Date: February 1st, 2008
Helen Raffel, 80, and Marianne Prichard, 62, are a part of a growing number of Americans who are dedicating their retirement years to the Peace Corps—an organization that sends volunteers around the world to assist with issues ranging from AIDS education to environmental protection. With only 6% of its volunteers age 50 and older, the Peace Corps recently launched a campaign to recruit older Americans. 1
Although Raffel didn’t join the Peace Corps until she was 70, her love of travel and curiosity of the world’s problems began at an early age. The Depression forced her father—a factory worker without a college degree—to constantly move the family in search of employment. While most kids would groan at the thought of moving to a new place and making new friends, Raffel and her mother saw it as an opportunity to learn. She enrolled in free experimental schools as they moved, eventually receiving an undergraduate degree in chemistry.
After earning doctorates in chemistry and economics, Raffel taught in Indonesia and at the University of Pennsylvania, worked with the Commerce Department during Détente, and spent nearly 10 years as an investment banker on Wall Street. Even her age and a staph infection that led to the discovery of a brain tumor in 1991, didn’t stop her passion to learn; Raffel earned a degree from Columbia Law School when she was in her 60s.
Raffel joined the Peace Corps after spending several years teaching English in China. She wanted to visit the middle portion of the Silk Road, but in order to obtain a Visa to the area she would have had to join a tourist group. Raffel pushed aside the idea of becoming a part of a “stifling tourist group” when she learned that the Peace Corps was recruiting for Central Asia.
Her first Peace Corps stint sent her to Uzbekistan as a business education and development volunteer. After two years in Uzbekistan, she returned to China in 2000 where she taught environmental education at Sichuan University. Following her service in China, and a short period in Morocco, Raffel volunteered in Ukraine from 2003 to 2005.
Raffel developed close bonds with many of her fellow volunteers, including Prichard whom she met in China. Prichard didn’t join the Peace Corps until 1998, but she had been teaching overseas for twenty years in such places as Korea, Singapore, and Guam. Despite her previous experience abroad, she was “a little concerned about moving to China” and apprehensive about the medical care the Peace Corps would provide. However, she recounts that the Peace Corps took good care of not only her physical health, but also her mental health during her two years of service.
Learning a new language was another issue for Prichard. She says she learned enough to “just get by” since she was expected to speak only a minimal amount of Chinese to her students—future English teachers who barely spoke English when the class began. For Raffel, who already spoke several foreign languages, immersion made the learning process easier.
While Raffel doesn’t think age affects the Peace Corps experience, Prichard feels that older adults have developed perspectives through the years that recent college graduates haven’t. Younger adults would often see an obstacle and move onto something different, whereas older volunteers would try to overcome it, she recalls. “Inside every older person is a young person,” counters Raffel, who admits that she had to adapt to the customs of her host families, such as fasting during Ramadan. Life with local families was difficult at times, but she says that it was the most rewarding part of an eye-opening experience.
Prichard found that working with her students was the most gratifying aspect. Although she says she doesn’t know if she will return to the Peace Corps, she continues to teach overseas. Since 2002, she has taught in Vietnam and Eritrea, Africa, and is about to return to China. Prichard stresses that if an older American doesn’t want to make a long term time commitment to working or volunteering overseas, volunteering for even a short time is a good way to stimulate one’s mind.
Retired from the Peace Corps in 2005 due to back pain, Raffel now lives in Washington, D.C., where she walks everywhere and continues to stay educated by attending lectures and foreign films at nearby universities. Raffel, who decided as a teenager that she would aim to live to be 120 years old, pays close attention to her physical as well as mental health. She gave up red meat more than 20 years ago and eats a hearty breakfast of salad with cooked vegetables and beans topped with cottage cheese and olive oil. “Don’t be afraid to get things done; just do what the doctor tells you,” advises Raffel.
Prichard agrees that aging should not get in the way of living. “In terms of successful aging, you want to keep your mind alive and open to new experiences and doing new things.”
For more information about joining the Peace Corps, visit www.peacecorps.gov or call (800) 424-8580 to get in touch with the nearest recruitment office.
1 Peace Corps, Peace Corps Celebrates Older Americans Month, 2008.