One man’s journey through the Peace Corps

Kaleb Warnock

He sits upright, but relaxed; one black combat boot-clad leg crossed over the other. His tattered, black messenger bag sits on the table.

He wears a khaki, supplex nylon shirt that looks a little out of place in the Midwest. He looks more like he’s ready to climb into a Land Cruiser and head into the sub-Saharan backcountry rather than sit through lectures and write papers.

Nicholas A. Lauen’s immediately stoic appearance downplays a knowledge and level of understanding that could only have been acquired through a stint in a war-torn, third-world country. It all but obscures the character of an individual who hopes to dedicate his life to developing third-world nations.

Nicholas, graduate in political science, recently taught the honors seminar, “International Development: Critical Perspectives and Frontline Experiences,” in which he applied his own experiences in development to explore and critically examine the international aid and development business.

Much of the content of the seminar was based around the book “The Road To Hell” by journalist Michael Maren, along with Nicholas’ firsthand experience in the Peace Corps. He focused on issues such as the misuse of development funds and the difficulties that are overlooked by non-governmental organizations and humanitarian organizations. Nicholas also shed light on the importance of understanding cultures and political climates in order to effectively help them.

Picture countries like Liberia or Cameroon, both in which Nicholas has spent a significant amount of his young life.

Cameroon is a small country in sub-Saharan Africa where Nicholas spent several years as a Peace Corps volunteer teaching mathematics at a rural technical teacher’s college. There, he overcame some substantial obstacles and gained an interesting perspective on life, which he gladly shared in his time as a former Peace Corps recruiter at Iowa State.

“I learned to conquer adversity on so many levels that I couldn’t believe what I could accomplish or what I could handle,” Nicholas said.

“Whether it’s lack of infrastructure; lack of organizational practices; lack of proper medical care; dealing with different cultural norms; language barriers; things that people take for granted here in the United States such as getting your mail delivered to you or picking up a package; or even making photocopies would take such an enormous amount of time, that when I came back here to the United States everything seems so easy.”

Nicholas applied to the Peace Corps after graduating from Minnesota State University, Mankato at the age of 22. He was at a lull in his life, being between a career and college and was looking for something to give him a good experience and an edge in the job market.

Luckily, he stumbled across the Peace Corps and was surprised by what he learned both about the world and about himself.

His eyes lit up and his rough exterior softened slightly as he began to expel his condolences for the Peace Corps while reminiscing on his experiences.

“Within our country there exists this popular idea of what the Peace Corps is: A government program where you go to other countries to do volunteer work,” Nicholas said. “That’s all I knew about it. It turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.”

“Who I am today as a person is based so much around my experience in Cameroon that it is unimaginable for me to think of where my life would be at without those two years in Cameroon.”

He spent two years in Cameroon as a Peace Corps volunteer and was soon promoted to head of the mathematics department at the age of 23. Despite being very young and unprepared to lead a math department, he grew into the position and inevitably benefited from the experience.

“I often think that people will step up to the challenges that are presented to them whether it’s physical challenges, academic challenges or leadership challenges,” Nicholas said. “And I was put in such a position in which I constantly questioned, ‘Oh my gosh, can I handle this?'”

Ultimately, Nicholas could handle the challenges and even implemented a few of his own ideas to improve the school. For example, when he arrived at the college, the pass rate for the teacher’s aptitude in mathematics was hovering somewhere in the single digits. In spite of the lack of an effective curriculum, he decided to implement his own, which proved to be significantly more effective.

He also gained professional leadership experience that he said he could find nowhere else.

“Over the course of those two years, I was so thankful for the level of leadership experience and project management experience that I had that there’s no way I could get something even close to this in the United States,” he said.

Nick also recommended that students consider the Peace Corps after graduation as a way to prepare for the highly-competitive real world and to gain a perspective that can’t be found anywhere else. However, he added that it isn’t for everyone and is a very difficult experience to relate to.

“I can sit here and yammer on about the Peace Corps and show you videos and show you photos and hours and you will never, never understand what’s it’s actually like to step outside of your life in America, step into another culture and do work that you’re proud of and at the same time learn a lot about yourself,” Nicholas said. “It’s an amazing experience in which recruitment videos can never capture what it’s like.”

Nicholas has spent time in Liberia since his initial stay in Cameroon and hopes to continue a career in development and spend some more time in Africa in coming years.