If you attended our March Story Slam, you’ve already met June’s featured member, Phil Venditti, and you won’t be surprised to learn that in the decades since serving as an education volunteer (Korea, 1976-1978), Phil went on to earn a Ph.D. in educational administration, wrote/edited four books, hosted an international/intercultural TV show, and finally retired after 27 years in college administration. Phil’s Peace Corps story is also a wonderful love story! In this month’s spotlight read about how he met his wife, Yuna Min, a co-teacher, and the special mandate Peace Corps had for his K-40 volunteer cohort. If you missed the slam, or would like to listen to the stories again, the recording is available here; Phil’s segment begins at approximately 24 minutes. —K. Sebastian
When I prepared to enter the Peace Corps in 1976, I harbored some preconceptions. I thought that the agency would prove to be either a heartless bureaucracy, a tool of the CIA, or both. The volunteers I’d meet, by contrast, would presumably be high-minded and altruistic.
What I lived through during two years of service differed from what I expected, however. The Peace Corps operations in Korea were predominantly honest, well-run, and innovative. Most of my fellow volunteers were as idealistic as I’d expected, but many were self-centered and dissolute.
My group, K-40, was the smallest ever sent to Korea—just eleven volunteers. It was also the first and last whose members taught briefly in public schools and were then dispatched to work in provincial educational research institutes.
Anyone who’s been a Peace Corps volunteer knows that that role entails dealing with ambiguity—culturally, linguistically, psychologically, and in terms of work responsibilities. I experienced all those varieties of ambiguity in Korea.
The atmosphere in my institute was congenial, relaxed, and welcoming. No one ever explained to me what the place was actually doing, however. Perhaps someone there was performing educational research, but I never observed anything resembling educational research as conducted in the USA.
I was given no job description and wasn’t really supervised, so I was able to plan and execute many projects on my own. One was to write several dozen articles about American culture and language which then appeared in the main provincial newspaper and some national magazines. Another was to visit 30 schools throughout the province to promote a radical new English teaching methodology, find out how Korean English teachers spent their time, and answer questions about American society and life from students meeting a foreigner for the first time. A third was to solicit and compile essays by students in Korea, the Philippines, and Botswana entitled “Americans.” Along with these activities, I taught and tutored individuals and groups regularly in English lessons whose curriculum and materials I developed.
Daily frustrations and questions common to volunteers everywhere affected my behavior, certainly. The vagaries of my specific work role likewise challenged my self-image and sense of purpose. In spite of these difficulties, or perhaps because of them, having experienced Peace Corps-Korea helped me later as an educational professional. In administrative positions, I was more patient and open-minded than I probably otherwise would have been. As a teacher, I acted in direct accordance with the precepts of the radical English teaching philosophy I’d embraced.
My fondest memories from Korea are of my courtship with the woman who became and remains the love of my life. Somehow, through happenstance or destiny, our interactions while co-teaching for one short term in a middle school sparked mutual interest and affection. Cultural realities forced us to nurture our relationship furtively for many months after that. She supported me in all my projects, including the largest—the compilation of a book of essays about American life and language. Together, we submitted a final pile of manuscripts for that book to a publisher in Seoul a day or so before getting married.
Some people think the Peace Corps experience is “what you make of it.” There’s some truth to that, I suppose, but it’s not a cut and dried matter. Although I take responsibility for how I acted in Korea, for better or worse, I’m immensely grateful for the positive, efficient, supportive environment that the Peace Corps provided to me and my fellow volunteers. And I’ll never forget the inspiring kindness and energy of the Koreans with whom I lived and worked.
Photo Top: Phil and Yuna Min, in WA, 2021
Photo Bottom: Phil and Yuna in Korea, 1978