Zach, they said, how will you find a job when you get back?
He worried about that too, but Zach Kippenbrock couldn't shake the feeling that he should use his engineering skills for a greater purpose. Six weeks after graduating in May 2004, Kippenbrock moved to rural Panama to build and design water systems. "I wanted to experience the remoteness," he said.
"I wanted it to be something completely different, something that would change my life."
Currently, there are 34 University of Nebraska–Lincoln graduates in the Peace Corps. Gretchen Mills, UNL's Peace Corps coordinator, said volunteers need a sense of adventure and a desire to help others. She said Kippenbrock was a good match for his assignment because he has those intangible qualities, plus a degree in biological systems engineering.
He learned about the severity of Panama's water and sanitation problems by traveling and living with native families. The first village Kippenbrock lived in, Charco la Pava, had an aqueduct but the water looked like chocolate milk because it contained so much mud, he said.
In another village, people were constantly exposed to waterborne diseases because they used their main water source, the Rio Changuinola, for a latrine. To solve this problem, Kippenbrock built a new latrine that decomposes waste into agricultural compost.
"I'm not trying to be critical of Nebraska or the United States, but we really don't understand what the rest of the world sees," Kippenbrock said. "There are over 1 billion people on Earth who don't have potable water. Everyone here is so blessed."
During his two years in Panama, Kippenbrock helped design and build 13 water systems or aqueducts. He also taught communities about the importance of clean water and showed village governments how to apply for funding to build water systems.
"We've been blessed with skills as engineers to really make a difference in the world," he said.
Going into the Peace Corps instead of the workforce didn't hurt Kippenbrock's career. He's had several job offers since he returned to the United States in September.
Kippenbrock said he is pleased with the projects he finished, but he's most proud of adapting to a culture that is radically different from the Midwest. He grew up in Indianapolis and Kearney.
Kippenbrock said after 1˝ months in Panama, he was lonely and questioning the long commitment. Charco la Pava was a three-hour hike from the nearest telephone, so he talked to friends and family only once a month. Communication with the village's 300 inhabitants was difficult because they spoke only Spanish or their indigenous language.
"I hit a point when I realized I needed to integrate into society to get through this or I wasn't going to last two years," he said.
With a group of local friends, he hunted wild boars and turkeys in the jungle. Kippenbrock said hunting trips tested his endurance because he had to hike two hours back to camp while carrying game over his shoulders.
Part of his assignment was teaching AIDS prevention. Through this assignment, he befriended a woman named Virginia. She made his lunches–usually boiled green bananas topped with beans–and told him stories about her life and children. Because she wanted her children to have a better life than hers, Virginia taught them about fidelity and natural family planning.
"For a culture that has limited contact with the outside world, it was neat to see how progressive she was," Kippenbrock said.
As Kippenbrock assimilated, he struggled to mesh his American values with the new ones he was learning. He missed hot showers and transportation. But he also wished Americans found more joy in simplicity and spending time with family.
"They're very content with the present and aren't always preoccupied with the future," Kippenbrock said. "The burden of rushing around to meet deadlines is lifted there."
Now that he's returned to the United States, Kippenbrock said he finds himself carefully observing how Americans spend money and interact with each other. He checks his e-mail less, turns off his cell phone more and enjoys living in the moment.
"I hope in my heart that I won't lose some of the behavioral skills I learned there, like patience and focusing on family and friendships."