Astronaut speaks: Peace Corps difficult, rewarding

By Rebecca Fiedler
Staff Writer

Astronaut Joe Acaba has been all over the world and to outer space and back. His life has taken him from college to the Marine Corps, to the Peace Corps, to NASA.

On Wednesday, Acaba brought his experience and knowledge to Baylor students in a broadcast interview from the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

The interview was broadcast at multiple universities across the southwest. Students who came to Moody Memorial Library were able to ask Acaba questions about the Peace Corps and his other experiences.

“I’m not trying to convince you to join the Peace Corps,” Acaba said, addressing students tuning in to the broadcast. “It definitely is not for everyone. But the advantages of joining the Peace Corps are many.”

Acaba said when he graduated from college, he had no idea what he was going to do for a career.

Acaba received a bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of California in Santa Barbara and his master’s in the subject at the University of Arizona.

Acaba also served in the United States Marine Corps Reserves, and spent two years in the United States Peace Corps as an environmental education awareness promoter in the Dominican Republic.

Before becoming an astronaut with NASA, Acaba taught a year of high school and four years of middle school math and science.

He was selected as a mission specialist by NASA in May 2004 because NASA wanted an educator on the flight, Acaba said.

Acaba has been on multiple space flights since 2009.

Acaba said in college he was interested in joining the Peace Corps and an adviser suggested he apply for the Peace Corps because of his interest in geology.

Christina Stegura, local regional recruiter for the Peace Corps, said the Peace Corps accepts students from all majors, and projects are assigned based on an international community’s needs and the volunteer’s abilities and interests.

“So you’re able to use the skills you have and the background you have combined with the training that Peace Corps gives you to make projects look different based on yourself and your individuality,” she said.

Acaba said the Peace Corps was originally difficult for him to get into because he felt over-qualified because of his master’s degree, but he was accepted.

Stegura said the Peace Corps tries to recruit college graduates, and volunteer ages range.

She said she disagrees that an education would have a negative effect on someone’s chances of getting accepted by the Peace Corps.

“More education does not hurt you in any way,” Stegura said.

The Peace Corps focuses on people with more technical skills and who are more specialized to put into Peace Corps response positions, Stegura said.

It’s hard to go from being a professional in the U.S. economy to living in a place of poverty as a volunteer with the Peace Corps, Acaba said.

“It’s scary,” he said. “When you first leave your house and go to a different place, there’s a lot of anxiety.”

Acaba said the Peace Corps teaches a person to be responsible. He lived without running water and electricity a lot of the time while in the Dominican Republic and was away from his family, Acaba said.

“If you’re adventurous and willing to take a risk, I think it’s a good thing to do,” he said.

A student tuning in to the broadcast from another university asked Acaba which was more difficult: serving in the Marines, being in the Peace Corps or being an astronaut.

Acaba said the Marines was a physical and mental challenge. The Peace Corps was the scariest experience for him, he said, because he was far away from his family and was looking into the unknown. NASA also presented challenges to him, he said.

“Astronauts are challenged in a different way,” Acaba said. “I learned a lot in a short period of time. You’re consistently pushing yourself to learn more.”

Acaba said he sometimes failed at accomplishing a task while in the Peace Corps but would tell himself not to dwell on the mistakes and ask himself what he could have done better. He had failures when with NASA, too, Acaba said.

“Just like in the Peace Corps, you’ve got to learn from your mistakes and you’ve got to move forward,” he said. “If you never have any failures in life, you’re probably not trying hard enough. You want to push yourself to do things that are sometimes uncomfortable.”

Acaba said he encourages students to do the things that they enjoy, and not to enter the Peace Corps hastily.

“For a Peace Corps volunteer, be sure that’s what you really want to do,” he said.