Peace Corps celebrates 63rd anniversary – Ottes reflect on experiences as Peace Corps volunteers

While in Colombia, Lyle Otte taught community leaders how to organize laborers to improve their communities, like constructing an aqueduct from a fresh-water spring to a small village.

When longtime Decorah resident Lyle Otte graduated from St. Olaf College in May 1965, he had two options. He could either enter management training for Sears, Roebuck and Co., because he’d worked for the company throughout high school, or he could join the Peace Corps and travel to a third-world community in Colombia and attempt to help the locals improve their quality of life.

Otte chose the Peace Corps, and he’s always been glad he did.

Founded in March 1961, the Peace Corps is self described as “an independent agency and program of the United States government that trains and deploys volunteers to provide international development assistance.” The organization is celebrated its 63rd anniversary in March.

“I was faced with the two different worlds: Peace Corps or business,” said Otte, a retired Postville High School social studies teacher. “I chose Peace Corps, because I was a student of international relations. That was the smartest thing I’ve ever done, besides marrying my wife and having kids.”

Just one month after his college graduation, at 23 years old, Otte traveled to Albuquerque, N.M., where he and his fellow Peace Corps Volunteers (PCV’s) underwent intense Spanish language training in which he and his peers studied Spanish for six hours every day for three months straight.

After his training, he flew down to Colombia, where, from 1965-67, he was based in San Lorenzo and worked in community development. One of his larger projects during his first two years was teaching people how to organize farmers to build a two-kilometer aqueduct from a natural spring to the center of Santa Rosa.  

“I was teaching Colombian local community leaders how to organize their community to resolve physical projects and infrastructure,” Otte said. “I wasn’t really aiming at building more bridges. I was teaching how to organize to get those projects done, and I’ve been doing it ever since.

“There was some culture shock,” he continued. “I was stumbling around in Spanish and trying to understand how I would be able to do my job, first because of language and second, because I was living in a community in the mountains of Colombia, where everybody’s a farmer, and I had to show them that I wasn’t a CIA spy. It was difficult.”

After his second year, Otte volunteered for one more year to help the people in Sibundoy. After a year there, he returned home in April 1968 and wondered what he would do then. At first, Otte said he flew to New York City and interviewed with The World Bank and international development companies. But, relying on his experience in Colombia, he decided, instead, to earn his teaching certificate from Mankato State University.

“I learned a huge amount about Colombia, rural poverty, and I learned a huge amount about myself — how I could work in a completely unstructured job and get something done,” he explained. “And, I’ve advocated for Peace Corps experience ever since I came back.”

That advocacy rubbed off on his daughter, Kristina, known locally as Tina, a 1989 Decorah graduate. After high school, Kristina went to St. Olaf College for two years before transferring to the University of Iowa, from which she earned her bachelor’s degree in early elementary education in 1994.

“My interest in the Peace Corps probably started with my dad’s slide shows,” Kristina said. “Growing up, about once a year, my dad did slide shows from his time in the Peace Corps, and the interest in traveling overseas was always huge for me since I was a little kid. So, after college, I knew I didn’t want to immediately start teaching or get my Master’s. I just wanted to go overseas someplace and help however I could, because I was raised by do-gooder parents, so I always felt like I needed to make a difference.

“I saw that as part of growing up,” she continued. “When you become a young adult, you go and experience life someplace else. And, I couldn’t wait to get out of Decorah, where everything is Norwegian and Lutheran, to see the world and have new experiences. I just always felt the need to go where I was needed.”

Kristina said that after graduating from the University of Iowa, the Peace Corps offered her a position in Kiribati, pronounced “Kirahbis”, an island country in the Micronesia subregion of Oceania, comprised of 32 atolls, in the central Pacific Ocean.

Kristina’s training and preparation for Kiribati took place in San Francisco, and from there, she flew to Hawaii, where her trip was almost cut short.

“We had a layover in Hawaii, and I lost my plane ticket,” said Kristina, laughing. “So, we had to lie and say that I was married to one of the other Peace Corps volunteers.”

With that little lie successfully executed, Kristina flew to Fiji and then on to the capital of Kiribati, Tarawa, where she had additional training for several months. Once her training was completed, she hopped on a single-prop plane to fly to the island of Maiana, which was her home for the next two years. 

“It’s such a tiny strip of land,” Kristina said. “When you’re landing, you don’t even see land until you’re right upon it, because it’s so tiny. It feels like you’re landing in the water. Each island is a strip of sand; very narrow with a bay in the middle. And, all the atolls are completely flat — covered with coconut trees and beaches on both sides. 

“It was also crazy hot,” she continued, “and I have psoriasis, so as soon as I got off the plane in Kiribati, it felt like I was walking into lotion, because it was so hot and humid, and my skin loved it. The climate is great for psoriasis.” 

Kristina described Kiribati as a developing third-world country.

“The outer islands, where I lived, there was no electricity, no running water, and everything was very simple compared to what we have here,” she said. “I lived in a little coconut-rib house, which they built for me, with coconut rope and a leaf-and-grass roof. I got my own water from the well, and I washed my own clothes with well water and cooked my own food over a fire. It was the quintessential Peace Corps experience, and it was amazing. So amazing.

Kristina said her first year on the island was very challenging, because she didn’t know the language, and it felt very difficult for her to settle into the routine of living in Kiribati for a number of reasons.

“I came home to Decorah after that first year to have a little break, and my mom just helped me work through it” Kristina recalled. “She was wonderful. So, I went back after three weeks in Decorah, and I had the most amazing second year. It was like my brain just flipped a switch, and I became fluent, and I would even dream in the Kiribati language. I knew how to interact with people better, and I could pick up on all the little nonverbal cues. I became a Kiribati woman, and it was wonderful. It sounds so obvious, but that’s when I learned we’re all human. We all share the same characteristics, and we all have the same needs.”

In addition to being a co-teacher for kindergarten-through-eighth-grade children in Maiana, Kristina’s Peace Corps role was training Kiribati teachers. But, that role might have left a lot to be desired, because the then-23-year-old Decorah native was charged with training Kiribati teachers who’d already been teaching their own way for years.

“For the first year, that was really challenging, because I had the mentality of the American girl who’s going to teach all these people, because they don’t know what they’re doing,” she said. “After I learned how to be more collaborative with them, the second year was much better.”

“There was a lot of abuse of women, so I saw that, and it was very jarring for me to figure out how to live with that,” continued Kristina. “Domestic abuse was a cultural thing. It was beginning to be viewed as incorrect, but it was still very common. There was a lot of yelling and beating that was really hard for me to witness, and I was completely isolated from the other volunteers, so it was dangerous for me. Women were raped, and it was really scary for me sometimes. My next door neighbor’s kids slept in my house to protect me, because I was ‘the foreigner’, and there was a mystique about that kind of thing.”

But, the risks and potential dangers were far outweighed by the benefits of the Kristina’s Peace Corps experience, which, she said, included amazing food and communal living at its finest.

“Our school compound, where we lived, was right next to the ocean,” she said. So, I would have students who’d bring me lobsters for lunch. It was very basic food, but we would have papayas, free-range chickens, lobsters and crabs. We had wonderful communal eating. Like, on the weekends, all us teachers would hunt land crabs and lobsters at night, with lanterns, and the next day, we’d have a huge party in the central compound of the school and eat rice and lobster and papaya. It was just delicious.” 

“We would all hang out and take care of each other, and we wouldn’t worry” she said. “We’d stay up late at night, play cards and sing songs, and we all played ‘Sorry!’ The communal living was really beautiful.”

After two years in Kiribati, Kristina came back to the United States but soon left again to teach in Puerto Rico for two years, which was followed by six years of teaching in Chicago. Today, Kristina is a kindergarten teacher in a town north of Chicago, where she’s been the last 10 years.

“I would totally encourage anyone to volunteer for the Peace Corps — to go overseas and experience different cultures. Not only are you helping other people, but they’re also teaching you. It’s so valuable. As long as you go into it with the mindset of ‘I’m there to learn’ your experience will be fantastic. I totally recommend it. It’s a wonderful experience.”

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