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Robert Schmidt’s Peace Corps

by Robert Schmidt

Upon graduating from Oberlin College in June 1963, I faced a choice between graduate school in history, or joining JFK’s new Peace Corps. At heart, I viewed it as a choice between writing term papers, always an ordeal for me, or an adventure volunteering in the “third world.” So in August of that year when Peace Corps Washington called to offer me a spot in the upcoming “Group III for North Borneo/Sarawak,” I leapt at the opportunity, setting aside any concerns about “the headhunters of Borneo,” which I had studied in anthropology class my senior year.

Robert Schmidt, Malaysia, 1966-69: Recess with second grader Yee Ta Min

Six weeks later, on October 12, 1963, I arrived in Hilo, Hawaii, for the beginning of two months of Peace Corps training. My specific assignment was working with the Chinese primary school English teachers in North Borneo, which, by the time I arrived on January 2, 1964, had become the Malaysian state of Sabah. The local Department of Education was seeking assistance in replacing the rote memorization method of teaching English used in the Chinese and Malay primary schools in the state.

Our group spent the first few weeks in the capital, Jesselton, (now Kota Kinabalu), becoming acquainted with the new method, “English for Newcomers to Australia” (ENCA), which had been endorsed by the Colombo Plan [a regional economic and social development organization]. I was sent to the town of Kudat, at the very northeast tip of Borneo, where I was assigned to teach second- and third-graders in a local Chinese primary school in the daytime, and work with the local teachers in the evenings to improve their own English.

Opening day teaching English to third graders, I have the curriculum on the desk in front of me. Following the instructions, step one, and cupping my ears, I say, “Listen. Listen,” only to be greeted with “Listen. Listen.” I say “No, no. Sh, sh, sh!” This too, I get thrown back at me. Finally, one rambunctious little boy at the back of the room tells his classmates to shut up and listen —- in Hakka or Hokkien, the two most common local dialects. So then I move on to the actual content, pointing to myself and mouthing “I”, “I”, “I”. The response was to have 30, seven-year old fingers, pointing at me and calling me “I”.

However, the kids made enough progress, that a few months later, at the beginning of recess, no sooner had the kids stepped outdoors than two of them came running back in excitedly to bring me outside to look into a pail of water, and exclaimed, “The sun is…broken !”

Robert Schmidt: With Ajahn Sumedho, Yee Ta Min, his wife and three children and another PCV who had worked in Semporna.

After one year of mastering ENCA in Hwa Lian Primary School, my teaching schedule was halved to make it more practical for me to train local teachers in approximately ten Chinese primary schools throughout the district. Peace Corps provided me a 50 cc. Honda motorcycle to enable me to visit the schools and observe the teachers I had been working with. I was then asked to recommend a couple of the teachers for scholarships to Australia.

Among our English teacher-training Peace Corps contingent in Sabah was a 29- year-old named Robert Jackman. He and I became friends, and remained in touch even as he went to Thailand after his Peace Corps service at the end of 1965, to become a Theravadin Buddhist monk in the Thai Forest tradition. 42 years later, in 2007, “Ajahn Sumedho” had never returned to Sabah for a visit. So, another former PCV, who had worked in the same town as Sumedho, and I offered to accompany Sumedho back to Sabah and his old Peace Corps town, Semporna, for a visit.

I contacted my former second grade student, Yee Ta Min, who was an architect living in Kota Kinabalu with his family. He was also a Buddhist, and had designed a Buddhist monastery in Sabah. When I told him that I would be coming to Sabah with Ajahn Sumedho, he provided a van and driver for us to make use of for a week in order to facilitate Aj. Sumedho’s return visit to Semporna.

I finished my Peace Corps Service in early 1966. Prior to my Peace Corps assignment, all my geographical interest had been in Europe, especially Germany and the Balkans. Peace Corps in Malaysia punted me towards Asia for most of the rest of my life and after several teaching stints in Laos, S. Vietnam, Taiwan, Philadelphia, and Hawaii, I joined the USIA class of June 1985. Overseas tours included La Paz (1986-87), Bogota (1987-89 and 1997-2000), Yangon (1989-91), Jakarta (1992-95), and New Delhi (2000-04).

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