Interview with Jeanne-Marie DeBaun Gagnon, August 10, 2022
Project: Peace Corps: The Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Oral History Project
Interview SummaryJeanne-Marie DeBaun Gagnon served as a Peace Corps Volunteer (Education program) from 1975-1977 in Upper Volta (which became Burkina Faso in 1984). Jeanne-Marie was born and raised on Long Island in Huntingdon, New York. She majored in French at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. In her senior year, she answered a Peace Corps ad in the Washington Post for French majors. She decided to join Peace Corps because it was an opportunity to help in some part of the world and to have a great adventure. Jeanne-Marie was assigned to Upper Volta as a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) volunteer. She traveled with 40 other volunteers to Ouagadougou, the capital of Upper Volta. She vividly recalls getting off the plane there and being “smacked” by the smells and the heat of its flat, arid landscape, unlike any place she had ever been. At the Training Center outside Ouagadougou, she was one of five TEFL volunteers; other volunteers were well diggers, water engineers, and a wildlife expert. Jeanne-Marie and the other TEFL volunteers went to Niamey, Niger for three weeks’ training in teaching techniques. In her first year of teaching, she was assigned to a junior seminary run by the Catholic White Fathers in the town of Dédougou. She taught TEFL at all four school levels and according to the French educational system, she prepared her third year students for a must-pass examination. Jeanne-Marie appreciated the no-nonsense school environment created by the White Fathers. In her second year of teaching, she noticed that her students’ French textbooks portrayed a very different lifestyle than her students with no electricity experienced, for example, showing people using vacuum cleaners. So Jeanne-Marie purchased more culturally appropriate textbooks for her students. Another important cross-cultural experience was traveling on mopeds with a local national service teacher to visit students’ villages where she experienced “overwhelming hospitality.” After two years of Peace Corps service, Jeanne-Marie returned home to marry her fiancé, also a Peace Corps Volunteer. She experienced “culture shock” on their return to the U.S. because their Peace Corps experience was not readily translatable. She and her husband returned to Africa for extended work in Sierra Leone and Ghana and to raise a family. Jeanne-Marie believes that her Peace Corps experience has had a lifelong impact on her and her family. She and her husband both worked professionally in Africa for many years before settling in Charlotte, NC. Her children had a multicultural experience spending their early years in Africa. Her son served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin. Her youngest daughter, a law student, experienced the Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (RPCV) community when an RPCV judge hired her for an internship. Jeanne-Marie summed up her Peace Corps life lessons: 1. Peace Corps service was very rich; it was a turning point in her life; 2. Learning to do without –electricity, running water, sufficient food in the dry season – gave her an appreciation of everyday poverty; and 3. Her traveling to students’ villages had an impact because by meeting a “real live American,” her students and their families realized Americans are just like everybody else.
Interview KeywordPeace Corps (U.S.) Upper Volta (Country of service) Burkina Faso (Country of service renamed in 1984) 1975-1977 (Date of service) Peace Corps Volunteer Job: Education Huntington, New York USA (place of birth) Georgetown University, Washington, DC USA Ouagadougou, Upper Volta and Niamey, Niger (Volunteer Peace Corps training sites) Ouagadougou (capital of Upper Volta) Joula, also known as Dioula or Dyula (Indigenous Language) Dédougou (town site of Volunteer’s assignment) the White Fathers (French: “Pères Blancs,” officially the Missionaries of Africa, who ran a junior seminary in Volunteer’s town) “Le Père Superieure” (Father Superior, principal of junior seminary) TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) Upper Volta (French: ”La Haute-Volta”) Burkina Faso (“Land of Incorruptible People”) Sierra Leone, Ghana (employment locations of volunteer and husband after completing Peace Corps service) Charlotte, NC USA (volunteer’s retirement location) Benin (Peace Corps country of service of volunteer’s son)
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Interviews may only be reproduced with permission from Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries.
All rights to the interviews, including but not restricted to legal title, copyrights and literary property rights, have been transferred to the University of Kentucky Libraries.
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Gagnon, Jeanne-Marie DeBaun Interview by Kathy Beckman. 10 Aug. 2022. Lexington, KY: Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries.
Gagnon, J.D. (2022, August 10). Interview by K. Beckman. Peace Corps: The Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Oral History Project. Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries, Lexington.
Gagnon, Jeanne-Marie DeBaun, interview by Kathy Beckman. August 10, 2022, Peace Corps: The Returned Peace Corps Volunteer Oral History Project, Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries.
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