Founding principles
Peace Corps CEO Carol Spahn speaks with Tom Zopf, who led the training of Peace Corps volunteers headed for Afghanistan in the 1960s.

Founding principles

A new historical marker points to and celebrates the role of SIT and the Experiment in International Living in the gestation of the Peace Corps in the 1960s

BRATTLEBORO — “World peace and friendship is not just the work of politicians; it is the work of everyday people and the founding principle of the Peace Corps,” says Peace Corps CEO Carol Spahn, visiting Brattleboro from her office's home base in Washington D.C. this past Saturday.

“It is also very much a founding principle of the School for International Training (SIT) and World Learning,” said Spahn, who became the leader of the Peace Corps in 2021 as an appointee of the Biden-Harris administration.

“The Peace Corps and SIT have a fantastic history together,” Spahn told The Commons in an interview on Saturday, prior to her keynote commencement address for the 2022 SIT graduates.

Later in the day, Spahn also dedicated a new historical sign to mark the SIT campus as the site where the first Peace Corps training took place and commemorate the two organizations' shared history.

Brattleboro resident Thomas Zopf has lived that history.

Zopf, now 88, worked for the Experiment in International Living, as it was then called, and he trained the first Peace Corps group to go toAfghanistan in 1964, just three years after the organization's founding.

In March 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed an executive order which created the Peace Corps, describing it as “a new opportunity for Americans to serve their country and their world.”

The idea behind the organization was one of service to the people of other countries and creating a more peaceful world by having U.S. volunteers work side by side with people in other countries to better their health and living conditions.

As the program has grown, volunteers extended services in multiple areas, including agriculture, community economic development, education, health, and youth development.

Sargent Shriver, Kennedy's brother-in-law, was tapped to head up this new organization just three days after the announcement was made.

Shriver had traveled to Germany and Austria with the Experiment in International Living (EIL, or “the Experiment”) in his youth, then returned to be a group leader to France in 1939. The program is the flagship program from which two other organizations - the School for International Training (SIT) and World Learning - emerged. All three operate under the nonprofit umbrella of World Learning Inc., with its primary headquarters on Black Mountain Road in Brattleboro.

The Experiment, founded in 1932, believed in “the theory that people learn to live together by living together,” its founder, sociologist Donald Watt, told the Brattleboro Reformer in 1964.

Watt based his program on “home stays” of several weeks so that young people could be more fully immersed in the culture of the country they were visiting.

Basing the concept and mission of the Peace Corps on his travel with the Experiment, Shriver came to Brattleboro in 1961 to train the first group of Peace Corps volunteers who would be traveling to Pakistan.

That first year, volunteers served in five countries. Six years later, Shriver had created programs in 55 locations, using more than 14,500 volunteers, the majority of which were trained at SIT in and around Brattleboro.

'A very interesting life'

One living example of that type of service is Zopf. Smiling shyly, he says, “I've led a very interesting life.”

Born in Dayton, Ohio, Zopf served in the Navy's destroyer escort service, but military life wasn't his first love.

Studying political science in college eventually led him, starting in the 1950s, to a rich life of travel and a long career of non-government organization service to others on three continents.

Beginning his career with the Council of World Affairs, Zopf eventually found his way to the Experiment in International Living. He also worked with the Dali Lama.

Zopf was getting his feet wet in international work in Ohio and Chicago in the 1950s when he became the representative for the Experiment in Asia and the Middle East. Based in Delhi, India, for about a year and a half, Zopf knew that each year the Experiment would charter an airplane from India to the USA, and that plane would return to India the next day with the next American group of volunteers.

Thinking that a trip back and forth, first with the Indians and then with the Americans, would be an interesting way to spend a weekend, Zopf signed up for the journey.

He remembers that he changed his course after receiving a message waiting for him at the airport.

“It said, 'Don't get back on the plane. We have a new job for you here in Brattleboro. You're going to train the next group of Peace Corps volunteers who will be going to Afghanistan,'” remembers Zopf. “I ended up staying stateside to train volunteers. Peace Corps was still a brand-new organization at that time.”

Preparing for Afghanistan - in Dummerston

By the time Zopf began training his 72 young recruits, Peace Corps training made the campus of SIT quite crowded. Two other groups were there, preparing to go to Turkey and Brazil.

Zopf arranged for his group to stay off campus in Dummerston at Camp Arden, a defunct girls' Shakespeare Camp from the 1930s and 1940s whose amenities included broken-down cabins and a big old barn with a fireplace.

The barn offered enough space in the loft for smaller classes. Zopf arranged for a huge circus tent, under which the group shared their meals.The Experiment staff worked hard to improve the plumbing and electricity to make the place livable.

Most of the group had come from larger cities across the nation and were “struck by rural life in Vermont,” nestled beside the West River, remembers Zopf.

“In those days, even getting to Vermont by plane or road was challenging,” he says. Interstate 91 hadn't yet been built, and the closest airport to Brattleboro, Bradley Field (now Bradley International Airport), was an hour-and-half away in Windsor Locks, Conn.

As Zopf remembers, most of the volunteers in the group were women and men in their early 20s, the majority spurred on to serve in the immediate aftermath of Kennedy's assassination just six months earlier. They wanted to honor Kennedy with their service in the Peace Corps.

Volunteers were required to take exams and to meet with a psychiatrist to be sure they would be sturdy enough emotionally for their work.

And because Afghanistan bordered Russia, then part of the Soviet Union, men from Washington, D.C. in suits and ties advised the recruits on how to act should they be approached by Soviet spies. The diplomats explained the complex political situations in which the volunteers might find themselves.

Eventually, 56 volunteers finished their training and left for a two-year stint in Afghanistan, where they served as English teachers, nurses, and auto mechanics. They started the first newspaper in English, working alongside local Afghans.

Zopf remembers how things were in the beginning.

“The Peace Corps was new and the Experiment was very involved,” he says. “Whoever was available was put to work on these groups to assist in their training, was assigned.”

He trained the first Afghanistan group as well as another group going to Brazil. “But that Afghanistan group changed my life, as I met and married my future wife,” Zopf says.

Betty Lou (Barfield) Zopf was a nurse midwife, serving in Afghanistan. The couple married in 1967 and lived a life of service in India, where their two children were born.

From Kansas to the world

Spahn's record of service is like Zopf's. According to biographical information from the Peace Corps, she has 25 years of public and private-sector experience, and most recently served as the Peace Corps CEO of operations in the Africa Region covering Eastern and Southern Africa.

She previously served a five-year term as the country director of Peace Corps in Malawi, but her experience with Peace Corps in post-communist Romania in 1994, early in her career, made a lasting impression.

“I grew up in Kansas, which isn't very diverse, and came to college in Washington D.C., which opened my eyes to the world and its diversity,” she says. “My husband and I served in Peace Corps in Romania, just four years after the fall of Communism.”

“We learned so much,” Spahn says.

Serving in such assignments “forces you to question your own understanding, and you begin to see that governments do what governments do, but that people are people all over the world,” she continues.

“When you connect with people in that one-on-one, meaningful way, you can understand how government programs and policies impact people in a very real way,” Spahn says. “But what I believe people really want is a personal connection. It's a beautiful thing.”

Those thoughts were reflected in her commencement speech in the afternoon.

Standing on an outdoor podium, surrounded by both the Green Mountains and flags from around the world, Spahn encouraged the crowd of graduates to live with “grit, a deep sense of self, the nourishment of authentic connection and trust in the journey.”

“I find it fitting that this journey is launching at the birthplace of the Experiment in International Living,” she told them.

Connection, trust, and humor were all present when Zopf and Spahn were able to meet at the historical marker and enjoy swapping stories and thoughts about their Peace Corps experiences.

Zopf continued his work at the Experiment with Peace Corps trainings, followed by directing the first graduate program at SIT, which he designed as a training for overseas work.

“We had about six or eight students in the first group. It was a two-year program that I directed, ending in an advanced degree in international work,” he recalls. “That was a first for the Experiment.”

“Eventually, the director, Jack Wallace, was interested in getting the program accredited. Unfortunately, though I had a lot of experience, I didn't have an advanced degree, so I could no longer direct that program,” says Zopf.

The graduate program was overseen by a board, most of whom worked for other international organizations, including a representative from CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere).

“That Board member offered me a job, and my wife and I went to India where I worked with CARE on child nutrition, and she worked as a Peace Corps medical officer,” he says.

In India, Zopf worked with his holiness, the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism.

“I spent quite a bit of time with the Dalai Lama. He had been exiled from his native Tibet in 1959 and was then living in India. CARE was interested in helping him out. I was assigned to work with him. He wanted to establish a Tibetan Library.”

“The people who create handmade bookshelves with the Dalai Lama [are] in a pretty small group,” Zopf says, laughing. “He was a pleasure to work with.”

The Zopfs eventually moved to the Philippines, Tunisia, Egypt, and the Congo, finally returning to the USA in 1983, and retiring back to their home in Dummerston in 2002.

Ripple effects

Spahn speaks about the ties between world health issues and the Peace Corps.

Volunteers in the 1970s would hike out to remote villages in Ethiopia, bringing vaccinations to eradicate smallpox, she says.

“When we were thinking about Covid and how to respond, I was looking back in history to major disease burdens,” Spahn says. “Now we are working with our teams, looking at how we can help the world recover from Covid, with all the nuance involved: getting children back to school, looking at vaccine programs, and helping small businesses get back on their feet.”

Vermont still plays a major role in the program's success, she says.

“Vermont, with its ties to both SIT and the Peace Corps, has the second highest number of volunteers in the United States,” says Spahn. “That is quite special, and we see that manifested many generations later with people from Vermont as 1,600 Vermonters have volunteered since the program's inception.”

She observes that this statistic “speaks to the ripple effect of what SIT has done in terms of introducing Vermonters to the world and vice versa, as host families from other countries come here to visit as well.”

“That openness shows up in Vermont in the way people engage with one another,” Spahn says.

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