation for them—are the same,” he says.
A brave new world
As with Schumann and the others, Michael J. Kim ’90 says his Peace Corps training had a life-changing impact.
After getting his BA from Norwich, he initially used his PCPP training to work for the Volunteer in Service to America (VISTA) program, another option open to graduates which addressed community development challenges within the United States.
Years later, while living a monastic life as a contemplative friar, Kim’s life took an abrupt turn: After September 11, 2001, he felt the need to serve his country in a different way, so he left the religious order and joined the Army as a civil affairs operator.
“I was conflicted over the war in Iraq, but felt morally obligated to serve,” says Kim, “I believed there was a possibility to do good even under difficult circumstances.”
Military service was hardly new to Kim. While at Norwich he was a marine reserves ANGLICO parachutist, and later served as an officer in the Coast Guard. His resume also included a master of arts in religion from Yale, and a post master’s certificate in psychoanalysis and psychotherapy. While waiting for his deployment to begin, he worked at the Department of Veterans Affairs on Long Island as a readjustment counseling therapist for the first wave of veterans returning from Iraq.
When it eventually came time to deploy, Kim chose a shorter service contract over an officer’s commitment, reporting to B/415th Civil Affairs BN (Tactical) as an E-4. He quickly found though, that his diverse background allowed him to do many things a regular specialist might not be tasked with.
Approached by a company commander to take a look at the situation at a nearby village, Kim put his PCPP skills to work. Through his community assessment he met Rawan, a 5-year-old Iraqi girl with a congenital heart condition. What followed was not only a quest for the hearts and minds of the village, but more specifically a campaign to repair a little girl’s life.
Kim spearheaded a drive to find Rawan medical care, and, along the way, he created a roadmap for future healthcare projects that the village could manage on their own.
He credits the PCPP and Norwich for teaching him to think critically and for promoting expansive and creative thinking in a military setting.
“The world is changing, and using a primitive military approach is not the answer anymore,” says Kim.
Kim has found that it doesn’t matter whether he is wearing ankle-length friar’s robes or ACUs, the manner in which he conducts his life is essentially the same.
“I think that when you are looking at your existence beyond yourself and your community to causes outside of your immediate desires, that’s a unique expression of service. I was able to find it both in military life and religious life,” he says.
Indeed, in today’s global conflicts, the modern soldier is called upon to do much more than tote a weapon: they must be able to reach out to communities and build relationships in the same spirit that Peace Corps volunteers have been doing for the past 50 years. Norwich, with its tradition of service and emphasis on cross-cultural fluency, has always understood this.
“If you were to ask people you have studied and worked with, what happens in both Afghanistan and Iraq,” says President Emeritus Todd, “you would find that this understanding of the people and their cultures is probably more important than gunnery practice.”
His wife agrees. With both a nephew and grandson who have served in Iraq, she has seen how this understanding can lead to an improved existence.
“We’ve all often thought,” Mrs. Todd says, “what if president Bush had said, instead of ‘go shopping’ when all these terrible things happened [on September 11], ‘we need to pull ourselves together and see how we can help people live a bit different life.’”
The Peace Corps Prepratory Program was discontinued in 2000 during a period of University belt-tightening. However, its ideals of service and greater cultural awareness continue through programs administered by the Center for Civic Engagement.