Parkland credentials analyst has seen the world
Fresh out of college, Dennis Kaczor, now one of Parkland’s credentials analysts, struggled to find a job as a journalist or teacher in San Diego. He settled for working construction until he saw an advertisement for the Peace Corps and decided to apply.
The Peace Corps is a volunteer organization run by the United States government. It was founded by John F. Kennedy to create good relations with other countries, and provide service globally.
“After 6 months I finally got an interview, which was extensive,” says Kaczor.
Soon after applying and interviewing for the Peace Corps, Kaczor got a packet inviting him to teach in Yemen for two years.
Kaczor says he didn’t expect to be asked to volunteer in the Middle East, as he had always thought of it as a prosperous region.
“I knew where Yemen was,” says Kaczor. “I thought I might go to Africa, or Asia.”
In training Kaczor was taught about the culture he would be exposed to, and the basics of the language.
“Going to a completely different side of the Earth, a completely different culture than Western culture, there’s things you need to learn,” Kaczor says.
One thing he had to learn was to speak Arabic.
“I’ve heard all my life how difficult Arabic is…the main thing you have to overcome is learning a new alphabet and the right to left reading,” Kaczor says. “I was able to speak some, and read basic things.”
At first Kaczor was nervous to speak Arabic with the locals, but says he soon became comfortable because of how supportive they were.
“You’re anxious to try,” Kaczor says.
Another adjustment Kaczor had to make was that of different eating habits.
“They share food out of a pot, you’d get your own piece of flat bread that you’d use for dipping, and you have your own area you eat from, the equivalent of a piece of pie,” he says. “So three to four guys would eat from this pot, dipping in there, it was very communal.”
Saddam Hussein, the leader of Iraq at the time, invaded Kuwait in 1990. Yemen was an ally of Iraq, and forced the Peace Corp to leave Yemen immediately. Kaczor had to return to the United States, which initially upset him because he had gone through a lot of training in order to be able to volunteer in Yemen.
Only a couple days after returning Kaczor received a call asking him if he would be okay going to Sri Lanka to continue volunteering—an offer he accepted.
He went through training once more for Sri Lanka and was shipped out soon after.
“And here’s a whole other culture, and a whole other language” Kaczor says, explaining he loved that he was able to experience so much of the world.
“One of the guys I met [teaching in Sri Lanka] invited me to his village…it was very rural,” Kaczor says. “It was a 2 hour bus ride, and I got permission to teach there for a week. There’s 75 kids at the bus station waiting for me…jumping up and down and singing songs.”
The children hadn’t seen anyone of his ethnicity before.
“They’re calling me Sudu Mhatema, or Mr. White Man,” Kaczor says.
He explains he was treated as a sort of celebrity among the locals since it wasn’t a tourist destination, so it was the first time for a lot of people seeing a white man. He was invited over for dinner by everyone in the village, and they’d bring out their best dishes.
After some time, he met his now wife.
“My wife was actually my student, and it was after the 30 days [of teaching] we decided to try this thing [being together],” Kaczor says.
“You don’t date there,” Kaczor states. “I told her we’d meet in secret, she was a school teacher and I was teaching school teachers.”
Kaczor didn’t want to ruin her reputation so he proposed.
“What we can do is have lunch on Sundays in Kandy (a nearby town)” he says, describing their time together. “I’d take her to a nice hotel and we’d get a nice Sri Lankan meal.”
Soon Kaczor met her parents. Kaczor remembers her father’s reaction especially and eating lunch with him afterwards while he was dressed in police uniform.
“A few weeks passed and she invited me to her parents’ home in Colombo (her hometown)” he says. “I had lunch with them, and the mother took a liking to me….Her father didn’t go for the idea at all…I had lunch with [only] her dad after…He was dressed in uniform with the side arm on.”
Kaczor eventually won her dad over however through his respect of the culture.
“I arrived in the ceremony dress, given to us at the beginning; he was impressed that I was dressed like that, and impressed that I spoke Sinhala, and that I spoke rather well,”Kaczor says. “I did the proper thing and served his rice first, and I topped it with curries, and then I asked permission, and I served myself, and that was that.”
Kaczor’s own father’s reaction was hesitant.
“My dad sent me a letter that was 10 pages long, and in red ink, about how I should come home first and think about it, and send for her if it’s still a good idea.”
They got married a year after their initial secret dates.
“Good thing was that she could come home with me, she had a visa,” Kaczor says.
After his time in the Peace Corps Kaczor returned home with his wife. She started school at Parkland, studying health professions.
“I wanted to get my master’s when I got back,” Kaczor says. “They had an opportunity going on with University of DePaul, and New Mexico.”
Kaczor applied, and was accepted to the program in New Mexico. His education was paid for by Reader’s Digest though a program that had him teaching on a reservation. His wife continued her studies as well after the move.
After two years of teaching on the reservation, he got his master’s in Education and came back to Parkland.
“I came back wanting to get a teaching position, I got a part time position teaching ESL at Parkland for 2 years,” said Kaczor. “I’ve been here for 20 years, full time, I taught for two years, and have been in admissions ever since.”
Kaczor says of all his educational experiences, his time overseas was the most rewarding.
“I honestly think I learned more in my time overseas than in my master’s program,” he says.
He encourages others to join the Peace Corps if they have time.
“I tell anyone, if you’ve gotten a bachelor’s degree, and it’s been a year or so and you’re struggling to start your career,” Kaczor says, “Join the Peace Corps.”