Carissa Sutter, 126
Interim Country Director Ken Puvak
1979 Political Science Bachelors Degree from Penn State University
1984 Masters degree in Government Administration from the University of Pennsylvania
Peace Corps Experience
1980-82 English education volunteer in Zaire
1988-89 Director of Management and Operations in Tanzania
1990 -93 Director of Programming and Training in Zaire and Cameroon
1993-95 First Country Director in Zambia
2005-07 Country Director in Botswana
2007-09 Country Director in Kenya
2010-13 First Country Director of Indonesia
2014 Country Director of Armenia
World Food Program (In Bhutan)
American Council of Engineering Companies (Director of International Affairs in Washington, D.C.)
Development Alternatives, Inc.
French and Kikongo
**Full bio at the end of the interview**
What made you join the Peace Corps?
I knew very little about Peace Corps growing up. When I was fifteen or so, though, I was deeply affected by its public service announcements including the “glass half full” and the “toughest job you’ll ever love” spots. From that moment, I made the decision that Peace Corps was something that I would pursue after college. The thought of trying to give a little something back was a powerful motivation. It was as simple as that.
How was it different than you expected?
I had very few expectations going in. The description I received regarding the assignment itself began by saying “You will be assigned a Central African country….” Peace Corps programs in Zaire, Chad, Cameroon, the Central African Republic and possibly others (I presume) were all using the same template description! I wish I still had that one and a half page document.
What was your experience as a volunteer in Zaire?
There has been no more indelible experience in my life than my time in Zaire as a Peace Corps Volunteer. The Zairois (the Congolese) have an incredible ability to take you in and make you feel at home. I will never forget my students and their families — and the other Volunteers with whom I served. They will always be family.
Did you get along with your host family?
Actually, I didn’t live with a host family. I had my own mud and thatch hut on the edge of the village near the school where I taught.
Do you have any success stories?
It is not my success story but I will share a story. My best student, Mudikosi Galema, came down to my house at the beginning of my second year crying, telling me that his father had passed away and that he was dropping out of school. I immediately told him that I would cover his tuition fees (a small fraction of my living allowance) if he would take on some chores each day. He agreed and he was able to graduate high school.
Fifteen years ago, I got a call from Mudikosi. He was in California working as an engineer for a South African firm, subcontracting on a major construction project. After graduating high school, he was able to obtain a scholarship to study in South Africa because of his academic achievements and English speaking ability. He tracked me down to thank me for the support I had provided. (When he first mentioned it, I had completely forgotten about paying his tuition.)
It is hard to relay how far it is from the small Congolese village of Molembe (population 400), to Johannesburg, South Africa, and then to California. To have played a small part in that journey is something I will always be proud of. It points out the truism about Peace Corps that you cannot know what impact you are having. It may take years.
Do you still keep in contact with any of the youth you worked with?
I was back to Zaire as a DPT from 1990 to 1991 (until we had to evacuate the program) and on a couple short-term assignments in the mid 1990s. I was able to visit Molembe and saw a few of my old students but just missed tracking down my best friend, my principal from my first year as a Volunteer.
What kind of struggles did you face?
The biggest challenge was the lack of contact with family and friends back home. At the time, the only way to communicate was through letters and post cards which often took several weeks to arrive. I was able to call home only once during my service.
Have you eaten already, or not?
Did you think that you would be a Country Director someday, during your service as a volunteer? If so, what did you hope to accomplish or change?
No way! I entered Peace Corps with no thought about making international development a career. Even at the end of my service, I thought that I would return home, go to law or graduate school, and happily settle in the U.S. (Instead, I have spent most of my adult life, nearly 25 years, working outside the United States.)
When I did come back to Peace Corps (six years after my volunteer service), I wanted to do everything in my power to support Volunteers in having the kind of positive experience I had had as a Volunteer.
Can you eat spicy food?
I love spicy food! Six days a week as a Volunteer, I would eat cassava leaves cooked in palm oil with manioc flour porridge. The only thing that made the dish interesting were the hot peppers.
More close to home, if I had to pick just one cuisine for life, it would be Thai.
You have served as the first Country Director in at least two countries. Because of that experience, is it harder, or easier to work as a Country Director in an established program?
The rewards of opening a new program (which I have had the good fortune of doing in Zambia and Indonesia) are incredible. The great thing about it, as you might imagine, is that, along with host country partners and staff, you can shape the program as you see fit.
At the same time, I love the challenge of working in established programs. Last year, I spent six months as acting Country Director in Armenia and thoroughly enjoyed supporting Volunteers and staff there. One thing that I should mention is that I am reluctant to make any immediate changes to policies, particularly as someone new to the program. My assumption is that policies have been put in place for a reason.
It is a bedrock belief for me that we owe it to every Peace Corps Volunteer no matter where he or she serves the best support that we can possibly provide toward the goal of positive and productive service. Whether a program has been running for 50 years or 50 days, it makes no difference.
What is your favorite color?
What would you like the volunteers to know about you?
That I am genuinely interested in learning about their experiences, both good and bad, and am committed to doing everything I can to support their service and the communities where they live and work.
After all of your years of experience moving to new countries, what is your method for learning new languages?
It is one of my great frustrations that Peace Corps does not do more to support language acquisition on the part of staff. It is great when someone gets the opportunity to serve as a staff member in his or her country of service (like Kevin). In most countries where I have worked, I have tried my best to attain a conversational level in the language.
I am looking forward to learning as much Thai as I can. In fact, I plan on taking language classes in my off hours.
Can you write a haiku about how you feel about joining Peace Corps Thailand?
Out of a great regard for the traditional literary form, I humbly request more time to compose a haiku. Perhaps, I can write one about my experience with Peace Corps Thailand. Would that work?
Do you have any specific advice that you would like to give the volunteers?
I don’t have any specific advice but am delighted to serve as a sounding board for any Volunteers who might be interested. It is one of the best parts of the job, when you feel that you have helped someone to deal with a challenge or to solve a problem.
Looking forward to meeting all of you — or at least as many of you as I can!
KEN PUVAK Mini-Biography
Over the past two decades, Ken Puvak has served twelve years as Peace Corps Country Director (CD) in Zambia, Botswana, Kenya and Indonesia. He opened the programs in Zambia (1993-1995) and Indonesia (2009-2013). He has also undertaken short-term stints as an acting CD in Togo, Nigeria, the Central African Republic and, most recently, Armenia.
From 1988 to 1993, Ken held positions as a Director for Programming and Training with Peace Corps in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Cameroon and as Director for Management and Operations in Tanzania. He served as an Education Volunteer from 1980 to 1982 in Zaire.
When not working for Peace Corps, Ken has held international positions with the American Council of Engineering Companies in Washington, DC, Mercy Corps (Lebanon) and the World Food Programme (Bhutan) and as a Presidential Management Intern with the Environmental Protection Agency. Ken is currently on a year-long expert appointment with Peace Corps.
Mr. Puvak graduated magna cum laude from Penn State University with an undergraduate degree in political science in 1979 and from the University of Pennsylvania with a master’s degree in government administration in 1984.
Ken and his wife, Eva Piszczek, have three children named Noah, Noelle and Nicholas, ages nine, twelve and sixteen respectively. Eva used to be the DMO in Peace Corps Thailand, which makes this a homecoming for her!
Categories: PC Staff Interviews
Tagged as: 126, 2015, Africa, Cameroon, Carissa Sutter, cassava leaves, Congolese, Country Director, engineer, feels, Gin khao ru yang?, host family, Ken Puvak, Mudikosi Galema, PC Staff Interviews, Students, Zaire, Zairois
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