A little older, but still in love with Central America; here at the Mayan site of Caracol in Belize.

Name: Philip Virta
U-M Affiliation: Alumni

Where do you work?

Cengage Learning Farmington Hills, MI

When did you serve in the Peace Corps?


Where did you serve (which country/countries)?

El Salvador

What were your main responsibilities as a volunteer?

Water and Sanitation Extension Agent. I taught sustainable construction practices for community sanitation and health, such as building latrines (ventilated improved pit and composting types) and community wells made from locally available materials. I also taught health education and proper sanitary practices and worked closely with the local health care worker.

Is there a specific person (or persons) who made a strong impression on you during that time?

I lived and worked in a small, rural community called Mundo Nuevo. The people of that community and the surrounding areas all made a strong impression on me; they lived a basic existence, one where they didn't have much, worked hard, and made their way in life as best they could. In spite of hardships (everything from destructive hurricanes, crop failures, earthquakes, and the lingering after effects of a devastating civil war), they were positive in their outlook on life and generally very happy. The sheer fact that they enjoyed life so much in spite of trials and tribulations was inspirational.

What was one of the most memorable moments you had as a volunteer?

There were many of them and I kept a daily journal to keep track of those moments. One that comes to mind: I remember leaving my little community for a day in the nearest big town to pick up some supplies. It was the middle of the wet season (the two seasons in El Salvador are hot and wet and hot and dry) and I had boarded the little brilliantly painted recycled school bus (seemingly made for kindergartners because of its low ceiling) for the trip to town along super-saturated dirt roads meandering through fields of sugar cane. At one point, the road was so saturated from heavy rain the night before that the mud must have been a foot deep. The bus bogged down in the mud and became stuck. Without a word of protest or profanity, the men on the bus simply got up and began filing out the door. I followed along, stepping out into the oozing muck and heading to the back of the bus. Grinning like a bunch of fools, we all put our hands on the back bumper, yelled to the driver to "Go! Go! Go!", and pushed and pushed until the bus came unstuck and rolled onto firmer ground. Laughing, back slapping and general hilarity ensued as we slogged back to the open door of the bus and, looking like a bunch of pigs fresh from a good wallow in the muck, resumed our seats and our journey into town. That was one of my first introductions to life in the "campo" of El Salvador. It may be cliché, but you really can do anything when you work together.

In what ways did your Peace Corps experience affect your life and/or career decisions?

Peace Corps gave me a deeper appreciation for the very privileged life I live here in the United States, a fascination with and desire to learn more about other people and their cultures around the world, and a love for traveling off the beaten path. Returning to the U.S., I knew I wanted to continue working in the international arena and sought employment where I would be able to work in international business. I have spent many of the years since exploring the world both for work and pleasure. Through all of that, I strive to not only learn something new from the people and places I visit, but also to give something of myself, no matter how small that contribution may be.

In what ways did your U-M education, both inside and outside the classroom, prepare you for your Peace Corps experience?

The University of Michigan granted me B.A. degrees in both Spanish and German. My excellent education in Spanish, of course, helped me immensely during my time in El Salvador. U-M also taught me more about living independently, striving to do my best, appreciating other cultures and ways of life, and generally making me more world-wise than I had ever been. U-M was a great experience and my springboard to life.

What advice would you give to others who are contemplating going into the Peace Corps?

Go. Learn. Teach. Experience. Live. You have an opportunity to make a difference, no matter how small, by giving of yourself. Talk to some RPCVs (returned Peace Corps volunteers) for their perspective on "the toughest job you'll ever love." Examine what you know how to do and think of ways that it can benefit an individual, a group, a community. Read all you can about the places you might be interested in going to serve. Most important, believe in yourself; we all have something to offer and something to learn.

What is the value gained from the Peace Corps experience?

A more open mind, a new perspective on life, and an appreciation for who you are and your place in the world.

What lessons did you learn in the Peace Corps that you carry with you today?

I'd like to answer that with a quote from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring: "The road must be trod, but it will be very hard. And neither strength nor wisdom will carry us far upon it. This quest may be attempted by the weak with as much hope as the strong. Yet it is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere." What we do may not seem like much, but every little action makes a difference in the world, or even just one life, and that is what matters most.

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