|A Passion For The Peace Corps
Richard Bak finds adventure and unpredictability on assignments in Micronesia, Macedonia
By Jennifer Mullen
Ask Richard Bak about his eight years working for the Peace Corps and it quickly becomes apparent that, indeed, it is the toughest job youll ever love.
A 1987 Old Dominion graduate with a bachelor's degree in business and the universitys first Kaufman Prize recipient, Bak joined the organization in 1995 after completing an M.B.A. at the University of Texas at Austin. As a staff member for the Peace Corps, Bak served as a paid employee of the organization instead of as a volunteer. But that didnt mean a lack of international travel, meaningful contribution to other cultures or the challenges of daily life in a foreign land.
Bak credits his experiences in German classes with Regula Meier, associate professor emeritus of foreign languages and literatures, for opening his eyes to and creating an interest in other cultures.
I first recognized an interest in developing countries in 1991 when I went to Eastern Europe to visit my family, said Bak, whose father was born and raised in Poland. When I completed my studies, I thought that the Peace Corps might be an organization that would allow me to further explore my interest in international development.
Bak was hired as a staff member in the Office of Planning and Budget in the organizations Washington headquarters. His goal was to move to an overseas administrative officer position, which he received 2 H years later in Micronesia, a small, developing island nation in the Western Pacific Ocean, located about 2,500 miles southwest of Hawaii.
I was a bit hesitant, given that my interest was in Eastern Europe, he recalled. Still, it promised an experience. For both volunteers and staff at Peace Corps, this is really the attitude you have to approach your assignments with you have to be ready for adventure, unpredictability, and you must be willing and able to adjust to the circumstance.
In this role, Bak served as head of the administrative department for the countrys post. Each post typically has three departments; programming and medical are the other two. He and his staff of five served 50 volunteers in two countries Micronesia and Palau and five major island groups.
The volunteers in Micronesia focused their efforts on environmental work advising how to protect the reefs and jungle habitats as well as the teaching of English, computer education programs, small-business development and work with youth.
Micronesia, spread across 2,000 miles of water near the equator, is composed of 607 small islands which, if put together, would be about half the size of Rhode Island, according to Bak. And while one of his later assignments involving the evacuation of volunteers from Macedonia at a time when that country talked of full-blown war might seem like his most frightening Peace Corps experience, Bak said his scariest moment came during a simple trip to visit a volunteer in Micronesia.
We had volunteers spread among 15 islands most on larger ones, but a few on quite remote atolls that were difficult to get to. After several island hops taking a few hours by airplane, Baks last visit was to the tiny island of Fadarai, which was only accessible by a two- to three-hour boat ride from the nearest island.
Although a storm was brewing, we were committed to make the journey, as the volunteer in Fadarai was having some difficulties and we were to meet with the Nanmwarki, or chief of her island, he said. A group of five people set out in a 15-foot-long flat boat, with one engine and two spare gas tanks.
The waves around us were 10- to 15-feet high, and the trip went on for what felt like a lifetime. At any point, the boat could have been swamped and there would have been no one around to even know about it.
After our three-hour journey, we got to the island for our meetings and, after only an hour, we had to get back on the boat and do the whole thing again in reverse.
High seas werent the only difficulty Bak had to confront while on the island.
In Micronesia, the priorities of the people are family first, followed by the needs of the community, then the church and finally ... the needs of the job, he said. Trying to run an American organization in a place where so much is more important than the employer is a challenge. It took a lot of creativity to bridge American cultural values with Micronesian cultural values.
Bak also explained that differences apply in more subtle ways as well, such as cultural rules on eye contact, tone of voice, personal space and topics of conversation.
Peace Corps staff positions are 2 H-year appointments called tours and staff members are normally limited to two tours, or five years. Following his two tours at headquarters and in Micronesia, Bak was granted an exception for a third tour as well as a one-year fourth tour, which he served back at Washington headquarters.
At the end of 1999, he was able to fulfill his dream of working in Eastern Europe when he was sent to Sofia, Bulgaria, for his third tour. While there, he was called to serve as a temporary replacement for the administrative officer in Akopje, Macedonia, just as tensions were flaring between the Macedonians and Albanians.
I had only been there a few days when the call came from the American ambassador to evacuate all volunteers from the western part of the country. I found myself suddenly thrown into an unpredictable and very moving experience, as we gathered up 12 volunteers from their sites with little warning.
Until you are in a war zone, as this almost was, its hard to comprehend the range of emotions you experience. The volunteers were upset to be leaving
the local staff were upset
because of the fears they had for the safety of their families, their communities and their nation. It was such a tough, touching time and the work we all pulled together to accomplish in just a few days will always remain an amazing experience in my memory.
Bak, who returned to the United States last May and recently completed his final year as a budget management analyst for the organization, now has a new job in the State Department finance office. His departure from the Peace Corps after eight years doesnt necessarily signal the end of his relationship, however.
I still hold out hope that one day I might sign up as a Peace Corps volunteer, said Bak, noting that the organization has no upper-age limit. I could see myself at 60 or 65 trying it from the volunteer side. The volunteer experience generally results in people who are among the most interesting, aware, open-minded and concerned individuals you can ever meet.