Joining the Peace Corps at 51

by Judith Crown

Valerie Stinger’s desire to help the less fortunate, live in a foreign country and add to her lifelong learning led her to a dramatic career change, joining the Peace Corps at 51 after a career in pharmaceutical product development.
Peace Corps
Valerie Stinger, right, in Lesotho, where she provided
training in basic business skills to microbusinesses. Here
she awards certificates to two women who completed the training.

As a new product planner for a pharmaceutical firm, Valerie Stinger had met her goals—personal, professional and financial. “I didn’t want a second home, a plane or a boat,” she recalls thinking. What she did want to do was help the less fortunate, live in a foreign country and “test the idea of lifelong learning.” Her daughters were old enough to be on their own—one was in graduate school, the other still an undergraduate student. And Stinger’s mother was healthy.

On Martin Luther King Day in 1998, at 51, Stinger applied to the Peace Corps. She was working at the time in product development at the biotech giant Genentech. It took a year and half for her acceptance letter from the Peace Corps to arrive—the long wait, she learned later, is typical. “I had no idea if they would take me, so I kept working,” she recalls.

Stinger liked the work well enough—evaluating whether drugs should be taken from research into clinical development. Before joining Genentech in 1995, she had worked for another drugmaker, Syntex, in Palo Alto. Stinger had started her career in the research department at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, where she projected how different tax and monetary policies would affect the economy.

Once accepted to the Peace Corps, Stinger was tapped by the government of Morocco to develop a business school curriculum at a university in Settat, an agricultural center of fewer than 120,000 people south of Casablanca.

Teaching Where There Is Much to Be Taught

At the university, she pushed her students to think more critically (many were used to memorizing facts) and tried to instill confidence. When a group of students was charged with helping to develop an action plan for the university, Singer encouraged them to cite the lack of bathrooms as a problem. They were amazed when the new dean turned out to be receptive to their suggestions. “Teacher, we had no idea we could ever speak to someone in authority,” one student said afterward.

Martine Wiener, a Peace Corps colleague who was based in Sefrou, about six hours away, recalled that Stinger took a systematic approach to her mission. “She planned ahead and was always prepared for her classes,” Wiener says. “She was close to her students and they really liked her.”

With an allowance that gave her the lifestyle of an entry-level teacher, Stinger shopped in the souks, or open-air markets, and learned to cook tagines, slow-cooked stews named after the conical-covered pot in which they are cooked. She dressed conservatively in slacks and long skirts and learned not to wear makeup during Ramadan. Her news came from the Internet and from weekly editions of Newsweek and the Christian Science Monitor.

“She managed fine,” Wiener says. Both women learned to live without a refrigerator. “The people you buy from don’t have refrigeration either,” she adds. “So you shop early.”

The lack of Western efficiency could be frustrating. Coming from an efficient, fast-moving business environment, “the slow pace and lack of expectations were dumbfounding,” Stinger says.

“By the end, I came home with a greater respect for the phrase, ‘Enshallah,’ meaning Allah willing,” she says. “At its best, individuals had an appreciation for their place, that they were not the center of the world.”

After the two-year stint in Morocco, Stinger accepted shorter assignments in developing countries through other non-governmental organizations. She helped entrepreneurs in the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan develop business plans and worked in small-business development in Lesotho and Sudan as part of programs on HIV and AIDS testing and awareness.

The assignments were satisfying. “You see the results so concretely,” Stinger says.

One of the most striking lessons came from her time in Kazakhstan, which struggled economically. Citizens yearned for a time when there was more job security and their communities were more vibrant—one young Kazakhstan translator was nostalgic for lovely gardens that he remembered from his childhood. “It was a poignant reminder of the fragility of our economics and our society,” Stinger says.

Today, a Balanced Life

Stinger currently spends much of her time in community work—she serves as a library commissioner in Palo Alto—and consults for pharmaceutical companies. “From developing countries I bring home perspective, realizing how lucky we are,” she says. “For developing countries I appreciate how much an individual can accomplish and how much a strong community fosters individual pursuits.”

And she prepares tagines, with olives and preserved lemons. “The best part of a Moroccan meal is the circle around the central serving dish,” she says. “There is always room for one more guest.”

Stinger says her experiences overseas met her objectives and will be a bridge to a retirement that is active, but also provides personal freedom and flexibility. Her advice to others considering a second career is to make the change for the right reasons. “If the move has a positive underpinning, that is a strong foundation,” she says. “If someone is considering a change to get away from a negative situation,  that might be the wrong motivation. Planning for the move and an assessment of the benefits and risks might be compromised in that scenario.”

For those stepping into a transition, she suggests, “Accept and embrace what is new and different.” Looking back, she wishes she had enjoyed the process more.

 


by Judith Crown | Thursday, April 2, 2009 | Career Change, Retiring Abroad

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