African Peace Corps posting
opened eyes of Norwich grad © Sept. 5, 2008 Norwich University Office of Communications

Norwich graduate Ron Holbrook, ’05, presents a goat to friends in the Malawian village where he did his Peace Corps service.

courtesy photo by Mike Pezemmawa Ron Holbrook, '05, presents a gift of goats to friends in the Malawian village where he was stationed during two years of Peace Corps service.

Ron Holbrook, a 2005 graduate of Norwich University, can’t get used to anonymity. For two years his blond hair and blue eyes turned heads and drew crowds everywhere he went. Holbrook was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, Africa, where kids gleefully called out “Chuck Norris!” when he walked down the street.

“I saw things that I thought were only on TV,” said Holbrook, now pursuing a doctoral degree in physical therapy at Franklin Pierce College. “But they weren’t. They were right there, real.”

His experience was sometimes funny—such as when a boy asked, “How can Arnold Schwarzenegger be governor of California? He’s half robot.” Sometimes it was heartbreaking, like seeing hungry children wandering the streets. Holbrook, 25, was not prepared, two weeks after his arrival, to see pieces of a man’s body hit by a 14-wheeler brought to the health clinic where he was stationed. Children dying from HIV/AIDS, or suffering from illnesses such as malaria, polio and tuberculosis, are not easy to forget. Not to mention extreme poverty, malnutrition and lack of clean water.

People need to leave the country, even if it is just to Canada or Mexico.

~ Ron Holbrook,
2005 Norwich graduate

Holbrook described Malawi as “a place where people are living directly off the land and not always succeeding. A change of oil prices or a bad year of weather is a matter of life and death.”

He focused on three projects during his service. Holbrook acted as coordinator for an empowerment camp that hosted girls from all over the country. He organized the effort, chose participants and designed activities. For many girls, it was an eye-opening opportunity, he said.

The next project was to build a well for a small village where almost 600 people got their water from what Holbrook described as a “hole in the ground.” He wasn’t successful at securing funding, but said success is often impossible to determine as a Peace Corps volunteer. Sometimes, the most valuable thing volunteers provide is their presence, a compassionate ear or an idea.

Holbrook’s third effort was to visit homes of lay midwives, the women birthing mothers visit in lieu of a clinic. He identified five midwives near Daimphwe Health Center in the Lilongwe District where he worked. Their supplies were minimal and included simple straw mats for floors where babies would be born. The huts where they worked often didn’t have windows, so lighting was minimal.

Holbrook described his last day in Malawi, when he delivered mattresses, sheets, blankets, sterile gloves, lamps and medical supplies, creating instant celebrations in the birthing houses, as a “classic Peace Corps moment—what you imagine you will be doing when you decide to go.” He was glad he left the country on that note.

Holbrook discovered that travel opened his heart and mind. “People need to leave the country, even if it is just to Canada or Mexico,” he said. “You don’t know what you have or how lucky you are.” He described the experience as difficult, amazing, rewarding, uncomfortable and eye-opening. Living without familiar comforts and witnessing the “poorest of the poor” wasn’t always the first thing he wanted to do in the morning. Now, he misses it.

Holbrook is one of 38 Norwich alumni who have served in the Peace Corps and part of a healthy volunteer ethic at the school, the nation’s oldest private military college and a place he describes as the “perfect breeding ground for the Peace Corps, with their commitment to service and using your life to help others.”

Lewis Greenstein, Norwich professor of history and former Peace Corps volunteer, agrees. He had just graduated from Dartmouth College when he left for Kenya in the late 1960s. When he arrived at a high school where he was assigned to teach, Greenstein was handed a syllabus for African history, something he knew nothing about. Reading one day ahead of students, he fell in love with the subject and went on to earn a doctorate.

“The focus of my professional and personal life for the last 30 or 40 years can be credited to the Peace Corps,” he said. Greenstein went on to work for the Peace Corps in Washington, D.C., and was liaison for a Peace Corps preparatory program at Norwich in the 1980s.

Carol Todd, wife of former Norwich University President Russell Todd, was founder of this preparatory program, active until 1992. “We all have a need to be of use,” she said. “In the United States, we have so much to draw from. I think it is a wonderful growth opportunity.”

According to Nicole DiDomenico, director of the Norwich Office of Volunteer Programs, Norwich students contributed more than 19,000 hours of community service last year. The school partnered with Vermont nonprofits and provided opportunities like alternative spring break and NU VISIONS Abroad, which organizes a three-week trip to a developing nation each year.

“We find that people get back much more than they give in their volunteer experience. We know it has changed the course of some of our students’ lives,” said DiDomenico. “They see the world and their role in it, and what it means to be a citizen of a community; a nation; the world.“