The Peace Corps brings a '98 grad full circle

Feb 20, 2004

For Robin Vacha '98, a period of service overseas for the Peace Corps has helped him craft a personal and professional life enriched by experiences that have brought him full circle to where he began his career.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence;
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

A passage from Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Not Taken"

Robin Vacha '98 is not an expert in explicating the poetry of Robert Frost. He might not comprehend the meter or undercurrents of indecision contained within "The Road Not Taken," or notice the delicate rhyme that imbues every other line as the narrator decides on which road to take in life. But what Vacha does understand is that by exploring a path much different from what Kettering University graduates typically take, he has crafted a personal and professional life enriched by experiences that have brought him full circle to where he began his career.

For this Cleveland, Ohio, native, graduating with a degree in Mechanical Engineering (ME) and minor in Applied and Computational Mathematics meant leaving college and earning a good salary as an engineer with a solid company. Most graduates find this sort of career expectation more than enough to start one's future.

But one day, several months following graduation from college, Vacha sat in his cubicle at work with several engineering colleagues reading the day's Dilbert comic strip. Unlike other days, the comic strip for that particular issue spoke to him in a strange and perhaps unexpected way. "Suddenly, I had this eerie feeling that the rest of my life had the potential to be frighteningly similar to Dilbert's," he explained.

Soon after his colleagues left his cubicle to resume their work day, Vacha, still reeling from this realization, went online to the Peace Corps website (www.peacecorps.gov). Soon, he made a decision that would alter the course of his personal and professional life.

"My decision to join the Peace Corps was an equal mixture of altruism and adventurism," he said. "Although I never had the illusion of saving the world, I did have a strong desire to spend a portion of my life where my major objective wasn't making more money and getting ahead."

He also said that through his attendance in Michael Callahan's summer 1996 course 20th Century Diplomatic Crisis, he experienced a broader reality through readings in history, which exposed students in the class to different countries. The course objective is to provide students a basic knowledge of the 20th Century and to sharpen their skills in critical reading, thinking and writing. Some of the required texts for the course included William R. Keylor's "The Twentieth Century World: An International History," Keith Robbins' "The First World War," H.S. Wilson's "Africa Decolonization," and James P. Harrison's "The Endless War: Vietnam's Struggle for Independence." According to Callahan, who is an associate professor of Liberal Studies, the course "challenges students to consider international questions and the larger global problems. Additionally, this course encourages students to adopt an international perspective to gain a greater understanding of the size and complexity of the larger world."

In 1999, Vacha joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer. Following months of training, he received an assignment to a village in Ghana, Africa, where he taught math and physics at a Ghanian equivalent to a high school. The experience was eye opening to say the least.

"One of the problems with being an engineering student is that at times students are completely submerged in numbers," he observed. "I can honestly say that I learned more in my two years in Africa than during any other two-year period of my adult life. The ability to bridge cultural barriers and work together with people so different from what I was accustomed to is a skill set I will use the rest of my life. The responsibilities I was given and the project management skills I developed in the Peace Corps are far greater than one could find in any normal business environment."

Following his work with the Peace Corps, Vacha wanted to study Chinese, which led him to Beijing Language University. But while he was living in Beijing and attending the university, his co-op employer during his student days-MTD Products Inc. of Cleveland, Ohio-contacted him to inquire about whether or not he could speak Chinese. As it turned out, the company wished to open an Asia-based office and they expressed an interest in tapping Vacha's experience in making the new office a reality.

Today, he has come full circle: by actively pursuing opportunities that have allowed him to experience life in other countries, he feels even more equipped to resume his career as the Asia pacific project manager for MTD Asia-Shanghai office in a part of the world he finds fascinating.

"China has one of the most dynamic economies in the world and I believe the experience I gain here will allow me to achieve more distant career goals," he added.

Written by Gary Erwin
(810) 762-9538
gerwin@kettering.edu