Fall 2009

Top: Sean McCartney saying goodbye to his first village.
Middle: Carolina Tercero, center, with her host family in Mongolia.
Bottom: Richard Engel had more than just a typical enriching experience in Honduras; he also met his wife Basilia there.

HSU may be tucked up there in Nortern California, but its graduates have a major impact all around the world.

Most remember their university years as a time of high energy, major effort and strong ideals. For HSU students going on to the Peace Corps, it doesn’t end there. Even as a career and family plans beckon, fixing the world takes priority.

Humboldt State jumped to 14th among medium-sized colleges for Peace Corps service in 2009, from 20th the year before. It’s the highest ranking yet for HSU and means that this year, 25 of Humboldt’s freshest alumni are headed into the program.

What’s behind HSU’s Peace Corps connection? “We find that HSU students have a real empathy and curiosity for the world,” says Nathan Hale Sargent, public affairs specialist at the corps’ San Francisco office.

HSU students also graduate with professional abilities that developing countries can put to good use. “Countries around the world need the skills that students develop at Humboldt State, particularly in forestry and natural resources,” Sargent says. He notes that HSU is proud of and encourages its Peace Corps volunteers, and even offers a graduate school fellowship for returned volunteers.

“We prize our relationship with HSU,” Sargent says. “It may be tucked up there in Northern California, but its graduates have a major impact all around the world.”

“A man for others”

Sean McCartney’s journey to the island nation of Madagascar began on a recumbent bicycle at Humboldt State, where he volunteered to collect recyclable material as part of the campus recycling program.

“I was raised to be, pardon the expression, a man for others,” McCartney says. “At HSU, the people that inspired me the most were the ones who were actually trying to give back to the community.”

On hearing from friends who had served in the Peace Corps, McCartney became convinced it was the right vehicle for his energies. “The more I looked into the Peace Corps, the more it seemed a logical progression – to volunteer, get life experience and world travel,” he says.

After he earned his geography degree in 2004, he set out for the remote village of Miadampahonina. Natives of the subtropical highlands cultivate rice as their principal crop, produced in a time-hardened traditional manner. McCartney jumped in with both feet and quickly realized that learning the local dialect was crucial. After months of struggle, there was a turning point when McCartney knew he’d mastered Malagasy.

“Until you can make a joke in that language, you’re not going to understand the majority of what’s being said,” he notes. “To actually make a joke that’s kind of witty, that took me a good four or five months into my service. That was a huge hurdle for me.”

Mindful of the potential pitfalls of being a know-it-all, do-nothing outsider, McCartney hit the ground running. McCartney would rise before 6 a.m, to the sound of children pounding rice. He helped work the rice fields and was given two plots of land to cultivate as a model for the surrounding community—the perfect vehicle for his past experience volunteering with the Arcata Educational Farm.

Other duties included helping teach English to middle- and high school-age students and building fuel-efficient stoves.

One key technique McCartney shared with the struggling farmers was the System of Rice Intensification, a method of increasing the yield of rice produced in farming. Developed in 1983 by a French Jesuit priest, the practice has spread throughout the globe. But Madagascar has been slow to adopt it, even though the system was created at an agricultural school just 60 kilometers from Miadampahonina.

Another project was development of a six-and-a-half hectare community park. McCartney scoped the small community’s needs and desires, then drew up plans and oversaw construction with volunteers from the village. After eight months, the result was an integrated complex of trails, wildlife areas, basketball courts and a soccer field.

Gratifyingly, McCartney was able to close the global loop when he helped a native counterpart’s son travel to the United States. That exchange was set up via EarthCorps, which organizes global volunteers to help with restoration projects in the Pacific Northwest. “I even took him on a road trip to Arcata,” McCartney says.

McCartney’s three years among the Malagasy people was a journey, a validation, an education and in the end, the maturation of a global citizen. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” McCartney says. 
“I lucked out and had phenomenal people I worked with on a daily basis.”

Left: McCartney and villagers sift clay, ash and rice hulls, which they will mix with water to mold into fuel-efficient cook stoves.

Two-way enrichment

In 1996, Richard Engel happened to be attending an Earth Day celebration in Berkeley. “I saw a Peace Corps recruiting table and it just sort of hit me—‘Oh yeah, Peace Corps.’” He had graduated from HSU in 1988 with a degree in environmental resources engineering and then spent eight years working for the City and County of San Francisco and for the City of Palo Alto.

With a career change looming, soon he was posted to Honduras, living among 35 families of indigenous Lenca people in a secluded village in the province of LaPaz.

Operating at first in an atmosphere of “polite indifference,” Engel struggled with language and social barriers to teach soil conservation, start tree nurseries to replant deforested areas, conduct environmental education in schools and do management planning for an environmental sanctuary.

“It’s certainly true that the learning goes both ways,” he says. “Sometimes there are things that make you say ‘Why on Earth are they doing things this way?’ But you learn subtle things over time that show you that they are doing things the right way. You bring your own set of blinders with you.”

Eventually, he became more in tune with the locals, and they with him. “Something turned the corner around the middle of my two years and I started to feel a lot more accepted, liked, and eventually loved,” he says. “It takes you a full year to find your footing.”

He found himself recognized every so often, too. “I ran into two Humboldters in Honduras,” he recalls.

For Engel, the personal enrichment he’d hoped for came through on a scale he couldn’t have dreamed of when he met Basilia, the woman he would eventually marry. “One of the most wonderful things to come out of my Peace Corps experience was meeting her,” he says.

Sometimes you say ‘Why on Earth are they doing things this way?’ But over time you see that they are doing things the right way. You bring your own set of blinders with you.

It worked out well for Humboldt, too. Basilia immigrated to the United States on his return and the two were married in 2001. She went on to earn a degree in soil science at HSU in 2007 and now works with the AmeriCorps Watershed Stewards project.

A changed Richard Engel returned to the United States. “I just couldn’t face the big city again,” he says. “Arcata seemed so sane to me, and it still does,” he says. “I’m glad to say it changed me because a lot of things about my daily life are informed by what I saw and did there.”

Now a researcher at HSU’s Schatz Energy Research Center, Engel is returning to Central America in January. He has received a Fulbright grant to help Universidad Don Bosco in El Salvador develop a degree program in renewable energy. As he says, “The adventure continues!”

High perspectives

Two years of adventure await Carolina Tercero (’07), who has just embarked on her Peace Corps assignment as a Youth Development Volunteer in Mongolia.

At Humboldt, Tercero founded the multicultural Gamma Alpha Omega, a service sorority that did “everything, actually,” managing a range of events on and off campus. “It was a great experience, really,” she says. “I kept busy.”

Since graduating with a social work degree in 2007 she’s worked in Sacramento with AmeriCorps Vista on community development projects and in her home town of Santa Ana on after-school and career planning programs for at-risk high school students. But the Peace Corps always beckoned.

Did You Know? Humboldt State University ranks 14th among all medium-size colleges for the number of Peace Corps volunteers in 2009. Since the Peace Corp’s inception in 1961, 737 HSU alums have served.

“Two of my supervisors at the HSU Learning Center were returning Peace Corps volunteers and I asked them about it,” she says. “Everyone I talked to about the Peace Corps had the same energy, the same high perspectives and just loved their experiences.”

In Mongolia, she’s working with nonprofits to help young people develop life skills and do community development—in other words, social work.

“My skills and experiences here will help me work with the youth in Mongolia,” she says. “I want to connect the students there with my students here.” End Story