Changemakers: from Ohio to Armenia with Peace Corps recruiter Adam Housh

SIT alumnus and Peace Corps recruiter Adam Housh in black and white, displaying his tattooed forearm
SIT alumnus and Peace Corps recruiter Adam Housh in black and white, displaying his tattooed forearm
SIT alumnus and Peace Corps recruiter Adam Housh

For Adam Housh, the road to New England wound through Siberia and Armenia. Now his mission is to set others on a global path.

Housh’s journey started in Dayton, Ohio, where he was born and raised. Attending Ohio State University, he knew that he wanted to go into international relations but “one of the biggest difficulties was being an Ohio boy who has only been in Ohio,” he recalled. “I was looking for anything to get me out of the country and on the ground.”

He took Russian language classes and studied abroad in Siberia. Through those experiences, Housh realized he wanted to join the Peace Corps, so he set out to make himself an even more competitive candidate by teaching English to immigrants at a local nonprofit organization.

The Peace Corps knew a great candidate when they saw one. In 2012, Housh was dispatched to the small Armenian farming village of Verin Getashen to teach English to about 700 schoolchildren in grades 3–12 and four teachers. It was a two-year assignment, but Housh loved the Peace Corps so much he re-upped for a third year. In addition to teaching, he wrote a successful grant proposal to bring running water to school bathrooms and helped to organize national boys’ and girls’ leadership camps.

One more connection Housh made through the Peace Corps was SIT, which was founded in 1964 as a training center for outbound Peace Corps volunteers and has maintained close connections with the organization ever since. “Some friends were coming here and recommended it to me as a school. When I looked into it and other universities, SIT stood out,” he said.

Housh graduated from SIT in May 2018 with an MA in peacebuilding and conflict transformation. While he was earning his degree, he also gained considerable professional experience as a Peace Corps recruiter in the New England region — yet another job that turns out to be an excellent fit.

Here are excerpts from a conversation we had with Housh about his SIT education and his work.

When you looked at SIT, was it significant for you that the organization has its roots in the Peace Corps?

I chose SIT for a couple of reasons. I knew SIT and Peace , Corps were historically linked, so when I came to SIT, I expected Peace Corps–level training because SIT has direct knowledge of Peace Corps models, and I knew that in Peace Corps, when we’re setting up service training models we’re looking at not only being results-oriented but also being culturally sensitive and adapting to local conditions, including infrastructure and culture, because every situation is vastly different. I expected that same outlook from SIT.

I knew I would have direct skills that I could utilize after I finished SIT, and I would be able to mold those skills and make them my own. I prize that flexibility from my SIT experience. Coming to SIT and learning the skills gave me a lot of places to reflect back on my Peace Corps service and see why one project went well, or where I could have done better. So, it has informed my service after the fact, and there are times I wish I could do Peace Corps again utilizing the skills I have now.

What were some of the highlights of your SIT master’s degree program and how did they help you in your career?

The ideas of how to analyze and map a conflict were very important to me in terms of not only looking at a problem and creating a solution but also looking at my day-to-day interactions with people in both a formal and personal setting. You can use that same mapping process to look at a family squabble, a marital problem, an issue at work, etc. Before, it never occurred to me to take a problem and make a physical map of it and to draw out the interlinkage of problems and relationships. Once you do that it becomes much easier to not only see where I’m wrong but also see the best place to go forward.

Another was systems theory: how every organization, university, relationship, etc. exists within a larger structure as well as in itself. And basic skills — active listening, community mediation, problem solving, and working through issues with other parties. Active listening — when you hear what someone is saying and show them you hear what they’re saying — applies beyond conflict transformation. It’s effective with family, friends. And in terms of being a recruiter, a lot of what I do isn’t about selling the Peace Corps, but about understanding and addressing the needs of the people I’m speaking to. So active listening is crucial to any skill set.

The mediation course was also very helpful because it not only helps you learn how to resolve a problem but outlines the stages of a conversation: how to have conversations — especially awkward conversations — and how to transform them into something less emotional and toxic. That has helped me in terms of interactions with applicants: how I open a conversation and how I navigate a conversation. It was like Conversation 101 for Introverts.

Wait, you describe yourself as an introvert?

One of the reasons I chose this recruitment position was because I wanted to get past my introversion. When they’re looking for work, some people look at a position and whether it matches their skills. In my case, I think you grow your skills to match the position you’re in.

I thought maybe it would be difficult in the beginning to have conversations [with potential volunteers], but it wasn’t. I was intimidated by the scope of the position because of my initial shyness, but once I was on board I found it surprisingly easy. I was already an expert on the topic. I had been a Peace Corps volunteer for three years; I loved Peace Corps and saw its real impact. I loved the mission. So it’s basically talking about my experience and helping others build a bridge to their own experiences. It was much easier than I expected and it’s extremely enjoyable because I can help others make an impact and do something good in the world.

What are your responsibilities in this position?

The position is basically twofold — the first being general direct recruitment and outreach, including travel to local organizations and universities to educate students about Peace Corps opportunities. The second portion is following up with them or others who come in from various sources. I give them basic introduction and help guide them through the application process. Now people can actually choose what country they would like to go to. In my case, I was offered and accepted a position and looked up where Armenia was later on. Now you can choose where you go and what sector you would like to work in. There are a lot of different reasons why people apply to Peace Corps, and if we let them self-select (with some advice from a recruiter) it results in a happier applicant. I spend the majority of my time supporting applicants’ questions, issues, etc.

Are the demographics of Peace Corps volunteers changing?

You must be at least 18 years old. But beyond that there’s no upper age limit. Right now, our largest demographics are people fresh out of university and people in retirement. Those are usually the ages and times in your life when you have the freedom to leave the country for two years. But the world is getting smaller and more people have a global mindset, so we’re getting people in the middle age ranges, as well.

Do people usually come to you with a clear understanding of the Peace Corps’ role?

Peace Corps has a very well-known name, but a lot of people know it in a general sense. They don’t understand necessarily what volunteers do in terms of education, youth development, economic development, health, education, the environment. And they don’t always understand the physical conditions of service. When some people think of Peace Corps, they think of a mud hut in the middle of nowhere. But that doesn’t exactly exist anymore, at least not without real floors and cell phones. We have base levels for living, safety, security, internet access, cell phone access. I had better internet service in Armenia than I did in Brattleboro, Vermont.

What’s next for you?

Within the next five to 10 years I’d like to be back in the field internationally, working one on one to implement projects on the ground with a local NGO or government agency. After that, I’d like to transfer to a higher management position supporting others doing projects on the ground.

And when you look back on your career several decades from now, what will it take to be able to say to yourself: “Job well done”?

I was always taught that if you have good intent, do your homework, make sure you’re going about things in the most efficient manner, all the rest comes of its own accord. So, in the future, nearing my retirement, I will think: Did I help someone? Did I have an impact, no matter how small? Did I make someone’s life better while at the same time not making someone else’s life worse? Did I keep the scales of justice in the positive while taking care of my own obligations, while finding karmic balance and doing good?

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About the Author: James Heflin