“I think it’s a good way of serving your country and serving another nation at the same time,” said Timothy Koch, of Baldwin, who will board a plane this week for Ethiopia, where he will volunteer with the U.S. Peace Corps.
Koch, 27, who is scheduled to leave Thursday, will live with a host family for three months to immerse himself in the culture while he trains as an education volunteer to teach English to local students. Once he is sworn into the corps, he will be placed in a community for two years to work on sustainable, community-based development projects, with the help of partner organizations and locals, according to a news release from the corps.
The Peace Corps — a volunteer program begun by the federal government in 1961 — works on projects related to education, agriculture and health to help improve the lives of local people in countries around the globe.
While Koch said he did not yet know where he would be stationed, the corps would evaluate him and match him to a community based on its needs. “They have to evaluate your skills and determine where you would best fit,” he explained, adding that corps volunteers sent to Ethiopia in the past have worked in communities around Butajira, Mekele and the country’s capital, Addis Ababa.
“After interviews and assessments, our regional placements will be decided, which also determines the language we’ll learn,” Koch said.
While the country’s national language is Amharic, he will learn to speak a local language, which, depending on the region in which he will be stationed, could be Amharic, Afan-Oromo or Tigrinya. The Baldwin native will join the more than 3,800 volunteers who have served in Ethiopia since the program was established in 1962, Kathy Fidler, a public affairs specialist for the corps, said in the release.
Koch said he has long wanted to work in international development, and that serving in the Peace Corps would be a way to gain experience. Not only would his service allow him to hone his leadership and cross-cultural skills, but also it would give him an advantage in the professional world and open up scholarship opportunities.
The skills that he develops “will give him a competitive edge when he returns home,” Fidler said. “Peace Corps volunteers return from service as global citizens well-positioned for professional opportunities in today’s global market.”
Koch earned a degree in government and politics and philosophy from Manhattan College and a master’s in international affairs from The New School. He interned with the United Nations Development Programme, as well as the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV and AIDS in Thailand.
He said it’s a common misconception that “you sign up [for the Peace Corps] and then you’re good to go.” He went through what he called a strenuous application process to be accepted into the corps, which required that he submit essays and be interviewed. He also had to be cleared — medically and legally. While he had already received most of his vaccines, he had to have the yellow fever shot to travel to Ethiopia.
Koch is no stranger to traveling, or stepping out of his comfort zone. In the past, he has traveled to South Africa and Europe, in addition to Thailand.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking, but that’s my son — he’s the traveler,” said his mother, Eileen Koch, as she recalled his previous travels, bungee jumping excursions and adventurous spirit. “He’s just got to live his experiences. He always says, ‘Fear is temporary, regret is forever.’ He’s a little rambunctious, but he’s matured, and I’m very proud of him.”
She said she is nervous, but her son said he doesn’t share that sentiment. The area is rural, and he will be able to get around by walking or riding a bicycle — the Peace Corps does not allow volunteers to drive cars for safety reasons.
“He’ll be able to use his education and life experiences to help those who have not had the same opportunities as he has,” Eileen said. “His sisters and I will miss him greatly. We’re extremely proud of him.”
Koch joins the 475 New York residents now serving in the Peace Corps, according to the release, and more than 14,500 New York residents who have served in the corps since 1961. There are more than 140 volunteers currently working in Ethiopia.
“He’s given up opportunities to make a fortune because he wants to be happy,” Eileen said. “He doesn’t want to look at a monetary value. I’m proud of him with that. He’s the type of kid who wants to learn all the time. There’s a big, beautiful world out there. I don’t know why people would want to stay in one place. Life is not a dress rehearsal. We only go through it once, so live your dreams. That’s my motto.”