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Technology Changes Peace Corps Experience

Cell phones and Internet transform how volunteers do their work and stay in touch

Technology helps Peace Corps volunteer Sonia Morhange, seen here in Rwanda, stay in touch with family and friends back in the United States.
Technology helps Peace Corps volunteer Sonia Morhange, seen here in Rwanda, stay in touch with family and friends back in the United States.

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Zack Baddorf

In the early 1980s, Gordy Mengel served as a Peace Corps volunteer in an isolated community in what was then called Zaire, now Congo.  

"I was placed somewhere in the middle part of the country," says Mengel. "And in the small community where I lived there was no post office, so getting letters out, which was basically the only means of communication, was very challenging.

Letters would take weeks, or months, to arrive.

Hi-tech times

But now, thanks to technology, that is no longer the case. Computers, cells phones and the Internet have changed the way Peace Corps volunteers do their work and stay in touch.

Now a Peace Corps Programming and Training Officer in Rwanda, Mengel says improved communication technology has changed how people serve in the Peace Corps.

Back when he was a volunteer, he lost track of friends and family back in the United States so he had no choice but to integrate into the community.

"These days, with the advent of the internet and cell phone service and so forth, I still see volunteers having some of that experience but again, when they go back to their homes, instead of turning out the kerosene light and going to bed," says Mengel, "they can get on Skype and they give a quick call to mom and dad back at home. And that part of the experience has changed."

Peace Corps volunteers like Sonia Morhange, seen here in Rwanda, can exchange project information and success stories quickly over the phone and the Web.
Peace Corps volunteers like Sonia Morhange, seen here in Rwanda, can exchange project information and success stories quickly over the phone and the Web.

Staying in touch

Sonia Morhange is one of about 100 Peace Corps volunteers now serving in Rwanda. The San Diego native works at an organization in Kigali called Never Again Rwanda, organizing plays about the country's 1994 genocide that left 800,000 dead.  

She catches up with friends in California over Skype, talks on the phone with her mom and emails her dad. She hasn't mailed a single letter through the postal system and can't imagine waiting months for one to arrive.  

"I know, I can't believe it. I can't imagine having been a Peace Corps volunteer in the 70s or the 80s or even the early 90s," says Sonia Morhange. "I'm just so used to everyone having a cell phone that works internationally. I'm very, very lucky in the fact that where I live I have wireless internet and that makes it a lot easier."

This week, Sonia's parents visited her in Rwanda. Her mother, Beverly, is proud Sonia joined the Peace Corps but worries about her daughter's health and safety. But she's been able to keep tabs on her daughter since they talk regularly by phone. Like Sonia, Beverly thinks waiting for letters would be too slow.

"That would be horrible, torture," says Beverly. "I'm very close to her and it would be very difficult."

John Reddy, Peace Corps Rwanda country director, says connectivity provides volunteers with a support system that wasn't available in the past.
John Reddy, Peace Corps Rwanda country director, says connectivity provides volunteers with a support system that wasn't available in the past.

Helping hand

Communication technology in the 21st century has done more than provide an easy way to call home.

Peace Corps Rwanda country director John Reddy was a volunteer in 1967 in the tiny, land-locked African nation of Lesotho. Since then, he's spent nearly a quarter of a century working for the Peace Corps in Africa.

He says easy access to the Internet allows today's Peace Corps volunteers to research subjects that can help their communities, from online teaching resources to information on gardening, irrigation and construction.

Volunteers also exchange project information and success stories quickly over the phone and the Web. And, they can get donations for their projects online from around the world through the Peace Corps Partnership Program.

Support system

But still, 24-year-old Sonia Morhange says it's nice to know that her friends and family are always just a phone call or a few clicks away.  

"Peace Corps is full of ups and downs and I mean you're thrown into an environment that you're not familiar with. You're out of your element. No matter what, you're going to have breakdowns and moments of...just moments where you need help and you need support."

John Reddy agrees that the added connectivity provides volunteers with a support system that wasn't available in the early days of the Peace Corps. For the volunteers, he says, it's helpful.  

"It's not always helpful to Peace Corps staff," says Reddy. "If a volunteer is telling their family they're having a bad day or a bad week, and then the family member calls Peace Corps Washington and Peace Corps Washington calls me and I have to find the volunteer and see what the problem was."

Reddy says Peace Corps staff used to have more independence and admits he sometimes longs for the days before the internet and good phone service.

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