Peace Corps Volunteers in the Spotlight: James Kostenblatt and Gina Leow

Written by Gabe Amram & Oindrila Das

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Peace Corps is a 27-month program with the US Government to live and work in a community overseas on development projects and programming. Peace Corps Volunteers serve in one of 65 countries worldwide and have enough stories to last a lifetime. New York University has dozens of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers (RPCV) getting advanced degrees in variety of fields after their service. Two of the Peace Corps NYU interns, undergraduate students Gabe and Oindrila, set out to interview a handful of them to find out just what does it mean to serve as a Peace Corps Volunteer? If you would like to learn more information about Peace Corps and the application process, contact NYU’s campus recruiter, Helen Alesbury at peacecorps@nyu.edu. Without further ado, meet James and Gina:

James

James Kostenblatt’s Story

James Kostenblatt is an NYU masters student and Associate Director at the Wasserman Center for Career Development. Before deciding to pursue his MPA in Public & Nonprofit Management and Policy at NYU Wagner, James spent over three years doing something radically different: he was sent by the Peace Corps to be a high school teacher in rural Mozambique. When he arrived in Mozambique in September 2005, James had been working for a non-profit organization after graduating college, but felt the need for a more fulfilling job that would be positively life-changing. After visiting a friend who volunteered in Guatemala, he was deeply inspired by the impact of Peace Corps service. Before he knew it, he was trained as an education volunteer, learned the fundamentals of Portuguese, and arrived in the community of Mangunde to teach English as a Foreign Language at a small, Catholic boarding school.

While James had tutored small groups prior to his experience with the Peace Corps, he had not taught teenagers before. In fact, he never imagined he would be placed in the Education sector, but the Peace Corps chose a path that would best build on his prior skills. His fellow Peace Corps volunteers and Mozambican staff helped him learn to teach and to live in a community with no cellphone coverage, no running water less than 100 yards away at a surface pump, and no electricity except a generator that was turned on for three hours a night. Despite the radical change in environment and culture, James remembers his work in Mangunde as one of the best jobs of his life — a truly transformative experience.

By his third year as a homeroom director, James laid out an engaging curriculum with the help and enthusiasm of his students. On a typical day, he would wake up to go for a run and train with his class, which competed as a soccer team against other classrooms. Class ran all day from 7 AM to noon, and then again from 1 to 4 PM. In the evenings, James supported a variety of student-led clubs, including an English newspaper, drama club, and advanced grammar class. He still fondly remembers the zealous participation and leadership of his homeroom students, who always wanted to learn more and would develop their own lesson plans, songs, and plays to perform for the school. But even more meaningful than the classes were the personal relationships that blossomed during his service. James looks back on his community in Mangunde as one filled with generosity and hospitality – qualities that he strives to bring back with him and treat guests with the same respect that he received.

If you are interested in joining the Peace Corps, James advice is, “Go. Go. There is no organization like it in the world. Go.” During our conversation with him, James emphasized how volunteering doesn’t feel like a government position on the ground. It is much, much more. “You didn’t walk around saying you’re a Peace Corps volunteer. I would say I’m a teacher. It’s not about spreading your love for the United States. It’s about giving and learning.”

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Gina Leow’s Story

Hearing about the Peace Corps often invokes an image of rural life: fleeting electricity and running water on a faraway agrarian landscape seem to be hallmark impressions of the volunteer experience. For Gina, who is currently getting her masters degree at NYU Gallatin, the Peace Corps experience was quite different, but equally rewarding. Gina was an education volunteer in Mian Yang, within the Sichuan providence of China. Mian Yang is the science and technology city of Sichuan – an urban epicenter with a population of five to six million people.

During her years as a university professor, Gina taught classes in Thesis Writing and English to college students for three days a week, leaving her with plenty of time to write lesson plans and focus on secondary projects in cross-cultural exchange and student leadership. Outside of the classroom, Gina hosted extracurricular clubs with other volunteers and students through an English resource center called the Bookend. She recruited an array of student leaders to create a book club, movie club, student newspaper, and hold celebrations for the Chinese and American holidays. Through the Bookend, she inspired her students to connect with each other in meaningful ways that were otherwise inaccessible in the classroom. Those who were shy could comfortably express their ideas, learn about other cultures, and practice English in a non-academic setting. Their curiosity about travelling the world also led Gina to create an impactful pen pal program with students and volunteers from different countries.

It was this same desire for cultural immersion that led to Gina’s decision to volunteer with the Peace Corps. Initially from Astoria, Queens, Gina grew up surrounded by Greek culture, and wanted to return to her Chinese roots. She interned for the YMCA in high school and college, and participated in a cross-cultural exchange program in South Africa before deciding that the Peace Corps was right for her. During her time as a volunteer, she participated in a volunteer-run group called “Racially Similar Racially Different” – a program unique to Peace Corps China that provides support to minority volunteers. Through my conversation with Gina it was abundantly clear that she had a challenging and illuminating experience. As a Chinese-American woman with a Greek background, she also feels lucky to have demonstrated the true diversity of what it means to be an American volunteer.

Gina now speaks fluent Mandarin and forged innumerable relationships during her time in China. Between her students, other teachers, friends, and staff, there was never a shortage of community support. Peace Corps enabled her to befriend people from all walks of life and to work hard while learning to go with the flow. After her service, Gina returned home with a bag full of heartfelt letters from her students, many of which still keep in touch with her. More information about Gina’s time in Mian Yang can be found on her personal blog at genegenesoyabean.tumblr.com.

If you would like to learn more about the unique and exciting opportunities available through Peace Corps service, follow us on social media at Peace Corps at NYU or contact our on-campus recruiter, Helen Alesbury, in the NYU Wasserman Center at peacecorps@nyu.edu .