Since serving in Ghana with the Peace Corps years ago, Kate Schachter has become passionate about international volunteer service. She is active in Madison’s Returned Peace Corps Volunteers chapter, and now serves as the UW-Madison Campus Peace Corps Recruiter, where she helps UW students decide if the Peace Corps is right for them. Kate shares her own Peace Corps story here.
Hometown: Monona, WI
What brought you to Madison?
Madison has always been home to me. I’ve tried to leave a few times in my life, and keep bouncing back. Anytime I drive east and return from the Chicago area, I breathe a sigh of “hoooome” when I reach Janesville. There’s something about the land that speaks to me. Now I’ve got grandchildren here, so it will always be home.
Tell us one interesting fact about you:
I have the two-year auto technician degree from MATC, and worked for many years as a mechanic. I still do my own motorcycle maintenance, but prefer to bring my car to a shop for service.
How did you make the decision to join the Peace Corps?
I was 10 years old when President John F. Kennedy gave his first State of the Union address that challenged us: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” I was raised Catholic, so his election was a really big deal in my family. I clearly remember watching him on TV, knowing that’s what I wanted to do someday.
Did you experience culture shock when you first arrived in Ghana? How did you cope?
I don’t think I experienced culture shock as much as geophysical location shock. As a Wisconsin native, the heat and humidity 4° north of the equator were really intense for me. It was like living in a sauna. I started carrying a water bottle (hydrate!) and wearing a bandanna (to wipe the sweat) everywhere. I also had some beautiful vibrant print skirts made locally, always a great option for accessing whatever breeze that existed.
What was your favorite part of the Peace Corps experience? The most difficult part?
HIV/AIDS was endemic in African countries at the time, and still is in many. Offering community education about the problem was almost like a “fourth goal” of Peace Corps. I happened to be a cross-cohort with African Studies’ own Aleia McCord, who (with other members of her own cohort) organized an amazing 5-day HIV/AIDS bicycle ride into the Upper West region of Ghana, deep in dry, arid territories. There were three bicycle groups of around 20-30 each, including Peace Corps Volunteers and Host Country Nationals, followed by Peace Corps vehicles serving “sag wagons” to deliver food for villages to cook up for us after the education sessions (shared with the community), and to deliver our overnight gear to schools and clinics along the way. I learned a lot about the problem, and taught about it as well. The camaraderie of biking and sharing time with this wide range of people will always be a highlight of my experience.
During my time in Ghana, I was sick with “running stomach” many times, and in fact lost over 50 pounds in six months before my health stabilized. Though I used the water filter provided by Peace Corps and took care to wash my hands before eating, avoided the communal pots of food, and the kiosks serving food over open gutters, it was still difficult to remain uncontaminated. And though I never got malaria, I did get West Nile Virus from those pesky mosquitoes, and developed a significant on-going health problem as a result of the anti-malarial (mefloquine, aka larium) that we were required to take.
But even this had a lovely story in it. One day when I was very ill with West Nile Virus, spacy and exhausted, several of the men in the village stopped over with my counterpart to make sure I was okay. We sat out under the palm shade in front of my house, me feverish and a bit incoherent, trying to be a good hostess. They were just…there…talking mostly among themselves, keeping company. At some point I was so weak I had to excuse myself and go into the house to lie down in bed. From there I could hear them continue to talk quietly. My counterpart did not leave until I came back out some hours later.
What did you learn during your Peace Corps experience that still shapes you today?
Though I had traveled internationally quite a lot before joining Peace Corps and though I have always considered myself a camper/hiker, living in a small African village for 2-1/2 years was a new stretch in my life. I learned that I can adapt to many kinds of physical conditions, mental stresses, and learning challenges. Living and working in a new culture, making new friends that I remain connected to, sharing my skills and learning from them, has made me so much more appreciative of the individual but unique nature of every human being. Those experiences moved me back to a simpler lifestyle, one that tries to travel more lightly on the planet as I adapt to make room for and provide welcome to every person.
I never returned to my corporate career, and instead worked for many years after Ghana at Union Cab, worker-owned and -operated, where I served in leadership roles (as well as driver) to build a stronger cooperative. I have continued to volunteer with the Returned Peace Corps Volunteers of Wisconsin-Madison in a wide variety of roles that reach out to the local and national Peace Corps community. I have returned to Peace Corps Response service in the Republic of Georgia. And now I have an exciting job as the UW-Madison Campus Peace Corps Recruiter, which gives me the chance to share the ideals of Peace Corps service.
What advice do you have for students who are trying to decide whether the Peace Corps is right for them?
Peace Corps service isn’t for everyone. We all have different goals and ideals, needs and desires. Explore the Peace Corps website, which has great resources for understanding the scope of service. Talk to a returned volunteer and find out what motivated them to serve. Contact me in the recruiting office to find out how to make yourself more competitive. Attend some events put on by the UW-Madison Peace Corps office, or by the Madison returned group, or by the national office. Get on an email list or three. Explore social media for stories about service. What interests you? What gets you excited about the kind of work being done? What world changes would you like to be part of? A Peace Corps slogan from many years ago states: the difference between a career and a purpose is about 8,000 miles. Does that move you? Then maybe volunteer service is the way to get there.
Where in Africa would you still like to travel?
Everywhere! I have been to Kenya, Uganda and Ghana and would go back to any of them again. I have a trip planned with my son and his family for South Africa next year. The rest of the continent remains wide open to my senses!
The contents of this article are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.
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