Why Do So Many Johnnies Join the Peace Corps?

April 11, 2019 | By Kimberly Uslin

Jessie Seiler (A08) served in the Peace Corps in Senegal.

Those familiar with St. John’s College know that the school’s graduates end up in all kinds of occupations. Many become teachers, as could be expected, but just as many pursue business, law, medicine, research, politics, and more.

One career path, however, has been consistently attracting Johnnies for decades: service in the Peace Corps. Though not as widely discussed as other, more ultimate paths, the Peace Corps has served as an integral step between life in the St. John’s Program and a full-time career for more than 50 alumni.

This was certainly the case for Jessie Seiler (A08), who served in Senegal as a health education volunteer a few months after graduating from the Annapolis campus.

“St. John’s had already done so much for me, but the Peace Corps allowed me to turn around and start doing things with what I had learned at St. John’s,” she says. “It was really the ultimate combination. The basic question for me at St. John’s [was] ‘How do I be a responsible person in the world? What does it mean to be a good and responsible human being, and what are my obligations to other people?’ The Peace Corps was a way of taking all those questions and applying them to the world—to get my hands dirty and be in the world in this way I had talked about.”

Seiler says she spent her first two years in a small village “in the middle of nowhere,” living in a hut with no running water. Despite her limited resources, however, she had a bit of St. John’s with her—both in the form of two Program books, Plato’s Phaedrus and Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, upon which she’d written her senior essay, and in the presence of fellow alum Matthew Gates (A05), who had been a senior when she was a freshman and was serving not too far away from her in Senegal.

“Matt was in Senegal when I got there, which was really wild,” she recalls. “And then another close friend of mine, Jack Brown (A08) ended up there, too. He and I were in the same year in Annapolis and were really good friends, so it was really a joy to have those guys. We had our own little alumni chapter.”

Though he has not yet left for his term, Dillon Wild (SF17) has also run into his fair share of Peace Corps Johnnies. A friend of his, Alex Bindrim (SF16), inspired him to apply after he was accepted into the Corps immediately after graduation. Because Bindrim was a year ahead, Wild kept in touch with him during the two years of his service in the agro-forestry sector in Guinea.

“I became very familiar with the rewards and difficulties of his service,” says Wild. Though he’d had an unsuccessful bid to join the Corps in Morocco, one of the most competitive areas, he later applied to be sent to the area of highest need. His familiarity with Bindrim’s journey, he says, was advantageous; recruiters understood that he was serious, knowledgeable, and committed to service.

Wild departs for Liberia May 31, where he’ll serve as a math and science teacher. His best friend, Thomas Heiden (SF17), will be in Africa at the same time, serving in Morocco.

The large population of Santa Fe Johnnies applying for the Corps was something of a chain reaction, Wild explains.

“Peace Corps service is something I first became interested in high school. I remember sending an email off to a recruiter and they [said] ‘How about you talk to us when you have a college degree?’” he recalls with a laugh. “But what really made the difference was seeing Alex Bindrim get accepted. It brought the Peace Corps out of the realm of imagination and dreams and into the immediate horizon of what’s possible.”

Wild and Heiden applied together while seniors at St. John’s, but were both declined the first time around. Their second time around, they made it.

“It turns out the St. John’s degree is very conducive to Peace Corps service,” he says. Studying the liberal arts curriculum gives graduates experience in a wide array of fields, many of which correlate directly to service (such as teaching literacy, math, and science).

“One routine challenge for first-year volunteers is the language requirement,” Wild adds. “In most cases, you’ll be learning a language when you go off to your country. I’m in Liberia, so I’m the exception rather than the rule, because Liberia is one of the only countries Peace Corps volunteers go where they speak primarily English. But St. John’s puts you at an advantage because even though you don’t become fluent in French or Ancient Greek, you become familiar with what you have to do in order to grasp the language. It goes a really long way.”

But it’s the ideological education he received, Wild says, that is most helpful to him as he prepares to depart for Liberia.

“A Johnnie is always equipped to speak well about complex and nuanced issues,” he says. “The ideal is having a set of values and an ideology and being able to speak about those in a coherent manner. That’s very important in service, because it’s not easy. You’re being asked to leave your life and go live in a country where you may be the only volunteer for a hundred miles. This is not something people do if they’re just looking for a credential or a shingle on their resume or a ticket into grad school.”

Service for the sake of service was certainly the goal for Constance McClellan (SF73), who joined the Peace Corps after retiring from a career in information technology and spent 27 months in Moldova teaching English.

“I had wanted to do it for quite a while,” she says. “I liked to travel, and I wanted to immerse myself in one place for a while and learn the language. I was interested in teaching English, and I thought I might be able to help people.”

McClellan says St. John’s was instrumental in her success in Moldova.

“St. John’s is just embedded in the way I think and in my life,” she explains. “Johnnies are curious, yet willing to let the books speak for themselves. [They] find it natural to let a culture speak for itself while withholding judgment. Working through the Program develops the self-discipline to pay respectful attention to what is in front of one rather than worrying about the relevance or even the pleasantness of a set of ideas. I think that this kind of approach also works with travel, other cultures, other ways of doing things. A broad curiosity just makes the experience more interesting. You might be bored with a day-to-day routine, but in the meantime, there are many things to observe and learn about a community where people have a lifestyle and skillsets totally different from what we know in our privileged country.”

For Seiler, that curiosity manifested in a fearlessness that guided her through both difficult and rewarding times in Senegal.

“You think of it as an intellectual fearlessness—I’m just going to pick up Hegel and go for it, I’m going to try to figure it out, I’m going to lean on my friends and tutors to help me with it,” she explains. “But then there’s also the fearlessness of ‘What does this new understanding I have about the world mean I need to do with my life?”

It’s a sense of obligation—I’m going to learn something new, it’s going to change my life, and it’s going to change the way I want to be in the world,” she adds. “The Peace Corps works really well with that, because you are not going to have a lot of control. Just as at St. John’s we’re led by the text, and always trying to look critically at the intersection of our own opinions and our own biases and then what the text is actually telling us, with development or with living in a culture that’s totally different from your own, you really have to be conscious. What am I bringing to this situation? What are people actually trying to tell me? What am I missing here? What am I maybe not hearing clearly?’”

In short, she says, “St. John’s taught me how to be completely intellectually fulfilled and excited, and the Peace Corps added this whole other dimension of emotional fulfillment.”