Beyond Vassar

Vassar & the Peace Corps

By Adrian Margaret Brune

When President John F. Kennedy established the Peace Corps by executive order in the spring of 1961, Vassar grads were among the first to sign up.

Penelope Roach ’57 wrote to the White House to request an application form right away. By the time an Act of Congress formally instituted the Peace Corps six months later, Roach and 49 other volunteers had already arrived in Ghana to begin their teaching at secondary schools scattered across the newly independent nation (the first south of the Sahara). “We had a 22-hour flight by prop plane, and thought we might not make it—the pilots had to take off some of the luggage,” says Roach, a retired professor at the former Marymount College in Tarrytown, New York. “But when we arrived, all of us were determined to do a good job there and all the Ghanaian people were determined to help us.”

Since 1961, more than 229 graduates from Vassar College have served in the Peace Corps. Last year, 12 graduates were carrying out Peace Corps missions around the world. As Pamela Martin ’77, a lifelong Peace Corps affiliate says, for Vassar graduates, “There is nothing like being immersed in a culture unlike your own and having all of your assumptions about life stripped away. When everything you thought was normal is brought into question, you look at the essence of things. Those people in National Geographic become your neighbors; you become a part of the fabric of their lives.”

In the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary year, we take a look at several Vassar alumnae/i and their life-changing involvement with the organization.

Penelope Roach ’57, served 1961–63, Ghana

Retired chair of the International Studies Program at the former Marymount College of Fordham University

After two weeks in dorms at the University of Ghana, Roach was sent to the Okuapemman School, 40 miles northeast of Accra, where she taught English to prepare students for Ghana’s GCE exam, essential for graduation and therefore, higher education. Soon, however, Roach had taken on other obligations, including serving as a housemother for the few women students at her coed school and tutoring them in her spare time. “Vassar gave me a strong sense of self-identity, and I tried to pass that on in teaching my students—to communicate that they could do whatever they wanted, to encourage them and mentor them.” Looking back, Roach, who met President John F. Kennedy and Peace Corps Founding Director Sargent Shriver in a Rose Garden ceremony before she left for Ghana, says she was possibly “too idealistic” about how quickly international development would take place. But to this day, she remains enthusiastic about the way the Peace Corps “continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of developing countries.”
Pamela Martin ’77, served 1978–80, Republic of Cameroon

Former country director, Peace Corps, Malawi; current Peace Corps contractor

Pamela Martin knew from childhood she wanted to join the Peace Corps, and after majoring in English at Vassar she enrolled, thinking of the Peace Corps as more of a “continuing education,” but hoping she “could do something useful for somebody.” Less than a year later, Martin landed at a school in Cameroon, which at that time had been independent about 15 years. “I was on another planet. It was largely Muslim and animist, arid, and the school had almost no girl students, no women teachers and students older than me,” says Martin, who went on to become a Peace Corps country director in Malawi as well as a training officer in Russia and Armenia. “I was this little twig—that’s what they called me—and what on earth was I doing there? Why would a little girl go from paradise, America, where they have shoes and school and medicine … why would she leave that for the village?” But Martin’s experience, she says, profoundly deepened her understanding of human societies. “The Peace Corps taught me that if you listen and look, there are reasons for other ways of life that make perfect sense, even though they don’t seem to on the surface.”
Ellen McCauley ’79, served 1979–81, Honduras

Presently casework supervisor, Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, State of New York

Ellen McCauley joined the Peace Corps straight out of Vassar as a way to travel and have adventure. Instead, she found a calling in Honduras.  “I had majored in anthropology with a minor in Spanish at Vassar, so I was a little disappointed that they sent me to Central America,” she says. But once in the country, McCauley essentially developed her “own plan.” Though trained by the Peace Corps as a nutritionist, McCauley worked with a documentary team on a film about Honduras and wrote an ethnography of the indigenous Garifuna people, emulating what she calls the Vassar way of letting students develop their own fields of study. “Probably the most significant way the Peace Corps changed my life, was immersing me in ‘poverty,’” McCauley says. “The people with whom I lived did not epitomize what we consider poverty, but they had struggles of the most basic sort. I saw death, sickness, and discrimination firsthand.”
Kevin Kearns ’93, served 1994–97, Republic of Cape Verde, West Africa

Currently vice president, facility development and future planning at Science World at TELUS World of Science, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Enchanted by the stories of his mother’s best friend, Kevin Kearns charted a course toward the Peace Corps during high school—college at Vassar was just a delay, a “kind of passport” to adventure beyond his wildest dreams. Sent to Cape Verde as an urban planning volunteer upon graduation, Kearns soon realized the Câmara Municipal de São Vicente (City Hall) “didn’t know what to do with me.” He started looking for people who needed help and problems he could solve. Starting with the creation of a trade school for the city, as well as an emergency location system to benefit the area’s transient population, Kearns eventually branched out into the integration of homeless children into society through the coordination of the work of local and international NGOs. “Before I went to Vassar, I wasn’t sure I would have anything to offer the Peace Corps,” Kearns says. “One of the outcomes of a Vassar education is the realization that you don’t have to be a doctor, lawyer, professor, or dentist—that the choices insidiously promoted by our culture can be overly limiting. Vassar gave me the knowledge and confidence to break with norms and expectations—it allowed me to confidently blaze my own trail.
Heather Tomlins ’02, served 2007–10, Republic of Macedonia

Currently a master’s candidate studying international development and social change, Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts

Though she had considered applying to the Peace Corps right after her 2002 graduation, Heather Tomlins actually spent five years in the American workforce with AmeriCorps in Missoula, Montana, before signing up for a gig in Bitola, in what had been the southern most region of the former Yugoslavia. “I had ideas about wanting to make a difference ‘at home’ before venturing abroad and trying to fumble my way through development in a place where I wasn’t even sure I would be welcomed or needed,” Tomlins says. Once she arrived in Macedonia, however, Tomlins found the people of the midsize city required her business acumen just as much as those of the western United States. As an NGO development volunteer, Tomlins helped a local handcraft association preserve and promote traditional Macedonian crafts such as embroidery, knitting, mosaic making, weaving, and jewelry designing. She also advised a few of the association women on starting their own tourism/souvenir business, and—along with two other Peace Corps volunteers—launched a professional bicycling tour company.  “Vassar gave me the urge to work toward social equality and to address real injustices, rather than to graduate from college and get a good-paying job in the corporate sector and not think about what else was happening in the country—or the world,” Tomlins says. “It helped me to really consider that I could be a part of real social change, not just a bystander.”

Adrian Margaret Brune ( is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.