Peace Corps by the numbers
More than 200,000 Americans have served in the Peace Corps.
8,655 The current number of volunteers and trainees.
1961 The year the Peace Corps was officially established by President John F. Kennedy.
203 The number of Georgians currently serving in the Peace Corps. To date 2,977 Georgians have served.
139 The number of host countries served to date. Currently, there are 77 host countries.
90 The percentage of Peace Corps volunteers who have at least an undergraduate degree.
50 The number of years the Peace Corps has been promoting peace and friendship around the world.
28 The average age of a Peace Corps
7 The percentage of volunteers over 50 years old.
Dr. Michael Braz might be retiring from Georgia Southern University, but the 61-year-old professor and community leader is in no hurry to slow down. Instead of following a more traditional approach, Braz is pursuing a lifelong dream to join the Peace Corps.
“I’ve told students that I actually consider it ‘graduation,’ ” he joked, “because I’m actually retiring from here, but I’ll only have about two weeks of what you might consider retiring before I jump on a plane and take off.”
While Braz is excited about his new adventure to teach English as a second language in Armenia, he is nostalgic about leaving the town he loves and the career he has enjoyed for so long. He said that working with thousands of students, alongside talented colleagues and contributing to the life and growth of the university has made for a wonderful career.
“I hate to say goodbye to as many
people as I’m doing now, but it is exciting on a number of levels,” Braz said. “I’m thankful for a number of people who have been so kind and so helpful during these 24 years here. I just look forward to the new friends that I’m going to be making, in several different languages, and for the work that’s going to happen.”
Braz started working at GSU 24 years ago as a temporary professor. During his years as a music educator, he said he has tried to serve both the university and the community.
“Ever since I moved here, I’ve always had, I guess literally and figuratively, one foot on campus and one foot in the community,” Braz said. “That’s made it a lot more fun.”
Before arriving in Statesboro, Braz served as the associate director of the Miami Choral Society, the conductor/musical director of the Boy Singers of Maine, and the founder of Tallahassee’s Capital Children’s Chorus and the Statesboro Youth Chorale. He has collaborated with numerous orchestras, music festivals and ensembles around the world.
Braz has earned several awards and honors over the years, including the university’s President’s Medal, the Award for Excellence in Service, the Ruffin Cup faculty award from the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences and the Humanitarian of the Year from the Statesboro Herald.
He also was named a Legend in the Arts by the Averitt Center for the Arts.
According to Tim Chapman, executive director of the Averitt Center, Braz earned legend status because of his contributions to the music industry, but mostly because of his local involvement. Braz was asked to serve on the original Arts Council Board for the Averitt Center, and was president of the board when Chapman was hired in 2003.
“He was very instrumental in getting the funding appropriated for the development of (the Averitt Center),” Chapman said. “He really has been a community leader and has started a lot of programs.”
Dr. Linda Cionitti, a Georgia Southern colleague, said she was a little surprised but also impressed by Braz’s decision to join the Peace Corps. She thinks the decision suits him.
“While Mike’s passion is playing, teaching and composing music, he can and does use it to serve others,” she said. “I’m certain he will work that into his service with the Peace Corps. It’s his way of connecting with people.”
For a man so actively involved with the community and campus activities, Braz said the idea of taking it easy was something he never really considered. He said he looks at retirement as a stepping stone to accomplish more and an opportunity to use his skills in different ways.
“When people think of retirement, they often think of fishing and playing golf,” Braz said, “but that’s not what I do. I’m interested in teaching. I’m interested in music. I’m interested in service. I was looking for something that would be some combination of those.”
For Braz, the Peace Corps was the answer to what he was looking for and is something he has been interested in since the Peace Corps was founded in the early 1960s, when he was just a child.
“Some things you just have to put on hold for a half-century or so,” Braz said.
Braz said he doesn’t believe he’s doing anything unique in retirement. In fact, more and more people are making the same decision, and many for the same reasons.
According to David Leavitt, regional public affairs specialist with the Peace Corps office in Atlanta, the Corps has seen an upward trend in people over 50 years old signing up during the past five years.
“There currently are 8,600 Corps volunteers, and about 7 percent are 50 and over,” Leavitt said.
Leavitt said the primary reason people join the Corps is a desire to serve. And while many college students and recent college graduates also join for their first jobs and to gain valuable skills and experience, many people 50 and older are looking for ways to continue using their skills and share their experience with others.
“Those 50-plus often tend to be mentors for the younger folks and are in more leadership roles,” he said.
Leavitt also said people often go for the adventure. Volunteers are assigned to small towns and villages in developing countries where the needs are great.
“Americans have an adventure spirit, and this is a way to have an adventure, learn another culture and language and become more empathetic towards another country,” he said.
Corps volunteers serve as a kind of ambassador to developing countries. They often are the only Americans people in their assigned towns will ever meet. They are there to help people in need, to promote understanding of American culture and to bring home and promote an understanding of other cultures, Leavitt said.
“(Braz) will come back and share his stories with his friends and family,” he said. “That’s a big part of what the Corps is about.”
Ready for Armenia
Braz was assigned to the small Eastern European nation of Armenia. It’s a landlocked, mountainous country located between Georgia, Iran and Turkey. He will teach English as a second language and will train others to teach English. He will begin with three months of training and then will be sworn in. After that, he starts his two-year commitment.
Braz said he didn’t get to pick his destination, but he was able to pick areas of interest when he was applying for the Peace Corps. Eastern Europe was one area he was interested in going. He said he has taught in China and South Asia and Nepal as well as England but is “looking forward to teaching and working in an area that I haven’t been to.”
Although he won’t be able to carry his piano in his rucksack, he is taking a soprano recorder and is certain he will be able to find a place to play in Armenia.
“Armenia’s a very musical culture,” Braz said. “They say that if you play piano that you’ll probably find one you’ll be able to practice on over there and things like that. So we’ll find out how true that is. There’s a lot of music and a lot of culture going on there. Even though music is not my primary assignment, if there are ways that I can use it, I’m certainly going to do that. Music has been such a wonderful way of kind of getting acquainted with cultures and different countries.”
Braz only found out about his assignment two months ago, which might seem like short notice to some, but he’s not worried. He has been trying to get a head start in learning the language, studying the culture and talking to other Peace Corps volunteers who are currently in Armenia or have worked in the country via social networking sites such as Facebook.
Staying in touch
Even though Armenia is far away, Braz plans to keep in touch with his friends back home through social networking sites and even occasional visits. He said he has some nervousness about the mission, but “whatever nervousness I may feel about doing is offset by the fact that it is a new opportunity.”
Braz isn’t quite sure what his adventure post-Armenia might be. For now, he is just happy for the chance to continue doing the things he is most passionate about — teaching, making music and helping others.
“It’s also a chance for me to regroup while I’m doing that and figure out, as I tell my students, what I want to be when I grow up, and I’m still working on it.”