Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2011

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Seth Stulen '07 served as a Peace Corps volunteer after graduation and is now a regional coordinator for the organization in Panama.

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More stories from Peace Corps alums

A CC: Connecticut College Magazine online exclusive

By Elizabeth Hamilton


TAPPAN HEHER '89

Tappan Heher '89 has learned the hard way how to love Africa.

A Peace Corps volunteer in Mali from 1990-92, Heher returned in 2004 with two other volunteers after his mother, Marian, died of uterine cancer. The visit had several purposes, not the least of which was to make the documentary, “Gone to Mali,” about how their Peace Corps experience changed their lives.

But Heher, a New York-based filmmaker, also wanted to reconnect with his Malian mother, Amou, following his biological mother's death and explore the reasons why he'd had difficulty re-assimilating in American culture since leaving the Peace Corps. In the process, Heher learned about a terrible drainage problem that had evolved since he'd originally served there.

That problem, which has plagued the village of Niono, has created both a health and sanitation crisis for residents, and Heher has spent considerable time and effort since then trying to help them solve it.

A six-month job in Mali through the Peace Corps Response program was cut short this spring after just two weeks because Heher was injured in a bike accident while rushing to a meeting with the mayor of his town.

“I swerved to avoid an out-of-control donkey cart and hit a dike in a rice field,” said Heher, who was recovering at home from a herniated disc in April. “It was one of those fun days.”

The bigger problem, though, is that the mayor had spent the drainage problem grant Heher had worked to obtain for the village on gutters instead.

“I think he assumed because we were Americans we would find money on some magical money tree, but when I applied for more, the American ambassador said 'no way,' because now they had no confidence in the mayor,” Heher said.

“They say you can't love Africa unless you get burned by it and still love it. Well, I still love it.”


NATE HELLER '98

Nate Heller '98 has spent his entire career building on the lessons he learned as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal from 1999-2001.

Heller, a Washington, D.C., native who majored in philosophy at Connecticut College, is one of the school's many Peace Corps volunteers who also earned a certificate from the Toor Cumming Center for International Studies and the Liberal Arts.

As a volunteer, Heller helped villagers apply for and obtain a grant to rebuild the well in their village, which had collapsed some years earlier. Getting a reliable water source then enabled Heller to launch his original project, which was working with farmers to plant about 25,000 trees in the region.

Rather than return to the United States as soon as his two years in the Peace Corps were finished, Heller got a job in Dakar for two years then returned to the U.S. to get his M.A. in international relations and economics from Johns Hopkins University. He then spent two years working for the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome and Ghana, came back to earn his MBA from the Yale School of Management, and has spent his career working for social enterprises around the globe.

He now lives in California and works as the director of product development for the Ayllu Initiative, a social enterprise that works to find solutions to poverty alleviation.

“I feel really lucky to have that kind of purpose in my life and to have somehow stayed involved in reducing inequality,” Heller said.


TESANDRA COHEN '07

When Tesandra Cohen '07 was a sophomore at Connecticut College, she hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with her father and thought, “This is somewhere I'd like to live.”

The attraction wasn't really Africa, Cohen said, but the idea of experiencing a different culture. So, after doing her CISLA internship in Spain and graduating with a dual degree in Hispanic studies and psychology, Cohen left for a two-year Peace Corps stint in La Palma, Costa Rica.

Her job as a community development specialist in La Palma, a village of about 300 people, allowed her to choose her own project, she said.

Cohen first did a needs assessment to find out what people in her village wanted.

What emerged from that process was a decision to repair the roads. So after helping residents write their grant proposal, Cohen was able to oversee about $25,000 worth of road improvement.

“That's the really great thing about the Peace Corps in general,” she said. “If you teach a man to fish, he'll fish for a lifetime. In my town, it was all about using local resources, but the people didn't even know how to go about getting money from the municipality.”

Since returning to the United States last year, Cohen has found transitioning back into American life difficult at times. She recently left her hometown of Avon, Conn., and moved to New York City, where she is working for a nonprofit organization she prefers not to name because the job is still temporary.

“I'm very interested in getting involved in a nonprofit as a career,” Cohen said.


ETHAN BUDIANSKY '99

As the head of international programs at Trees for the Future, Ethan Budiansky '99 has built on what he unintentionally began a decade ago as a Peace Corps volunteer in Senegal.

Budiansky majored in zoology, thinking he would become a veterinarian, but after working as a vet technician following graduation he decided to try development work instead.

He was accepted into the Peace Corps and was slated to do wildlife work in Madagascar when his recruiter called him to tell him the assignment was canceled.

“The recruiter said, 'Here's your option. You can wait until another similar position opens up, or I can send you to Senegal and you can do agro-forestry,'” Budiansky said. “I said, 'I've got two questions for you. Where's Senegal, and what is agro-forestry?' The next thing you know my life is dedicated to agro-forestry and one of my biggest projects is in Senegal.”

Budiansky, who served in Kedougou, Senegal, from 2002-04, has been back to the region four times since his service ended, he said, and each time was with Trees for the Future, which helps communities around the world plant trees.

Although Budiansky appreciates the opportunity he had to help others while a Peace Corps volunteer, he believes firmly that he got more from the experience than he gave.

“I wish everyone either out of college or out of high school were encouraged to do some type of service that exposes them to something outside of their comfort zone,” Budiansky said. “I really didn't start finding myself until I joined the Peace Corps. I am now dedicating my entire life and my lack of salary to development and conservation work.”

More info: http://www.facebook.com/TreesfortheFuture


CHRISTOPHER "TOPHER" HAMBLETT '83

After the civil war broke out in Sierra Leone in 1991, Christopher “Topher” Hamblett '83 lost touch with everyone he'd known there while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late '80s. It would be another decade before Hamblett would reconnect with the people and the region that had helped form him as a person.

He returned to the country in 2002, shortly after the war ended, and witnessed firsthand the devastation caused by the war.

“The town of Kailahun was pretty much flattened, and it was really quiet, with people walking around looking like they were still in shock,” Hamblett recalled. “It was the eeriest thing I've ever seen in my life.”

While there, Hamblett heard that the residents left in Kailahun were attempting to start a community radio station to call people home and provide information about security.

When he returned to his own home to Rhode Island, where he'd been an advocate for Save the Bay for 16 years, Hamblett started a new project — the Foundation for West Africa.

Although the foundation originally began with the intention of both funding independent radio projects and providing assistance for heath care, Hamblett said he quickly realized it should focus exclusively on radio. That decision eventually led to the foundation's decision to underwrite a documentary, “Leh Wi Tok” (Let Us Talk), which chronicles the stories of Sierra Leone's independent radio stations and premiered April 7 at the Park Theater in Rhode Island.

Hamblett said there was something missing from his life when he lost his connection to Sierra Leone in the 1990s.

“The farther away I got from the experience, the more uncomfortable I got with it being a distant memory,” Hamblett said. “I wanted to reconnect somehow. I didn't want to tell Peace Corps stories from 50 years ago.”


LORI SCHIPPERS '08

When Lori Schippers '08 was volunteering as a math teacher in Andara, Namibia, from 2008-10, she witnessed firsthand how much harder it could be for her female students to get an education, especially after they reached puberty.

“You could buy a pack of sanitary pads for 1.30 U.S. dollars, but families in my town were living on $1 a day or less, so there was no money for that,” Schippers said. That meant female students were usually forced to stay home from school during their monthly menstruation.

After realizing how daunting this issue was for the young women in her village, Schippers organized a project with the goal of raising money to buy 250 pads. She not only raised money for 1,300 pads, Schippers also got GladRags in Portland, Ore., to sell their reusable pads at a discount to anyone donating them to Andara Combined School.

After returning home last December, Schippers realized she wasn't finished with her Peace Corps experience. So she started a nonprofit organization, Empower Women in Africa, with the aim of bringing economic opportunities to women and educational opportunities to girls.

Donors can sponsor girls to stay in school by paying for school tuition and supplies, Schippers said, or sponsor a woman to start her own business of making and selling reusable sanitary pads.

Although the organization is based in the U.S. — Schippers lives in Denver with her boyfriend, who was also a Peace Corps volunteer — Schippers is trying to raise the money to get back to Namibia so she can get the project off the ground locally.

“I'm going to put all my eggs into this nonprofit,” she said. “I know it's going to be a few years until I can make a living.”


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