It was a coin flip that made all the difference. Michael Kohan, now a wildlife biologist for the Department of Fish & Game, said she was on a walk with a friend at Spaulding Meadows, trying to make a decision about whether to go to medical school or go into the Peace Corps when the decision was made. The Peace Corps won out.
Volunteering with the Peace Corps is dependent on a lot and Kohan said she can’t be certain there would be another time in her life that would work out.
“You’re open to it right now, you have the time, you have no commitments — you want to say that you may have time in the future, but you never know — it was more just that open space in your life — let’s have an adventure.” Kohan said.
Kohan was part of the first group of volunteers to go to Cambodia, serving from 2007-2009. While her official role may have been as an English teacher, she said there were other roles she filled in her village, serving as a health specialist doing outreach there and in outlying communities and other roles if the need was there.
There may be a view that volunteering with the Peace Corps is one-sided, that a volunteer goes and gives to a community, but Kohan said what she learned from her village and host family was significant.
“I had the opportunity to be trained in midwifery. My host mom was a retired midwife at the health center, so she basically invited me to all these fun excursions to different people’s houses and delivered babies together.” Kohan said, “It was a nice rural health experience, and that’s what I wanted to do in the Peace Corps in the first place, so it was nice to be able to mesh working with kids and doing education and working with families and village people.”
There may be an idea that the Peace Corps is simply Americans going to teach the rest of the world how to live, but that’s not at all accurate.
“A lot of what Peace Corps is is community assessment. You can’t just come in and say ‘You need this,’ it’s mostly understanding everybody, every place is different, you’re on different levels. Where aid is needed in some places, development is needed in others, and there are very huge differences between aid and development.”
Kohan maintains that the impact serving in her village had on her was great.
“Learning those skills, how to start up small projects, engage people in the community and monitor them, like building an English library or, you know, we did a bunch of teacher education classes where we went around the province and taught all these teachers different methods to teach English.”
She cited the proverb, if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, if you teach him to fish, you feed him for life. She and other volunteers sought to help the villages create the infrastructure necessary for lasting improvements. But she said she “came out of the Peace Corps with more knowledge than I instilled.”
Aside from the basic structure and atmosphere of volunteering, there is a personal side to volunteering in the Peace Corps, to interacting closely with another culture.
“It was all great,” Kohan said hyper-cheerfully, continuing more seriously, “It wasn’t all great, I mean, it was hard. And I’m sure everybody has positive stories and negative stories…”
Living with her host family was a highlight for Kohan. Fresh to the country, Peace Corps Volunteers were all assigned to live with host families, since the program was uncertain about the security of volunteers living on their own. Kohan lived in a matriarchal household with the head of the household being a woman who treated her like a second daughter, second to the daughter who also lived there with her husband and children.
“My host mom had lost her husband during the war, under the Pol Pot regime — I accepted that, that was our family structure. I kind of fell into place of being a sister to her daughter.” Kohan said of the familial structure.
The family dynamic and the history behind it would lead to one of the most memorable experiences of Kohan’s stay.
“I never really asked questions. That’s how people in Cambodia treat the issue. Whatever happened during the war, during the Khmer Rouge regime, it’s in the past and it’s best not to even talk about it…” she said, “When I was there, somebody had gone up to Phnom Penh, and in Phnomh Penh there is something called the Tuol Sleng museum, which was basically a place where they tortured and killed people. It was an old school that was turned into a torturing asylum and it was horrible. But it’s now a tourist destination … it is educational, right, to see the real thing right in front of you?”
A friend of the family had gone to to Tuol Sleng looking for information about a relative. While looking in the different stalls with chains still attached to the walls, the woman saw a photo that struck her as familiar, so she took a photo with her phone and, returning to the village, showed Kohan’s house mom, who fainted at the sight of it and confirmed the man was her husband.
“After not knowing where her husband had gone, she had come home from working as a midwife in one of the villages during the war, and then her husband was gone. She was pregnant with my sister and he had been taken.. she always thought maybe someday he’d come back, she never married again.” Kohan said “Finally she had an answer to where he had been all those years… “
They learned that he was taken, tortured, and sat starving for ten days and died.
Kohan recognized that it was ultimately good for her host mother to have the closure she gained from learning about her husband’s horrible death, and it was culturally important as well.
“Funerals are a huge deal in Cambodia, and because they never knew what happened to him, they were never able to have that ‘send his spirit into the next world’ type of ceremony, so finally they had this huge ceremony and it was more of a celebration that after 30 years we can finally send you off to the spirit world.”
And aside from viewing this in an anthropological sense, Kohan found she could take some wisdom from the experience.
“That was interesting because it really connected me to how people deal with their history.” she said.
Being a Peace Corps Volunteer, it seems, doesn’t end once the term is over. The experience and memories still seem vivid and, perhaps knowing this, the Peace Corps encourages volunteers to continue to take value from their term long after they’ve returned home. The third goal of the Peace Corps is to take your experiences home and share with your own community.