Inaugural Peace Corps volunteer shares experiences
Brenda Brown Schoonover drew from her experiences with school integration when she became one of the first Peace Corps volunteers. And she brought her experiences abroad back home as the civil rights movement continued, she recently told a group of Smith Middle School students.
Robin McMahon’s French class hosted Schoonover’s visit last week. The world traveler greeted the class in French before taking a seat and taking the class back to 1950s to set the stage for her international travels.
“No one assumed the Peace Corps would last this long,” she said. “It was a political idea that the president (John F. Kennedy) had and nobody envisioned that sending people abroad for two years to develop relationships would last 50 years.”
Part of the experience culminated in “Answering Kennedy’s Call: Pioneering the Peace Corps in the Philippines,” a book that was composed of essays from former volunteers and their experience with the program. As she worked on her essay, “On Being An American,” Schoonover said that she was able to reflect on the entire experience.
“I started to think about why I decided to join the Peace Corps and the experiences I had,” she told the class. “I taught English and science in the Philippines and then I thought about my time in high school.”
Schoonover was unknowingly preparing to become volunteer overseas when she agreed to integrate Cantonsville High in Baltimore County in 1955.
“I chose to attend. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t as difficult as the Southern states but it wasn’t easy,” she explained. “That helped me prepare for when I went overseas. I was used to being the minority. I was accustomed to moving around in that environment.
“Being a part of the Peace Corps sent me in a direction I thought I’d never go.”
As an undergraduate student at Morgan State University, Schoonover was introduced to other students from all over the world.
“When I was in college a lot of these (African) countries were just gaining their independence,” she said. “Many of these young people were coming to the States to go to college. I was very impressed with how serious they were, how mature they were.
“Then when president-elect Kennedy began talking about the Peace Corps and what he would do as president, he got students so fired up that thousands signed up to volunteer prior to the actual start of the Peace Corps,” Schoonover said.
After serving in the Philippines, Schoonover spent a year in Tanzania as a Peace Corps staff member where she was responsible for 75 volunteers.
She married Foreign Service Officer Dick Schoonover in 1968, and they honeymooned in Nigeria during its civil war. Schoonover traveled with her husband and once she joined the State Department the couple had tandem assignments in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Tunisia and Belgium
Upon returning to the United States during the Civil Rights Movement, Schoonover said that she received a rude awakening when she and a Peace Corps colleague went to a local restaurant after recruiting at Morgan State.
“We were refused,” she said. “I have traveled across 12 countries and never been refused service, but I come back to my own country and I was refused.”
Back in the U.S. in time for the historic March on Washington, Schoonover said that she “was overwhelmed by the whole idea,” but that she didn’t attend. She added that “many people didn’t think it would be the great success it was” while others thought there would be riots.
The now retired ambassador in on the advisory board for the University of North Carolina’s Global Education, the International Affairs Council in the Research Triangle, IntraHealth International and Carolina Friends of the Foreign Service. Schoonover is also president of American Diplomacy Publishers.
With all she’s done and seen, Schoonover said believes that “we should all volunteer starting here in our own country.”