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RPCV Diversity Spotlight: Marvin Pannell

Voices presented by PSDN (Peer Support Diversity Network) is a new series of video and written interviews highlighting the intersection between PCVs and RPCVs of diverse ethnic/cultural backgrounds and their service in Thailand. These stories will highlight the joys, and the challenges these volunteers face with the hope that they will educate and inspire those who wish to learn more about life in Thailand, as well as, those who may be considering serving in the Peace Corps.


Name:  Marvin Pannell

Hometown:  Pemberton, N.J.

Group#/Program:  Thai 100, Department of Agricultural Extension (Amphur Prasat, Surin)

Years of Peace Corps Service: 1992 to 1994 (PCV in Surin); 1994 to 1995 (PST Trainer in Thailand), 1995 to 1996 (PC Fellow in D.C.), 1996 to 1999 (DMO in Turkmenistan, and the Baltics), and 2015 to present (DMO in Thailand)

MPannell in Thailand 1993

Marvin Pannell in Surin, 1993

Describe some highlights from your service:

  • Working with the Women’s Farm Cooperative to catalog sources of natural dyes for silk weaving.
  • Grant funded by Canadian Embassy to work on an integrated lunch-aquaculture program at schools.
  • Working with co-located Public Health Volunteer.
  • Building solar oven during technical training.
  • Learning to make soy milk from scratch during training.
  • Learning how to build an incinerator for disposal of syringes and other hazardous materials for use at public health stations.
  • Learning to adjust to a “slow” work environment and adding definition to an initially ambiguous role.
  • Learning how to survey my community, draw maps, and identify resources.
  • Solving problems and executing projects in close collaboration with only the most dedicated co-workers and community members.
  • Exposure to Americans who are different from those I grew up with in a working class and mostly military community in New Jersey.
  • Learning Thai throughout service.
  • Meals, jokes, and social activities shared with co-workers.

Describe your life after service:

I started looking for a job in Thailand about 6 months before COS and ended up working as a journalist covering the Stock Exchange of Thailand (SET) and commodities exports for a global wire service with a bureau in Bangkok. Eventually, I ended up working for Peace Corps as a homestay and cross-cultural coordinator during PST for groups 104 and 105, I believe.

Former Country Director, Darcy Neill, nominated me for a management training program called “Peace Corps Fellows” which took me to D.C. for a year where I learned budgeting and operations. My first posting as DMO was in Turkmenistan, and my second posting was in Estonia/Latvia/Lithuania (the Baltics).  

After working in the Baltics, I returned to the USA to study for an MBA. Recruiters came to campus and I ended up in the online banking division of a Fortune 100 retail bank. I spent 2001 to 2015 in California and New York working in the online or digital divisions of financial institutions leading projects and/or teams in building and marketing products and services for existing and potential customers who prefer to transacting over the internet.

Describe your cultural/ethnic background:

My father is African-American. My mother is Thai. I was born in Thailand and moved to New Jersey when I was 4 years old.

Did your background impact your service in any way? If so, how?

I certainly had an advantage understanding and learning Thai as I had exposure through hearing it at home during childhood. I also studied at a Thai temple in Berkeley, CA and created an independent study course through the anthropology department where I studied as an undergraduate all prior to arriving for PST.  

When I arrived in 1992, staff told me I was the first “luuk kreung” to return to Thailand and serve as a PCV. I also took this as something to take pride in.

When you spend your life being the first, the only, or one of the few, you just accept that whatever you do or wherever you go, you will be again – unique. I don’t think most people find full comfort in the situation, but I accept the responsibility to work harder to ensure I am not the “last”. The impression and results through my sheer presence and deliverables must leave minds open for embracing more like me.  

Our backgrounds impact our service in overt and subtle ways, certainly, and this is true of Peace Corps service as well as any professional endeavor beyond. In many countries, when a community hears an American is coming to work, community members are probably anticipating an American of European descent.  They aren’t even expecting a Native American. What an opportunity this presents for volunteers to educate and explain the history of America as a country of immigrants from many nations.

It is possible, and perhaps likely, that my background has cut me off from some opportunities that citizens of the majority hailing from European backgrounds have had, but that’s not what I focus on now or ever. In my mind, it’s not relevant to ponder if I had been born of a different background, would life be easier, would I be more “successful”, would Peace Corps service be more fulfilling or easier, etc. What I focus on is how to maximize the resources at my disposal to lead as fulfilling a life and as accomplished a career as I can.  

The inequities and tyrannies inflicted upon all of us are both unpredictable and unending, so I just embrace the fact that any struggles will require that I draw on wisdom, experience, and unique characteristics inherent in who I am to help me persevere. Along the long journey of life, friends, family, loved ones, and spirituality serve as a bedrock of support to help me triumph.

MPannell at Homestay Dinner_1992

Marvin Pannell at homestay dinner, 1992

What are some ways you were able to share your diversity with your host community?

Counterparts ask a lot of questions, and I answered them all repeatedly. I didn’t do anything specific like stage Black History Month to celebrate diversity. When Asian-American volunteers visited site and counterparts asked, “Is s/he an American?” I took the time to explain and re-explain that the first Americans were Native Americans and that the country was subsequently built on waves of immigrants, slaves, and others who could obtain citizenship.  

Did your service impact how you view/identify yourself?

No, not specifically, but rather, there is no other way to identify myself than to state factually what I am. I am biracial, and the notion of identity is cumulative over many experiences in life.

When I walk the streets of Oakland or New York City, I suspect that most people would view me as “Black”. Most marriages in America are still within the same race and same religion as published in recent demographic studies from Pew and similar research organizations.  

As much as some in the media and other segments of society want to believe America is somehow instantaneously post-racial with the election of one former bi-racial President, I submit such claims are naïve and premature, as the US and the world have much unfinished business.

If the world were post-racial, there should be numerous indicators from equity in pay, to the number of roles in c-suites (senior executive positions) occupied by executives of color, to the number of interracial marriages, to the number of interracial contacts and dates as evidenced on match.com, for example.   

Peace Corps service made me proud to be bi-racial and reinforced for me the criticality of striving to represent and to achieve in all endeavors where I find myself as the first, among the few, or as the “only”.

How did your community benefit from having a volunteer with your background?

They saw yet another type of American who could be productive, master the language, eat spicy food, and share in the joys of life from jokes to annual festivals. Presence, alone, counts for something as it gives minimally open-minded observers an opportunity to broaden and evolve their views.   

What was your approach to handling challenges during your service?

I relied on constructive engagement and consultations with nearby PCVs and one or two colleagues from the office. Whenever I was in a funk, I stepped back to reflect on what was going well, what I wanted from the experience, and what skills and attitudes might serve me best beyond Peace Corps. Most of the rest is static which can be metaphorically cast off in a box.

MPannell with Coworkers in Surin_1993

Marvin Pannell with coworkers in Surin, 1993

What advice can you offer to future and fellow volunteers?

Remember to employ the L.A.S.S.T principles below as you spend your life tired and tirelessly being the first, among the few, or the “only”, who will leave a lasting impression and open opportunities for others to embrace more from well-intentioned people like you.

Listen – Learn to look for and accept opportunities from informal teachers who abound all around us.  

Act – Own your success by taking action through the skills you already possess or can augment to allow for greater success.

Speak Up – Express your thoughts and share your experiences in non-confrontational ways. Let others inside your head just a bit to understand your unique world view.  

Show Your Upbringing – Be polite and make a lasting (positive) impression which helps expand perspectives.

Time – Embrace that time is finite and maximize its use by developing keen discernment about that which has high potential to be useful in the near-term and the long-term.  Minimize engagements in the trivial and nonsensical.

The Peace Corps journey is a foundational and vital leg of an overall journey. I look at each position and experience this way: What’s going to serve me most when I am done here? And then, I just focus on getting more of the skills and attitudes which can be leveraged in a career that spans a “multi-verse” of opportunities rather than the singular “universe” that is the Peace Corps.

In a recent lunch conversation I had with an acquaintance from another agency, we concluded whether or not double standards actually exist, our perception that double standards do, in fact, exist helps to keep us on our toes. This pushes us a little harder to deliver just a bit more so that any existing and ill-conceived notions that we cannot deliver on par with peers (by title) can be erased with demonstrable evidence of quantifiable results.  

On the one hand, we could call this overcompensation, but the reality is that we need to remove any barriers by presenting equivalent credentials. The English has to be as refined if not better, the schools have to be as selective, and the measurable results have to be numerically equal or better, in order to erase any doubts of competence.

When we arrive at a new place and we are different from expectations, it can be exhausting to explain, to educate, and to gain acceptance. It can be tiresome to need to overcome, but we are not unique in our uniqueness; others will follow and will be better off as each of us opens minds one person at a time.

What’s the next step in your journey?

  • Invest quality time with family and friends.  
  • Invest for a comfortable financial retirement.  
  • Seek new adventures to build upon all, or most, of the previous opportunities.

3 replies »

  1. Marvin! Great to see you as the DMO in Thailand and what fantastic responses to the questions from SR. And yes, you were the Homestay and Cross-cultural Coordinator for group 104 and 105. I was a 105er. The family returns to Thailand every year. Maybe we can catch up in late 2017 or early 2018.

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  2. Thanks for sharing your experience with us Marvin, you are full of wisdom. Representing America as an Arab American has led to some funny looks and questions from Thais, but I don’t think they would have otherwise ever had the opportunity to hear of America’s diversity or to understand that America is great because of it.
    – Yousif 129

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  3. “Presence, alone, counts for something as it gives minimally open-minded observers an opportunity to broaden and evolve their views. ”

    Great post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I can definitely identify with the feeling of being an “only” and look forward to learning and growing over the next two years. The Peace Corps is so necessary during this time in America and I hope my presence here will account for something.

    – Clarence

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