Ater 31 years, Keene professor reconnects with Peace Corps volunteer who changed her life

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Jean Kayira
Jean Kayira

KEENE, NH – Happy Peace Corps Week!

It has been 54 years since President John Kennedy established the Peace Corps, an international U.S. service organization which sends Americans abroad to tackle the most pressing needs of people around the world.

According to the organization’s website, Peace Corps volunteers work at the grassroots level toward sustainable change that lives on long after their service – at the same time becoming global citizens and serving their country. When they return home, Volunteers bring their knowledge and experience – and a global outlook – that enriches the lives of those around them.

More than half a century later, it is interesting to test the theory of whether the Peace Corps mission, to promote world peace and friendship while making a tangible difference in the lives of others in remote places around the world, remains relevant.

We found the answer, after hearing from Dr. Jean Kayira, PhD, who teaches at Antioch University New England in Keene.

Dr. Kayira, a native of Malawi, attributes much of her personal and academic success to a particular Peace Corps volunteer, Michael Smyser, who was Kayira’s math and Latin teacher from 1982-84.

She now serves as a core faculty member at AUNE’s environmental studies, which partners with the Peace Corps for several graduate level degrees where student volunteers receive college credit for their service.

One of Kayira’s goals in telling her story during Peace Corps Week, was the hope that she might reconnect with Smyser.

Through the magic of the Internet, Manchester Ink Link did a quick online search and found Smyser, who is working for the University of Washington’s Department Epidemiology in Seattle, WA. We called to tell him about Kayira’s story, and wish to reconnect. (More on that in a minute.)

What follows is Kayira’s remembrance of those years in Malawi, and how it changed her life – and also how that experience changed the life of her mentor, Michael Smyser:

Writes Dr. Kayira: “When I started school (first grade), the language of instruction was a combination of  English, my local dialect of Tumbuka, and the national language of Chichewa (although this is not my mother tongue, it is mandated that all children regardless where they are from learn this language, and English. Chichewa and English are the national languages of Malawi). English concepts were gradually introduced as you can imagine. This continued until about 3rd grade. By fourth grade, all instruction was in English except for the Chichewa language.

After eighth grade I went to secondary/high school. It was in high school where most of my teachers were volunteers from the US, UK, and Japan. Math and Latin were taught by those from the US, English by those from the UK, and Physical Science by those from Japan.

My favorite teacher in forms 1 and 2 (or grades 9 and 10) was a Peace Corps volunteer Mr. Michael (Mike) Smyser. He taught me Latin and math. He was an amazing teacher not just because he’d explain things clearly, but he was very encouraging and believed in us students. I was very fortunate to have met someone like him at the beginning of my high school because that set a foundation for me to start believing in myself that “I’m smart,” “I’m going to succeed,” “I’ve what it takes,” etc.

I cannot explain what it meant for a young girl to receive such validation from a white teacher! Needless to say I did quite well in his classes. He left after two years, when I had just written my final exams for grade 10, but his job was done, I think; he had lit this fire in me that nobody was going to put out!

So I went through the remaining two years of my high school being one of the best students, this earned me a place at the University of Malawi to study a Bachelor of Education Science degree. Attending University in Malawi is not easy, one has to do extremely well on very competitive national exams. Mr. Smyser contributed to my success and I’m very fortunate to have met him at the time. If I didn’t meet him in 1982 when I was beginning my high school, I don’t know what could have come of me, not sure I’d be here today! From Mr. Smyser I learned how to succeed, I learned empowerment, I received validation – and the timing of meeting him was just perfect!

In a follow-up interview, Kayira said what stuck with her most about  Smyser was the way he connected with his students.

“His rapport with students was excellent; he was  friendly, encouraging, and believed in his students. He corrected mistakes in a manner  that  didn’t make me feel ‘stupid.’ One thing I remember most to this day is I felt ‘smart’ and confident in his classes. I believed in my abilities more and I took that with me moving forward,” says Kayira.

Kayira says she always wanted to be able to say “thank you” to Smyser, but never had any luck finding him.

But today was her lucky day.

Smyser, contacted March 4 for this story, said he had no idea he’d had that kind of impact on Kayira.

“It’s nice to hear. Back then, as a teacher in the Peace Corps, I wondered how what I was doing would really make a difference,” says Smyser, who was 24 when he arrived in Malawi in 1982.

He says his motivation in becoming a Peace Corps volunteer was to learn something about the world, and himself.

“That, and hopefully to give something to people, and share experiences in a meaningful way. It was a powerful experience to be in the Peace Corps, to meet so many good people. It was eye opening, and powerful,” Smyser says.

After two years in Malawi, Smyser came back to the U.S. and got his master’s degree in public health, which was motivated by his overseas experience. He then became director of a maternal and child health project in Kenya.

He says he certainly remembers Kayira.

“She was a very good student, and it’s nice to know she’s been successful. I wish her success in her career. It’s amazing that she’s taken advantage of the opportunities in life, and it’s also nice to know I might have been an inspiration for some of that,” says Smyser.

One thing he has carried with him is the world view that the Peace Corps afforded him.

“I think it’s a sad reflection on our media that most of the news you hear from overseas is bad news. The Peace Corps opened that up for me. My experience was the good news and people that were very open and warm and hospitable, and it really made me look at all the media we’re fed,” says Smyser.

“You’re bombarded with all the bad stuff; yes, there are bad things going on everywhere. But there are good people and bad people everywhere. What I learned is that, by and large, people are good-hearted. We all want the same things in life. We want to live good and happy lives,” says Smyser.

He said being a Peace Corps volunteer allowed him to share some of himself, but he also came away with so much, most of all, how to learn from others.

“In some ways it made the world a little smaller and made me feel closer to everyone in the world than just my own compatriots in the United States. It made me feel we’re all in the same boat and that we have common goals and expectations, and we should work through those truths,” says Smyser.

Smyser said he was looking forward to contacting Kayira.

But Kayira didn’t wait.

“I decided calling versus sending an email. The truth is, I was not expecting anyone to pick up. When he did, my heart skipped a beat. I was nervous. I explained who I was and who I was looking for (sounding awkward), and when he said ‘yes, it is me, and I remember you,’ I screamed. I couldn’t believe it. I was shocked, happy, and excited,” wrote Kayira in an email to Manchester Ink Link. “I’ve been sharing the story with friends, family, and my students (my classes yesterday started with this story). I’m so happy, I can’t stop smiling!”

During Peace Corps Week current and returned Peace Corps Volunteers are invited to get involved  by participating in this year’s Video Challenge and/or participating in Peace Corps Festivals across the United States. These activities, designed to support Peace Corps’ Third Goal of sharing other cultures with Americans, kicked off on January 1 and continues through the end of Peace Corps Week on March 7.

Follow this link for more on Peace Corps Week

Follow this link to learn more about Peace Corps Volunteer Opportunities.

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About Carol Robidoux 5781 Articles
Journalist and editor of, a hyperlocal news and information site for Manchester, NH.