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Learning from the University of Miami’s leader

In 1962, a Peace Corps volunteer began her two-year visit to southern Iran to teach English to locals in a small village. She wanted to volunteer in the Middle East, particularly because her family is Lebanese. Forty-six years later, she would share her experiences with about 20 students who were thinking about embarking on a similar journey with the Peace Corps.
“We listened to their priorities and it became a very important life lesson,” said University of Miami President Donna E. Shalala. “The Peace Corps gives you the opportunity to be as creative as you can be.”
The event invited past and current UM Peace Corps volunteers to discuss their experiences with prospective students. The forum, at Storer Auditorium, occurred just weeks after UM was named No. 15 in the country for producing Peace Corps volunteers from medium-sized colleges.
“There’s something about Americans [and their ability to]organize. They know how to put a process together to get people organized and going,” Shalala said. “Almost everyone who went to the Peace Corps with me was young and just out of college. We learned how to listen to the local people.”
During her speech, Shalala detailed her training prior to embarking for Iran. She and other volunteers were grouped with Iranian graduate students who helped them understand the culture in which they would be immersed.
She spoke of a local mullah, a religiously educated Muslim man, who helped guide her efforts in the village during her visit.
“He taught me to listen to the leadership wherever it was and to try understanding what people, even the poorest people, on earth thought were their priorities,” she said.
After Shalala concluded her speech, Michelle Tsiknakis, a UM alumna who graduated last December with a degree in health sciences and Spanish, spoke about her upcoming trip to Guatemala.
“Every experience is definitely to-each-their-own, everyone has a different experience,” Tsiknakis said.
“I’m really excited for the opportunity, but I’m going to be doing a little bit of everything. I’m going to be going to my country, seeing what they need and hopefully be fulfilling that need.”
Tsiknakis began serving as a health technician in Guatemala in April, bringing needed medical help to her those in need.
“Hopefully I’ll be as successful as [Shalala] was,” she said.

Ramon Galiana may be contacted at rgaliana@themiamihurricane.com.
July 22, 2010

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