Changing course: Southeast Asia Peace Corps volunteers have fond memories of their service

Five of seven current and retired Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) associates who served as volunteers in the Peace Corps, and whose lives changed course through their experiences, came recently to the center’s weekly lecture series to hear CSEAS graduate assistant Maria “Rai” Hancock tell the story of NIU’s formative role in the early days of the Corps. 

Patricia Henry buys bread from a vendor on bicycle outside the Henry home in Sungai Penchala, Malaysia, outside of Kuala Lumpur, circa 1969. “The ‘village’ is now quite a well-to-do suburb,” Henry said. “Most of the inhabitants have cars, and I doubt anybody sells bread from a bicycle anymore!” (photo courtesy of Patricia Henry)
Patricia Henry buys bread from a vendor on bicycle outside the Henry home in Sungai Penchala, Malaysia, outside of Kuala Lumpur, circa 1969. “The ‘village’ is now quite a well-to-do suburb,” Henry said. “Most of the inhabitants have cars, and I doubt anybody sells bread from a bicycle anymore!” (photo courtesy of Patricia Henry)

Hancock’s Jan. 28 presentation was scheduled in honor of Corps founder and director R. Sargent Shriver, who died Jan. 18. This week, Feb. 28 to March 6, is Peace Corps Week, the prelude to this year’s 50th anniversary celebration of the organization established by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.

In her talk, Hancock explained how the Corps’ training program for volunteers headed for Malaya (now Malaysia), and later Thailand and the Philippines, came to NIU in the 1960s through the efforts of then-history department chair and eminent Malaya scholar J. Norman Parmer.

The program also laid the groundwork for the Center for Southeast Asian Studies, established in 1963.

DeKalb, the third training site in the Midwest, was chosen for its central location, its rural “lab” setting for agricultural training and NIU’s commitment to Malaya studies, Hancock said.

Local business partners included International Harvester, Caterpillar and DeKalb Ag. Volunteers were invited to dinners, asked to give public speeches and featured in local newspaper articles regularly.

By the time the NIU program was relocated to Hawaii in 1968, about 1,200 volunteers had trained in DeKalb for what would become a life-altering experience for many of them serving in Southeast Asia.

Among former Peace Corps volunteers attending Hancock’s lecture were CSEAS director Jim Collins, Patricia Henry (foreign languages and literatures) and Grant Olson (foreign languages and literatures), along with retirees Clark Neher (political science) and Arlene Neher (College of Liberal Arts & Sciences External Programming).

As it turns out, none of them trained in Illinois, though the state was an early Peace Corps supporter.

But all agreed that the Corps experience continues to ripple though their lives.

After being one of the first volunteers accepted to the Corps, Clark Neher convinced his wife, Arlene, to submit her application so that the young couple could go together, he said.

Arlene and Clark Neher
Arlene and Clark Neher

The two served in Thailand from 1963 to 1965, with Clark teaching on the political science faculty at Chulalongkorn University and Arlene teaching English at Prasarnmit College of Education.

Their first son was born in Thailand in the middle of their tour in 1964.

Before they left the country, the Nehers decided to write a thank-you letter to Thailand’s King Bhumidol Adulyadej.

The king sent back an invitation, via royal limousine, requesting the couple’s presence for a brief audience with the monarch at his palace.

“We ended up spending several hours with him,” Clark recalled. “The American ambassador contacted me and asked how we managed such a long audience with his majesty.”

Four years after their Peace Corps assignment, Clark joined NIU’s political science department as a Southeast Asia specialist, and Arlene eventually became director of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences’ External Programming office.

They’ve since returned to Thailand for research and to visit, and have traveled to other parts of Southeast Asia as well. During his time at NIU, Clark was appointed CSEAS director from 1996 to 1999, and later established the Clark and Arlene Neher Graduate Fellowship for the Study of Southeast Asia at the center.

“The Peace Corps dramatically changed my life,” Clark said.

“First, going to Thailand as a teacher at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok subsequently provided me with a career. Now retired, I taught for some 30 years at NIU in the field of Southeast Asian politics. I would never have gone into this area without the Peace Corps experience. Second, my Peace Corps time in Thailand provided countless new friends. Third, my family became a major part of the Thailand experience. Joining the Peace Corps was the most important and best decision I have made.”  

Grant Olson (left), Clark Neher and Arlene Neher reminisce about their Peace Corps experiences at a Jan. 28 Center for Southeast Asian Studies lecture about NIU’s early connection to the program. (CSEAS photo)
Grant Olson (left), Clark Neher and Arlene Neher reminisce about their Peace Corps experiences at a Jan. 28 Center for Southeast Asian Studies lecture about NIU’s early connection to the program. (CSEAS photo)

Olson, head of the Multimedia Learning Center in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, joined the Peace Corps in 1978 after a stint teaching English in rural Minnesota.

“I was reading Asian philosophy and my life was already changing. After the school district burned the book I was teaching (‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’), I talked to a Peace Corps counselor,” Olson said. “After she listened to me for 45 minutes, she said, ‘You must go to Thailand!’ ”

Olson signed up and left for Thailand to serve three years as an English teacher at a teachers college.

During his volunteer orientation in Thailand, Olson became friends with one of the Thai trainers. Grant and Chalermsee Olson later married. Eventually finding his way to NIU, he continues to pursue Thai studies independently — currently translating the autobiography of a Thai artist — while Chalermsee is associate dean of collections and technical services for Founders Library.

Professor Patricia Henry served in Malaysia from 1968 to 1970 with her husband, Jim Henry. Pat taught math and English and Jim taught math and science at rural primary schools in an area now a suburb of Kuala Lumpur.

“The Peace Corps language training in Malay/Bahasa Malaysia, combined with the intense experience of living in a village where my husband and I were the only English speakers, gave me a new perspective on language learning,” Pat recalled in her department biography. “I distinctly remember walking along a road in the village, overhearing a mother calling for her child to come inside and get his chores done, and realizing that what would have been total gibberish six months previously was now meaningful language.”

In his biography, Jim recalled: “We served in Malaysia, a place I could not easily have found on a map at the time, but which was fascinating and shaped my life in ways I could not have guessed. A few years later, my wife and I spent another two years in Indonesia, where she worked on linguistics research, translation of an Old Javanese poem and teaching. I taught English, took pictures and immersed myself in a culture of ancient temples, shadow plays and gamelan music, as well as the experiences, issues and problems of a developing third-world country.”

After returning to the U.S. for graduate school, the couple came to NIU in 1979. Pat joined the foreign languages faculty to teach Indonesian and Indonesian literature. Jim turned to computer science.  The two have continued to put their Peace Corps and Southeast Asia experiences to use on the center’s pioneering Southeast Asia website, SEAsite. Jim also serves on the center’s executive and financial oversight committees.

Pat said she would not have become an Indonesian teacher had it not been for her Peace Corps experience.

“I would certainly encourage people to volunteer today,” she said. “It gives an opportunity to get inside another culture, to learn the language and have a function in another society. That is much more educational than tourism or even field work.”

Jim Collins
Jim Collins

Collins also served in Malaysia from 1968 to 1970.

“I was in the tuberculosis control program administered by the National Tuberculosis Center,” Collins said. “My job was to visit health clinics and hospitals to explore ways to decentralize the TB program.”

Collins also assisted in the first national epidemiological survey of TB prevalence run by the center with World Health Organization technical advice, he said.

Based in Kuala Lumpur, Collins received permission to live in Kampung Bharu, an enclave of Kuala Lumpur where only Malays were allowed to live. At his request, his Malay family and friends only spoke Malay with him so he emerged from his Peace Corps experience a fluent speaker in the language.

By the time the future linguist returned from Malaysia, “language seemed like an option,” he said.

Since 1970, Collins has returned repeatedly to Malaysia for research and teaching, including two stints at the National University of Malaysia (1980 to 1983 and 1995 to 2008) where he taught linguistics and led research teams studying Austronesian languages in Indonesian Borneo. In 2008 he was invited to become the CSEAS director. Continuing to draw on his Peace Corps experiences, he established the Malay language program at NIU and recently negotiated the signing of four memorandums of understanding with Malaysian and Indonesian universities.

Language professor and CSEAS associate John Hartmann also was a Peace Corps volunteer; he served in Thailand from 1964 to 1967, and now teaches Thai at NIU.

And the center’s Peace Corps legacy continues: current Southeast Asia Youth Leadership Program coordinator and graduate assistant Sean Dolan was a Peace Corps volunteer in 2002.

by Elizabeth Denius

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