Humanitarian Hawkeyes: Peace by Peace

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Alison Gowans works with the girls who participated in her after-school health club at Big Bend High in Mndobandoba, Swaziland.
Alison Gowans works with the girls who participated in her after-school health club at Big Bend High in Mndobandoba, Swaziland.

Joining the Peace Corps may not seem like the natural next step upon graduation for journalism and mass communications majors, but Don Yager (BA ’67) and Alison Gowans (BA ’07) found it to be the perfect one.

“I was particularly interested in editorial journalism—that’s why I was the editorial page editor at The Daily Iowan,” Yager said. “But my work with the Peace Corps changed all that. Teaching English as a second language gave me a way to help Afghans try to pull themselves out of poverty and toward a better life, and it changed my direction in life, too.”

Both Yager and Gowans found themselves pushed in the Peace Corps direction because the opportunities at home seemed few and far between: Yager graduated at the height of the Vietnam War and Gowans at the peak of the 2008 financial crisis.

Don Yager, seated on a motorcycle, with his self-proclaimed “adoptive” brothers Nabi and Nader Seddiq in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Don Yager sits on a motorcycle with his self-proclaimed “adoptive”
brothers Nabi and Nader Seddiq in Kandahar, Afghanistan. 

“Unfortunately when I graduated there was not a lot of work available,” Gowans said. “The Peace Corps made a lot of sense to me because I liked traveling and knew I wanted to live abroad.”

Gowans credits her time studying abroad through the University of Iowa as what prepared her best for joining the Peace Corps.

“The study abroad opportunity helped me grow and assimilate into the new culture I joined through the Peace Corps,” Gowans said. “I performed HIV education with community partners, and worked with church youth groups, afterschool clubs, and community adult-education groups.”

Don Yager, seated on a motorcycle, with his self-proclaimed “adoptive” brothers Nabi and Nader Seddiq in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Alison Gowans works with the girls who participated in her after-school
health club at Big Bend High in Mndobandoba, Swaziland.

Immersing into New Cultures

Although both serving in different times and different countries, Gowans and Yager agree that their time spent in Mndobandoba, Swaziland, and Kandahar, Afghanistan, respectively, provided them with experiences they could not get anywhere else.

“Getting to know and be accepted by the people of Afghanistan was the most rewarding thing to me,” Yager said, remembering the family who lived next door in Kandahar. One of the family’s children went to the school where Yager was teaching and asked if Yager could teach him English privately. He agreed.

“This family, I guess you could say, adopted me,” Yager said, “and I was able to experience so many things with them that your typical American expat in Afghanistan wouldn’t have had access.”

Gowans acknowledges her time in the Peace Corps as a turning point in her life regarding cultural experiences. While living within and learning from the community she was serving, Gowans felt immersed in her new culture in a way she could not have experienced anywhere else. 

Although there were many other Americans in Afghanistan at the time Yager served, only three percent of Peace Corps volunteers currently serve in the Middle East, as opposed to the majority of 46 percent serving in countries like Gowans did in Africa.

The Dumisa Primary School in Mndobandoba, Swaziland, where Gowans worked throughout her time in the Peace Corps.
The Dumisa Primary School in Mndobandoba, Swaziland, where Gowans
worked throughout her time in the Peace Corps.

“Don told me that he gave only one piece of advice to his students and that was one word: travel,” said former acting United States archivist, UI grad, and longtime friend Trudy Huskamp Peterson. “It has shaped his life and his intellect and makes him a wonderful conversationalist.”

After the Peace Corps, Yager continued teaching abroad for 37 years in various countries throughout South Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East.

“He is revered by his students, who now are adults and have become leaders in their own countries,” former colleague and journalist Cheryl Arvidson (BA ’69) said. “There is no greater credit to a person than to have those whose lives were touched hold that individual in great esteem as they grow older and come to appreciate what they were given.”

The Biggest Impact on the Smallest Scale

Despite their unique experiences and individual growth, both Yager, now retired, and Gowans, a writer at The Gazette, came to understand that as human beings, we are much more alike than we are different.

“I think people join the Peace Corps because they want to make a difference in the world, which is a good thing, but no one person is going to solve the problems you’re trying to tackle,” Gowans said. “So, the impact you’re going to make is really on the individual level.”

“You’re not going to change or save the world, but if you can help a few people along the way, why not?” Yager said. “That’s what really matters.”