COLUMBIA — Martha "Marty" Patton, associate professor of English, faculty sponsor for Amnesty International and chairwoman of the faculty committee for peace studies at MU, has had a lifelong interest in making a difference through small interactions.
"I believe person-to-person interaction is one of the best ways to build peace slowly, not in a dramatic way, and have, to some degree, tried to practice that my entire life," Patton said.
Current number of volunteers and trainees nationwide: 9,095
Gender: 61 percent female, 39 percent male
Marital status: 93 percent single, 7 percent married
Average age: 28
Volunteers over 50: 7 percent
Current number of countries served: 75
Where volunteers serve:
- Africa: 39 percent
- Latin America: 24 percent
- Eastern Europe/Central Asia: 18 percent
- Asia: 9 percent
- The Caribbean: 4 percent
- North Africa/Middle East: 3 percent
- Pacific Islands: 3 percent
These figures were retrieved from the Peace Corps website and are based on data from Sept. 30, 2011.
This summer, Patton, 59, will act on her interest in intercultural dialogue and English as a second language when she begins a two-year stint with the Peace Corps.
Patton is part of a nationwide increase in the number of people older than 50 volunteering with the Peace Corps. That age group makes up 7 percent of volunteers — up from 5 percent a couple of years ago, said Christine Torres, public affairs specialist for the Midwest regional Peace Corps office.
"Most baby boomers still want to continue contributing, using their skills and knowledge, and Peace Corps is one of those ways they're looking to do that," Torres said. "Probably because they're of the Kennedy generation, so that call to service and the Peace Corps having creation in the '60s is something that they remember, and it still resonates with them very strongly."
The Peace Corps was established in 1961 by John F. Kennedy to promote world peace and celebrated its 50th anniversary on March 1, 2011.
Patton said she has been inspired by the stories of returned Peace Corps volunteers and what they learned and brought back to the U.S.
"It's not just the two years there, it's then the year after and the year after, pulling that experience back here and integrating it here," she said. "I am interested in service, but I see it less as knowledgeable people going to deprived areas and giving; I see it as a two-way dialectic."
She will leave on June 29 for three months of training in China, and two years of service will follow. Patton said she will probably teach English and may even teach literature, culture and history at a college to those who have advanced language skills in one of the three western provinces of China.
Along with her assigned role, Patton foresees herself doing satellite community work.
Patton said she hasn't traveled widely except virtually and through books. But she went to Honduras for a service project, took a trek in the Himalayas and spent a year studying in New Zealand in 1970 as a senior in high school.
Beginning her adult life as an exchange student instilled a value of intercultural dialogue. In New Zealand, Patton not only learned about another culture but also had the opportunity to look at the U.S. from a different perspective.
"It is interesting looking at something that you think is similar and finding out how different it was, like, 'Oh my goodness!'" Patton said. "I did not speak the queen's English, and there was a lot that was still different."
Patton looks forward to serving in China and bringing home knowledge and experience that could help foster mutual understanding between the U.S. and China.
"I don't know about your history book, but my so-called world history book may have barely had a chapter on China," Patton said. "I feel like there's a lot of ignorance in both of our cultures about the other culture. I'm not motivated particularly by patriotism. It's more that the roots of any human understanding and social justice, I think, are in the dialogue and mutual understanding."
Close friend Ann Mehr, an art teacher at Lee Elementary School, said Patton probably has been thinking of serving in the Peace Corps for about three years. She said she thinks Patton "always had the vision of going out and helping others when she retires from helping others here, and the last few years honed that vision into her current plan."
Patton said having two defining moments closer to the beginning and the end of her active adulthood really affected her. First came the experience as an exchange student, and at the end of this middle third of her life was the loss of her husband, John, in 2008.
"It's been a dark time for me the last few years, and doing something quite dramatic has been helpful, I think, in healing," she said. "I think also I'm ready to sort of apply my trade in a slightly different context."
Although Patton looks forward to the experience and change of pace that serving with the Peace Corps can provide, she does have some minor concerns about volunteering. She is especially concerned with becoming fluent fast enough in Mandarin. She doesn't aspire to learn to read or write characters, but she plans to learn to speak Mandarin and will work to learn Pinyin, the Romanized version of Mandarin that she said is easier than the characters for Westerners to learn.
She also acknowledges that between now and June 29 is a huge life shift for her because in addition to volunteering with the Peace Corps, she will take an early retirement from MU.
Patton said she doesn't see retirement as an end-all but rather as the beginning of something new. She looks at her life in thirds and said she anticipates many years of active work in this final third, including working with groups less privileged than those she works with at MU.
"I'm seeing (volunteering) as something that would actually build on, rather than differ from, what I'm doing right now in terms of teaching," she said. "I see whatever experiences I bring with me as things I can build on in other work that I think will be serving a different demographic."